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Goodbye Stranger

Goodbye Stranger
Written by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2015
On Sale August 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-74317-4
Grades 6-8
Book Review
“You must have been put on this earth for a reason, little girl, to have survived.” So claims a nurse at the Manhattan hospital in which eight-year old Bridget Parsamian recovers after getting hit by a car and nearly losing her life. Bridget exits the hospital transformed inside and out; no longer feeling like a Bridget, she asks to be called Bridge. And indeed, twelve-year old Bridge serves as a bridge to her friends and family over the course of the six months in which Goodbye Stranger is set. Stead’s latest work is comprised of three braided narratives told from three different characters’ perspectives: Bridge’s third person narrative is told chronologically over the six months; Sherm’s narrative is also told chronologically but in the first person, through unsent letters to his grandfather; and finally, an unknown high school girl’s narrative is told through second person, within the context of a single day, Valentine’s Day. This is a story about love, loss, and redemption; it’s a story about friendships and family; it’s a story about growing up without growing out of your old friends, and about making new ones. Each of the main characters in this story confront his/her interior self: “Who’s the real you? The person who did something awful, or the one who’s horrified by the awful thing you did?” (p. 257). Each is also trying to figure out how s/he fits into the ever-changing landscape of their school community. In the end, the reader discovers along with the characters that “[t]he human heart doesn’t really pump the way everyone thinks…the heart wrings itself out. It twists in two different directions, like you’d do to squeeze the water out of a wet towel” (p. 280). This book is simply beautiful. As you move through the text, you, too, will feel your heart pulled in two directions or more, and you will marvel at the layers of life to be uncovered and explored. “Life isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make yourself, all the time” (p. 281).
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Girls, Trust, Love. This is a story about friendship – friendship between husbands and wives, grandparents and grandchildren, brothers and sisters, male and female classmates, and even strangers. At the core of the novel is the friendship between Bridge, Em, and Tabitha. On the margins is the friendship between Celeste and Gina. Within the context of each of the girls’ friendships, one does something to violate the trust of another, and hurt her deeply. And yet, the friendships continue. Why? What does Stead illuminate, through her characters, about the strength and power of female friendships? How does this contrast with the images of preteen and teen girls that the media gives us? Break students up into small groups to explore the nature of female friendship in commercials, television shows (both fictional and reality tv – another form of fiction) and movies. To what extent do the “Queen Bees” get the attention in these outlets? To what extent is competition between girls disproportionately represented? How does this novel offer us something different that may actually be closer to the lived experiences of girls and women? One group may also want to interview older women in different decades of their lives, to find out if they are still friends with the girls they were friends with in middle school, what they recall about those relationships, and how those relationships continue to play a part in their lives. Have students contribute to a class blog/website or create a VoiceThread on this topic presenting their various findings.
Public Shaming and Redemption. Em, an athletic seventh grader, begins to trade suggestive photos with 8thgrader Patrick via text message. She is publicly shamed when one of those pictures, of Em in her mother’s black lacy bra, gets published to a social media site. Male and female students call her a slut, but it is only when a picture of Patrick in his underwear also gets posted to the social media site that Em’s locker gets filled with nasty notes. Em believes Patrick when he tells her he didn’t share her photo, and a friendship develops from a flirtation. Bridge and Tabitha remain loyal friends despite their misgivings about and disapproval of her actions. With the help of Patrick, Bridge, Tabitha, and Sherm, Em is able to publicly redeem herself at the school talent show on Valentine’s Day. To what extent is this possible in your school community? What are the ways in which students’ social lives as they are played out on social media impact their school lives? To what extent can students change their reputations once something has gone viral? To what extent is bad publicity still publicity? This could simply be a subject of class discussion, or an idea that students pursue more deeply through journal writing over the course of the year.
Defining Love. At the beginning of the school year, Bridge’s teacher asks all of the seventh graders to define love. At the turning point of the story, the students discover their definitions have become part of the decorations for the Valentine’s Day Talentine Contest. How do your students define love? Perhaps you, too, want to ask them this question in September, and then revisit their definitions closer to Valentine’s Day.
Another Epilogue. What do your students think about the epilogue? Did it confirm their suspicions or ruin their understanding of Sherm and Bridge’s friendship? After discussing their responses, have students write another epilogue that takes place two years after the first epilogue. Have each student focus on one of the characters in the novel. What is s/he doing now, and why? Limit each epilogue to a one to two-page vignette.
