What is love? As she sits at the table wearing her cats ears, 7th grader Bridge tries to answer that question in her own words for a homework assignment. But she’s not sure what to write, and doesn’t think too much about what she scribbles down. Seventh grade seems to be the year that could test Bridge’s BFF threesome with Tab and Emily. They’ve been best friends forever, but it doesn’t take long into the school year for Tab to fall under the sway of her activist/feminist teacher “the Berperson” or for Emily to start crushing hard on Patrick, sending body part pictures back and forth on their cell phones. Having survived being hit by a car when she was eight years old, Bridge is obsessed with the idea of her life having greater purpose–what is the reason she made it–but is still stumped on the answer. And then there’s Sherm, a new friend Bridge makes, who could maybe be more–Sherm (short for Sherman), the writer of unsent notes to his grandfather.
In this touching, intelligent, and timely novel, Stead inches us through the school year as these characters come to greater understandings of love, friendship, and themselves. Just as in Where You Reach Me, there is a puzzle aspect to Stead’s latest. In addition to the front story of Bridge and her friends and Sherman, there’s a more mysterious story with an unknown teenage protagonist, written in second person. As readers delve deeper and deeper into the story, they’ll work to figure out this person’s identity, and enjoy making the connections as we get closer and closer to Valentine’s Day, when all the threads comes together.
Goodbye Stranger displays Stead’s uncanny sensibility with dialogue and exquisite precision with storytelling. Every moment unfolds at exactly the right pace with an astonishing economy of language. I must admit, I’m curious to see the age recommendations for this title, in part because of the content. The language and situations are more mature than in Stead’s previous two middle grade novels. That said, I admire the way she takes such a touchy topic–cyberbullying, the oh-so-common teen challenges–and applies her own twist. At no point does this story come across as didactic. Every moment is grounded in the characters’ age-appropriate sensibility. Every moment feels authentic.
This one won’t hit the bookshelves until August, and man, do I feel lucky to have had a sneak preview. (Thank you, ALA Midwinter!) Y’all are in for a treat.
In summation: I would not be at all surprised to see this title up on the big screen at the 2015 ALA Youth Media Awards.