Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Goodbye Stranger

I have been told that girls are easy to raise while they are young. Being the father of two little girls, that is comforting to hear. I have also heard that while girls are easy to raise in their elementary years, they are nothing but headaches in their junior high and high school years. A fellow, more experienced father once told me that as his daughter grew older, he found himself worrying about her safety and well being far more than he worried about his son's. That makes me feel stressed and anxious, and let's just say up front, that reading Rebecca Stead's GOODBYE STRANGER did nothing to quell my fears!

Bridge, Tab, and Em have been best friends for a long time, and they don't fight with each other, by rule. Bridge survived a horrific accident when she was eight years old and often questions why she was left on this world. Tab is stubborn and opinionated and is beginning to see through the stereotypes present in society and the mean games kids play with each other. Em is growing into her teenage frame rather nicely and is even beginning to receive attention for it, from boys and girls. And she kind of likes the attention! As their interests and situations change, these three girls struggle to maintain their friendship.

One of the biggest strengths of GOODBYE STRANGER is its supporting cast of characters. Characters that seem to be secondary at first, begin to play larger roles as the story progresses. No one is exactly who they seem to be either. Sherm is a boy that befriends Bridge. Their friendship and chemistry is strong but neither can tell if they want to be more than friends. Patrick is an older boy who begins flirting with Em through texts. One of his requests causes things to spiral out of control for everyone about halfway through the book. Jamie, Bridge's older brother, competes tirelessly with his frenemy Alex at ridiculous bets. Adrienne is the new barista at Bridge and Jamie's father's coffee shop. She takes an interest in Bridge. Celeste is Tab's older, wiser sister, who imparts wisdom on the girls. All of these characters play integral roles in the girls' developing and changing friendship.

And then there's the Valentine's Day girl... an unnamed character narrating chapters in the near future in second person ("You wake up. You head down the stairs. You put your headphones on.") From the moment this unnamed character is introduced, we are drawn in, wondering who this person is and how they are connected to the story. This character is skipping school in the near future because something bad has happened. As the novel steamrolls toward it's closing, bits and pieces of details are referenced in these chapters that have been mentioned in the novel elsewhere. How do they fit? How did things come to this? How do we know this person?

If GOODBYE STRANGER seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. Because it is Stead though, it is worth it! It can be a confusing read. The three main girls are different, yet so similar that it was hard to tell them apart in the early pages. There are so many other characters in the story and it can be difficult at times to remember what was said by which character, because they all do so much talking! Dialogue is another one of Stead's strengths though, and she understands kids.

GOODBYE STRANGER is a book that needs to be read by teenagers. There is a scene early in the novel where the students gather in a gymnasium and sign up for a theme club. The existential crossroads these students are at in their lives parallels this scene nicely. It is the primary theme of this novel. Friendships change. People change. We change. How do we navigate it all? How do we not lose sight of ourselves while everyone and everything around us is changing? Stead is one of the best working today and her style and approach to these themes should prove to be poignant with young readers.

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