Multiple Perspectives. Have students in small book groups that cover a range of novels that include the multiple perspectives of characters. Some of these novels may have alternating first person narratives; others may, like Goodbye Stranger, have alternating perspectives that also vary from first to second to third person narration. Novels to consider are: Same Sun Here(2011), Return to Sender (2009), Witness (2001), Bird in a Box (2011), Wonder(2012), The View from Saturday(1996), The Candy Makers (2010). Have students then try their hand at writing an original short story from two perspectives. Some students may need to write a linear narrative first told from one character’s perspective, and then rewrite pieces to tell it from another character’s perspective.
Comparing Communication in the 20th and 21stCenturies. In Goodbye Stranger, characters of all ages are communicating, as people do now, via text message: Sherm and his grandfather, Bridge and her friends, Em and Patrick, Celeste and her parents. Several key plot points revolve around the use of technology: the texting of provocative pictures to members of the opposite sex, the posting of such pictures to social media sites, and the reality that private online communication is not actually private. How do your middle grade students use texting, emails, and social media sites as forums for communication? How does their use of such technology change depending on the audience (parents, siblings, friends, grandparents)? What role do “old-fashioned” letters (which Sherm writes in response to his grandfather’s texts), notes (like the ones left in Em’s locker, or the carnation slips at Celeste’s high school), journals, and face-to-face spoken conversations have in students’ lives? Have students discuss this in class, and then prepare interview questions to use with their parents, guardians, grandparents, or neighbors about the role of technology in their own middle grade years. In small groups, have students compare and contrast their findings. What has been lost with the advent of digital communication? What has been gained? 
Being 12.  Have your class of seventh graders read Goodbye Stranger. As they read the novel, and/or after completing the book, explore some of the audio podcasts from WNYC’s series Being 12, which focuses on the real lives of twelve year-olds in New York City in 2015. Have students write their own fiction, nonfiction, or poetry about being (by and large) twelve years old. This might be an ideal opportunity to have students conduct “Story Corps”-like interviews of one another and put together a podcast. Or, students could create photo essays of their lives, including selfie portraits, and ruminate on being 12 through accompanying poetry and prose.
Cover Art. Once students have completed this novel, have them explore the cover art in pairs or small groups. What is captured on the cover? Why might the artist, Marcos Chin, have decided to capture this particular moment? What else about the story does the cover art capture? Now, compare that to an earlier draft of the cover art. What has changed, and why might it matter? Finally, have students design their own cover art for the book. 
Middle School in New York City.Some students reading this book actually live in New York City. But what is it like to read about the lives of middle school students in New York City when you live in a suburb or rural area in the United States or anywhere else on the globe? Have students read Goodbye Stranger. Next, have them read one of Stead’s other two middle grade novels set in New York City, Liar and Spy(2012) or the historical novel When You Reach Me (2009) or another middle grade novel set in New York, such as Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964), Masterpiece by Elise Broach (2008), After Tupac and D. Foster by Jacqueline Woodson (2008), The Cruisersby Walter Dean Myers (2010), or Wonderby R.J. Palacio (2012). After completing the second novel, have students compare and contrast what they learn about life in New York City. Have them explore audio podcasts from WNYC’s series Being 12, which focuses on what it is like to be twelve years olds in New York City in 2015. Have students compare and contrast the similarities and differences between life as a middle schooler in New York City and life as a middle schooler where you live. As an extension, students could research and write their own short stories set in New York City, focusing on the craft of creating setting.
Goodbye Stranger. What does the title mean? At several points throughout the book, the concept of the stranger and the self as stranger are addressed. What do your students think Stead intended by using this as a title? And, for those of you who are old enough to recall, could the Supertramp song have something to do with it? Have students listen to the song while following along with the lyrics, and make connections to the themes at work in Stead’s book.
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Rebecca Stead’s Official Website
WNYC Public Radio Series: “Being 12,” March 2015
Rudolf, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Story Corps
Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger”
Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” Lyrics
Betsy Bird’s Really Awesome Review of Goodbye Stranger
Books
Alvarez, J. (2009). Return to sender. Knopf.
Broach, E. (2008). Masterpiece. Christy Ottaviano Books.
Fitzhugh, L. (1964). Harriet the spy. Yearling.
Hesse, K. (2001). Witness. Scholastic.
House, S., Vaswani, N. (2011). Same sun here. Candlewick Press.
Konigsburg, E.L. (1996). The view from Saturday. Atheneum.
Mass, W. (2010). The candy makers. Little Brown.
Myers, W.D. (2010). The cruisers. Scholastic.
Palacio, R.J. (2012). Wonder. Knopf.
Pinkney, A. D. (2011). Bird in a box. Little Brown.
Stead, R. (2012). Liar and spy. Wendy Lamb Books.
—–(2009). When you reach me. Wendy Lamb Books.

Woodson, J. (2008). After Tupac and D. Foster. Puffin.
Mary Ann Cappiello About Mary Ann Cappiello

Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.

Comments

  1. Oh Mary Ann… this is the book I have been needing! I love that you're the one who reviewed it, because what you said went straight to my heart! I'll buy it today! It won't be the first time your website has filled a need in my work and in my life! Thank you! (Nancy Peterson)

  2. Nancy, I'm so glad this book came along when you needed it (though it is not out yet!). It is one of those books I know I will reread time and again and be startled by what I didn't pick up the first few reads. What a gift it is.