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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Printzbery Part 3: Now with cat ears

goodbye stranger coverGoodbye Stranger, Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, August 2015
Reviewed from ARC

Continuing our Printzbery series, today we’re looking at Goodbye Stranger, Rebecca Stead’s latest which has received six stars. The question of intended and/or appropriate audience is one we could debate for a long time. For our purposes, let’s focus on what makes this great fiction for any age.

Stead’s writing is technically solid. There is very little telling and a lot of showing, specifically through dialogue. The reader doesn’t need to be told that best friends, Bridge, Em, and Tabitha are growing apart; Stead presents brief vignettes that show the evolution of their friendship from the tight group who, in fifth grade, vow never to fight, to the seventh graders who need to remind themselves that they’re still “a set.” In the same chapter Stead demonstrates her facility with imagery: “…Life was a too-tall stack of books that had started to lean to one side, and each new day was another book on top.” It’s an appropriate and melancholy metaphor.

A strong sense of nostalgia pervades the novel, in metaphors like the one cited above and in the story itself. Told from multiple perspectives, Goodbye Stranger is about relationships blossoming and breaking down. Beat by beat the plot is largely concerned with a slowly developing sexting scandal and a single, angsty day in the life of the unknown “you” narrator. The details of each narrator’s story are well-executed, but what happens isn’t really the point. Bridge, Sherm, and “You” (Tabitha’s older sister, Celeste who is a tertiary character in Bridge’s sections) are struggling to understand why an important relationship in their life has changed.

“I guess my question is: Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?” This is a question that a person at any age might ponder because change is hard. This is why pinning down a specific age demographic for this novel is difficult. The themes addressed here are universal and Stead explores them in a story that is relatable for all ages. A teen reader may identify more with Celeste, who just needs a day to figure out the kind of friend she wants to be. A teen will also remember what it felt like to be Bridge, who’s at the moment in life when you don’t know if it’s you who’s changed or your friends who are different. Layered on top of that is the excitement and confusion of finding a friend who might become more than a friend, which a tween will recognize in themselves. In addition to the nostalgia factor, the novel has wisdom for adults too: “Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make yourself, all the time.” Celeste says this at the end of the book, reflecting on her mistakes, but it’s a helpful reminder for anyone who has lost sight of who they are and what they want.

A few stray thoughts:

  • Second-person narration! It’s superfluous but Stead knows how to work it.
  • The sexting and subsequent “slut-shaming” that Em experiences are delicately handled, but nothing new is said on the subject.
  • I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Bridge’s brother Jamie and his silly bet. It’s a ridiculous subplot, but it serves the larger theme of family and is a nice bit of character writing.
  • Cat ears are a thing! After reading this book in March, I saw teen girls on the subway and in my school wearing them.
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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. This was the only book I’ve ever struggled to rate on Goodreads. Usually I rate a book immediately, but I just couldn’t settle on something that accurately reflected how I felt about the book. Months after reading it, my emotions about it are still in a constant state of turmoil.

    There are days when I think that what Stead has accomplished is nothing short of a very nuanced masterpiece. Her writing is flawless and crisp and beautiful. Her handling of the material is breathtaking. Her characters are lovingly rendered, flawed and intriguing.

    There are days where I think the plot was so pedestrian that there’s nothing much to remark on; that the “you” chapters were obvious from early on in the book; that the little twist with the accident at the end was tacked on.

    After days of deliberation, I settled on four stars. But the fact that I’m still thinking about this book months after I read it nearly proves to me how solid it is. Like it or not, I think this one might be the book to beat this awards season.

    • I have to say, I fall on on the pedestrian side. I completely agree with your entire third paragraph, and good as I think Stead’s writing is, I was left with the feeling that the writing served up something insubstantial.

      • Eric Carpenter says:

        I understand that the Printz criteria are very loose, but I can’t see how “insubstantial” can be a ding against a book when the criteria explicitly state: “We hope the award will have a wide AUDIENCE among readers from 12 to 18 but POPULARITY is not the criterion for this award. Nor is MESSAGE”

        • Joy Piedmont says:

          You’ve all hit upon the main dilemma I have with this book. It’s well-written, filled with authentic characters, and thematically interesting. The plot is… blah. However, it *is* the vehicle that drives the other elements and elevates them. If Celeste doesn’t spend the day brooding over her friendship with Vinny, her character development doesn’t happen. Perhaps a more intricate plot would overwhelm the themes? I don’t think that the second-person narration was necessary (it adds a superfluous mystery) but I mostly have minor quibbles with the novel overall.

          • I absolutely agree, Joy.

            The theme itself is somewhat mundane: the little ripples we cause (and the ripples that are caused by others that affect us). If Stead had stuffed too much into the book, it would’ve damaged the truth: that sometimes our problems *are* mundane.

            Sometimes we expect the worst to happen, and our excessive worrying is for nothing (as evidenced by Celeste’s character arc). Sometimes our bad decisions have huge repercussions, and sometimes nothing much happens – and we’re relieved/don’t learn from what we’ve done (Em’s). Sometimes our understanding of the people around us is never made clearer despite our best attempts (Sherm’s). Sometimes the world seems bigger and badder than it actually is. Our quiet little lives will always be quiet.

            In this way, I think Stead has created an astonishing work of art.

            But then I go back to my question: am I satisfied with this? And if I’m not, why? Why oh why am I not entirely satisfied?

            So help me god, I cannot answer these questions. I really, sincerely cannot.

          • Karyn Silverman says:

            (Sometimes I really lament the lack of a like button on comments.) Thanks, Joe, for articulating so beautifully the conflict I have with this one.

  2. Anne Bennett says:

    Placing it on hold at the Public Library after i type this. Sounds wonderful….

  3. Just finished reading this and while I liked it I did end up, to echo the other commenters, with kind of a “not a bang but a whimper” feeling towards the end. In particular that the subplots such as Sherm’s grandfather, Celeste, etc did not seem quite fleshed out. (Interestingly enough, my in-laws did just what Sherm’s grandparents did, getting divorced after 50 years, and the amount of chaos it has caused in terms of relationships, health problems, living arrangements and just plain crazy — well, as I said, in comparison the plot in the book just didn’t seem that fleshed out.)

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