As 2016 begins, publications and bookstores are releasing their Best of 2015 lists, and if anyone is trending it’s Rebecca Stead. She won the Newbery Medal in 2010 for her Middle Grade mystery When You Reach Me, but her 2015 novel Goodbye Stranger tackles the social pressures of middle school with even more charming detail and subtlety, landing it on Best of 2015 lists from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, The New York Times, Amazon.com, and more. It could not be more deserving.
Due to its three very different perspectives, Goodbye Stranger is the book that will connect with any 10-15 year-old in your classroom or life. Bridge, who goes by Bridge, the main narrator, is a twelve-year-old girl who survived a roller skating accident when she was younger and was told by doctors that she must have lived for a special reason. Regardless of where the reader is at in his or her own soul searching, they will see themselves reflected in Bridge as she searches for that reason, wears cat ears to school, and figures out where she fits in with her best friends, her family, and a new friend that’s a boy.
Sherm, said new friend, has his voice heard in short chapters that are letters from him to his grandfather who recently moved out of his house, leaving his grandmother and family reeling. Sherm gives us a boy’s view of his and Bridge’s friendship, something that feels different and needed. The bearer of the third perspective is a mystery, but she is an older girl who is skipping school to avoid the repercussions of betraying one friend to meet the demands of another. Her story is a window into what lies ahead for Bridge and her friends as they go on to 8th grade and High School, where toxic friendships and crushes will become a lot more serious. Her identity is revealed in the end, along with every other loose end that Stead expertly ties up.
While each character in this book comes fully alive, such as Bridge’s brother who competes with his manipulative best friend to win crazy bets, my favorites would have to be Bridge’s two best friends Emily and Tab. With all the “mean girl” groups of friends in Middle Grade literature, Emily, Tab, and Bridge actually love each other. Even when they say or do the wrong thing, they always have the intention of being there for one another and their friend-chemistry is refreshing and fun. Emily has developed curves over the summer and is flirting with an older boy, while Tab begins to idolize her teacher Ms. Berman, who calls herself The Berperson, and leads Tab to view their friendship and boy drama through a feminist perspective. They are so different, but so loyal to each other, and it is a great thing to see.
When I finished this book and was asked what it was about, I couldn’t say. It is far too layered for that. To me, this book didn’t produce a message or a story as much as it did a feeling of connectedness. This book brings us into the lives of all different people in Bridge’s circle trying to figure out who they are and why they’re here. It doesn’t give an answer and will surely leave readers with questions for discussion, but it does show how all of the little things that people do for each other mean something, which is something all kids (and even teens and adults) need to hear.
“Life is where you sleep and what you see when you wake up in the morning, and who you tell about your weird dream, and what you eat for breakfast and who you eat it with. Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make yourself, all the time.”
– Rebecca Stead, Goodbye Stranger
– Rebecca Bendheim