Ever finish a book and feel your heart break a little bit when you remember the characters aren’t real?
By the end of Rebecca Stead’s latest middle grade novel, Goodbye Stranger, I wanted to be BFF with Bridge, Tab, and Em. I definitely wanted to join their “set” (Bridge is allergic to clubs) and to live by their one rule: no fighting.
Stead, a Newbery medalist, has drawn up a savvy, textured portrayal of middle school life in 2015, complete with intruder drills, post-selfie victim blaming, and a deep exploration of what it means to be a friend and a feminist while growing up today.
Here’s what kidlit writers can learn from Goodbye Stranger. [Note: Spoilers ahead––read Stead’s gorgeous novel first, then return!]
1. Master the ins and outs of kids’ lives now.
Bridge, Tab, and Em’s “no fighting” rule becomes harder to follow when an older boy pressures Em to take a provocative selfie. The girls are growing up, and they’re beginning to grow apart.
“A book about a selfie?” some people have asked when I describe this premise. “How profound can it be?”
The first answer is, very. The second is, selfies––and the pressure to take sexual ones, especially when it’s an older, cooler boy doing the asking––are very much a part of girls’ lives today. So why shouldn’t they appear in literature made for them, too?
Selfies are just one aspect of Stead’s deft creation of a 2015 middle school setting. She goes all-in with details specific to life today. This includes excruciatingly believable text messages, social media profiles, and a sometimes funny, sometimes sad subplot involving a steps contest (10,000 each day, exactly) with a Fitbit-like device.
Middle school readers will feel at home here. They’ll know they’re in good hands.
2. Put feminism front and center.
Many girls begin to grapple with sexism around this age. (There’s a depressing trend in anti-street harassment blogs, where women describe realizing they weren’t little kids anymore when a man first whistled at them on the street, often as young as age 11.) It follows that issues of feminism, and what it means to be a sexual––and sexualized––being, should be front-and-center in books set in middle schools.
Yet, usually, they’re not. In the middle grade world, precocious protagonists often obsess over books, or animals, or their next big project at the science fair. Feminism? Not so much. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to see Bridge’s two closest friends approaching their coming-of-age from different but equally feminist perspectives.
Tab is a disciple of Ms. Berman, a teacher who encourages her students to look for sexism in language and asks them to call her “Ms. Berperson.” Tab is quick to point out the problematic nature of the older boy’s selfie request and steers Em and Bridge away from sexualized Halloween costumes.
Yet Em––who criticizes Tab for being “judgey” and, initially, seems to bend to the selfie pressure far too easily––turns out to be a feminist figure in her own right. When her provocative selfie is passed around, Em is less ashamed about her exposed body than she is frustrated with the attitude of her peers.
“But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture,” she says. “Of my liking myself. Does that make sense?”
It does. Em is developing her own nascent feminism, fraught as it may be, and we grow to appreciate this as the book progresses.
3. Sometimes the “happily ever after” isn’t romantic.
Throughout the novel, protagonist Bridge develops a close bond with classic nice guy Sherm. They find each other easy to talk to; they make each other laugh; they look for each other at school, on the street, everywhere. It’s a classic first-love setup––except, it’s not. Bridge and Sherm are falling for each other as friends. They both know what they want, and if there’s any tension between them, it’s because they’re worried the other might want something more.
This plotline was wonderful and refreshing. Stead doesn’t explain her characters’ lack of romantic chemistry: perhaps it’s because they’re not ready, or there’s no attraction, or they’re not into the opposite sex that way. Whatever the reason, Bridge and Sherm are unapologetic about following a different path. When Sherm says, “I’m not going to kiss you or anything,” Bridge says, “Good.”
In another great moment, despite her newfound friendship-love for good guy Sherm, Bridge isn’t ashamed to prioritize her longtime BFFs.
“You’re my best friend, too,” Bridge tells Sherm near the end of the book.
Tellingly, she adds: “Tab, Emily, and you.”
Want to discuss Goodbye Stranger, feminism, selfies, or––how could I have missed them?!––Bridge’s cat ears? Find me on Twitter at @beckererine.