Some may think of New York City’s Upper West Side as “Seinfeld” stomping grounds, but fans of Rebecca Stead know better: These apartments, shops and streets are where Stead does her own stomping—and where the characters in her critically lauded middle grade novels live.
While Stead’s first novel, 2007’s First Light, was set on the quite different island of Greenland, her three subsequent books are set in New York City past and present: 2010 Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me takes place in Stead’s childhood neighborhood; and Liar and Spy explores Brooklyn. Stead’s new book, Goodbye Stranger, which takes place 10 blocks from where the author grew up, gives readers a window into living one’s formative years in a city that’s both a world-famous object of fantasy and home to lots of regular people doing regular stuff.
“As soon as I started writing about childhood,” Stead tells BookPage during a call to her home, “it was inevitable the characters were going to end up in New York, because that’s where I’ve always been. It’s weird to live in the same neighborhood in New York City for so long. Things change so much.”
"A lot of girls feel fantastic about the way they look at this age, and they should. It’s not something kids should have to deny."
She adds, “Every once in a while I have a moment: For a second, walking on Amsterdam Avenue, it feels like my childhood. It lasts about six seconds, three steps—it can be something I see or hear, music, people playing dominoes—and I think about how it was . . . and then it’s gone.”
But her memories, her touchstones, do wend their way into her fiction: “Somehow, it’s all feeding me.”
Just as the city itself is both glittery and dun-colored, modern and historic—depending on the perspective—the characters in Goodbye Stranger are figuring out who they really are as well. They consider how others see them versus what they feel inside and ponder grand-scale existential questions, too.
For seventh-grader Bridget Barsamian (you can call her “Bridge”), the latter sort are front of mind. They have been since she survived being hit by a car at age 8 and a nurse commented, “You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.”
In the intervening years, Bridge hasn’t figured out that reason. Lately it doesn’t help that she’s been getting homework assignments like, “Answer the question, ‘What is love?’ ” That’s heady stuff for anyone, let alone someone who’s negotiating the oh-so-challenging middle school years, rife with physical and emotional changes, odd behavior from longtime friends and a tentative new friendship with a boy named Sherm.
And sure, books have come before that have trod these roads—and books will come after—but Stead’s approach is a moving blend of present-day and historic, romantic love and familial love, deep questions and just-for-fun pursuits like sock buns and a hilariously intense competition between Bridge’s brother and his frenemy.
It therefore follows that Stead likes “to read books that are a little challenging or complicated, or feel off-balance a little bit. For me, that’s a great pleasure of reading, slowly doing the reader’s work of putting the story together and building an understanding of what’s happening. It’s important to me as a reader, so I always think about that when I’m writing.”
To wit, Goodbye Stranger is told from three distinct points of view: Bridge, Sherm and an anonymous narrator whose identity is slowly, tantalizingly revealed. “I like the idea of the reader synthesizing the character over time,” says Stead. “Hopefully it creates a little bit of a moment for the reader, because that’s how people are—so different internally from how we present.”
That issue is also explored through the characters’ texting, sharing and judging of photos and the supposed motives therein. Bodily autonomy figures in, via the question of whether it’s perfectly healthy for girls to be happy about how they look—or if they should feel abashed at any sense of pride.
“There are a lot of different questions around this time of life, and it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of girls feel fantastic about the way they look at this age, and they should. It’s not something kids should have to deny. It’s a complex issue.
“Also, the level of control . . . [is] lost because there are so many images online . . . but at the same time, you can really decide how you will present yourself. And people can pull up your page and study it for an hour, forward it or link to it.”
But even as Bridge juggles her friend Emily’s texting habits, a new distance from their friend Tabitha and an unexpected affinity for the Tech Crew (which is cool because it’s a crew, not a club), ancient history looms in interesting ways, from the car accident’s continued presence in Bridge’s thoughts to Sherm questioning whether the Apollo 11 moon landing was real.
About that: Stead says, “I’m entertained by the fact people deny that it happened. The whole question of, what do we really know?”
Readers of Goodbye Stranger will know that, as always, the author has a keen eye for and an empathetic take on what it’s like to be a middle-schooler—and what it’s like to be a thoughtful kid like Bridge. “I think it’s an incredible time of life, and I have such enormous respect for kids that age. They’re really deep.”
Stead adds, “My memory of that age is just full of existential questions about how the world worked. I don’t think I was special—kids really are asking a lot of deep questions about themselves, how other people see them, who other people really are. It’s an incredible widening and explosion internally and intellectually. . . . That’s why I write for younger kids. That, for me, was a really incredibly interesting, fruitful time of life.”