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Printzbery Part 3: Now with cat ears
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.
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.
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