Rebecca Stead is one of the finest authors of middle grade fiction currently working, writing with precision about the palpable pain of growing up. She has an ear for dialogue and an eye for detail, but the sense she captures best is the vestibular: that is, the feeling of being in motion and off-balance.
Her latest book is about three friends who belong to a club (or rather, a “set”) that is falling apart in middle school. Goodbye Stranger is, for content, practically YA. The children are thirteen, and much of the book courses with the kind of anxious hormonal energy of teenagers. We feel the threats and the heartbreaks of girls who feel pressured to be sexy, to wear suggestive Halloween costumes and text intimate images of themselves to boys they barely know, while they are children at heart. But the deepest sadness and sharpest pain is not the risks girls take for boys (if that’s who it is for); it is the splintering of their own friendships.
Books like this were stock-in-trade of YA in my own teen years, epitomized by Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, and Paul Zindel. But as YA characters have gotten older and savvier, and the awkward early teen years forgotten, middle grade books have gradually picked up the slack. Aaron Starmer’s Riverman pushed at the same envelope, and I’m hopeful that these two books portend a new wave of upper middle grade that replaces what YA used to be.
Still, it’s risky territory for middle-grade authors, since our books are generally considered appropriate for fourth graders. Even a Newbery-award-winning author might feel a ripple of discontent from parents and educators. But there is a gap in the publishing paradigm. We need books about coming of age and sexual awakening, books that help twelve- and thirteen-year-olds navigate the choppy waters of early adolescence and assure them that they will reach the other shore.
This isn’t to say Goodbye Stranger is important because it fills a niche. Goodbye Stranger is important because it’s written by Rebecca Stead. But I love that she is testing herself, feeling out new territory and filling a real need, while delivering once again on the excellent characterizations and concise writing that make her one of the most respected middle grade authors among other middle grade authors.
Goodbye Stranger is also one of the best books I’ve read showing modern children in their technological milieu, without over-stressing the novelty or gimmickry. But Stead does this with more depth and deftness than lesser authors would. She shows, for example, the over-theatrical friendships splashed across social network profiles, or the lost-a-limb feeling of a teen without a phone, with utter verisimilitude, but neither of these are major plot points. She does not let the technology become the center of the story.
That center is the frayed friendships in the wake of puberty, and the new friendships that form. These will be heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who has survived adolescence in any decade.