Rebecca Stead started out quietly in 2007 with her first book for children, First Light. Her second, When You Reach Me, started out quietly too, but the decibels went up when it won the 2010 Newbery award. These were followed by Liar & Spy, also a solidly middle grade title that made a loud splash by winning the 2012 Guardian Children’s Book prize. With three fine books under her belt, the question is: what will the next one be like? My answer (in a vague spoiler-safe way): just as good as the previous ones. Coming out this summer, Goodbye Stranger is everything you’d expect from this smart, profound, and thoughtful writer.
It is apt that I am writing this just before Valentine’s Day as it is love in its numerous manifestations that is central to this novel. There is the love of friendship, the main one here between three 7th grade girls who have been close and committed friends since very young, vowing never to fight. There is sibling love as shown between the main character Bridge and her older brother. There is the love between parent and child that comes wafting through in Bridge’s memories of her childhood near-death after a horrific accident. There is the love between grandparent and grandchild expressed through unsent letters by Sherm, a 7th grade classmates of the girls. And there is romantic love, something that the girls, Sherm, and their classmates are beginning to explore and consider. How do you know about this sort of love? the young people wonder. What does it mean to like someone? As a friend? As something else? How do you show your interest? Or not? What happens when feelings change? After a few months or after many years? Stead doesn’t so much provide answers as avenues to consider these. Her characters make good and bad choices. They go too far at times. Or not far enough.
Despite its slim appearance, this is a weighty novel. Challenging and complicated issues swirl in it. Some are timeless and some may seem more current, say the tricky way relatively innocent flirtations can, through cell phones with cameras, become something far more difficult. The way jealousy can cause people to do hard-to-understand mean things. That one pair may wait for their first kiss for years while the another might be exploring sexuality sooner. How certain friends and family members can stay the same while others change.
Elegantly crafted and written, this is a book to savor. Stead fans have quite a treat to look forward to this August.