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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 3: Gone Crazy in Alabama vs Goodbye Stranger


JUDGE – Melanie Crowder

Gone Crazy in Alabama
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Goodbye Stranger
by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb/Random House

For this battle, I have to choose between two middle grade novels. I don’t have to pit a graphic novel against a work of nonfiction, or a picture book against a gritty YA—this should be easy! Straightforward, even. But this is Rebecca Stead and Rita Williams-Garcia we’re talking about. Masters of the form. Star-studded heavyweights of the industry. And genuinely good people.

Decide between them? Choose one of these wonderful books and send the other packing?

(Can I back out now?)


All right then. I will try.

I want to put GOODBYE STRANGER into the hands of every single middle-school-bound kid in this country. Stead’s story addresses selfie ethics, slut shaming, dress code biases and the changing topography of friendship in a way that seems effortless; without even a glimmer of didacticism. The story stays true throughout to its middle-grade gaze, which allows it to offer readers a hard look at timely and difficult subjects within the safety of its pages.

Before reading this book, I had an immense respect for Stead’s skill in plotting, characterization and pitch-perfect middle grade tone. After reading this book, that respect has only been elevated to include the author’s deft handling of very important and age-appropriate topics. And the authorial choice to voice the character of an unmoored teen trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be in a foreboding 2nd person present POV? Genius. The reader joins this character, who remains unidentified for most of the novel, in an unflinching, almost courtroom-like self-examination of the choices she has made, and why, and whether she deserves redemption.

The dramatic shift in tone needed to talk about GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA is a testament to the range and depth of middle grade literature. Also featuring a moon-landing subplot, and also introducing readers to a host of memorable characters, this final installment in the Gaither Sisters’ story is, simply put, excellent.

I come from a family of three sisters myself. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern are absolute individuals—it’s what makes them such vibrant characters. But there is something universal about them as well. This book is their finale, but it is also an origin story. As we come to better understand the girls, we get to know the generations who have come before and the tangled histories that have created the complicated social structures that make them who they are; that make all of us who we are.

Through the novel’s inquisitive narrator, this story explores the many complexities and contradictions of rural Alabama in the late 60s. Delving deeply into themes of forgiveness, this book is on its surface a story about sisters: their squabbles, their antics, and their becoming. But those sisters are also a metaphor for society at large and the messy but beautiful, terrible yet nuanced story of our own becoming. It’s a fantastic end to what has been a delightful trilogy.

Both books are brilliant. Both clearly merit advancement to the next level. An analysis of craft and story leaves the two titles in a flat-out tie. I can’t choose between them on those grounds. So I have to turn to my emotional response as a reader.

The winning book made me laugh out loud at least a dozen times. And the ending, even though I’d thought it impossible when reading from such an analytical perspective, made me cry. The winner of this battle is Rita Williams-Garcia’s GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA.

— Melanie Crowder

Masters of the form, indeed. But the whole fun of the battle is weighing the merits of amazing books, and choosing one – after reflection or, as Crowder ends up doing, by emotion. Still, it’s interesting to compare Goodbye Stranger and Gone Crazy in Alabama, which both offer an uplifting message to middle grade readers about the hardships and beauty of love, familial, romantic, and between friends. Crowder astutely praises Stead’s use of a teen girl’s 2nd person POV, a sort of lens from which to view the dramas of middle school. The quirks of Goodbye Stranger make me laugh inside, and the hardships of growing up are portrayed lovingly. My one problem: (SPOILER ALERT) does it have to end with them kissing? Can any YA/middle-grade book leave sexuality a little bit vague? In the end, Crowder’s insights about Gone Crazy being an “origin story” and an embodiment of time and place sway me in its direction. And what’s better than that, where a judge’s decision helps you appreciate a book from another perspective?

– Kid Commentator RGN

Battle Commander (gravatar)



  1. Paige Ysteboe says

    I loved these two so very much that it would have been difficult for me to make a decision. I would probably have gone the Goodbye Stranger because it’s so fresh and different. That’s not to say I grew tired of the sisters in Gone Crazy in Alabama – I could read about them any day.

  2. Other Meredith says

    For some reason, I haven’t read either of these yet. But I am still really looking forward to both of them. Now that Gone Crazy is moving on, I guess I will read it first!

  3. I confess I haven’t read Goodbye Stranger yet–there were a lot of nominees! I absolutely adore the Gaither Sisters though so I am delighted to see them move on. There’s so much wonderful insight and compelling characterization in those novels. I recommend them to my kids all the time!

  4. I would have agreed with either choice as both of these books will always live in my heart BUT this leaves my undead vote wasted!! I love Goodbye Stranger for the exact reasons Melanie Crowder outlined, it’s seamless to me in the way Stead depicts all things middle school. I’m planning to use it as a family book club book next year. Everyone who is a middle schooler or has a mid. school aged kid in their lives should read this book. My bracket isn’t totally dead yet even though I’ve gotten the last two wrong but if I Crawl Through it falls tomorrow, I’ve got little chance of redeeming myself.

  5. This is one of the few matches this year where I’ve read both books. I am with the judge all the way — both books are outstanding, but Gone Crazy in Alabama won my heart. I, too, am part of a set of three sisters (okay, in the middle of 13 siblings — but I’m the only one with a sister on either side of me) and I agree there’s a universality to their interactions. I loved the “origin story” part of this book, too. I had Newbery hopes for it, but find some consolation in a Battle win. 🙂

  6. Crushing! GOODBYE STRANGER is my baby in the race.

    And here I’ve been selling AUDACITY all week to my students as we’ve talked Women’s History Month. Where’s the loyalty Ms. Crowder?

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