|Don't say I didn't warn you.|
First off, let me say that I do agree with the reviews as far as the beauty of Stead's writing. There is no denying Stead's talent for depicting tender emotion and creating earnest, sympathetic heroines. I actually adored the lead character, seventh grader Bridge, and also Sherm with whom Bridge has a budding friendship/romance. Perhaps if Stead had stuck to Bridge's coming-of-age story I would have liked Goodbye Stranger more. Instead, Stead intersperses the seventh grade plot line with chapters set several months in the future and narrated by an unnamed ninth grade girl. Eventually the two plot lines do converge and the mystery narrator is revealed, but younger, less sophisticated readers may have trouble following the action and keeping the time line straight.
Speaking of younger readers, let me take a moment to talk about the target audience of Goodbye Stranger. As I already mentioned, the primary characters in Goodbye Stranger are seventh to ninth graders and the majority of the action takes place in middle school. The subject material is a little too mature for kids in elementary school yet readers in eight grade or higher would probably find the story too juvenile. As someone who purchases books for a library it is difficult to know where to put Goodbye Stranger. If I put it downstairs in the juvenile section I may get flack from some parents of third and fourth graders, but the book will more than likely be passed over by teens. So, ultimately, what you have is a book that will appeal to sixth and seventh grade girls. At least primarily girls because this is definitely a touchy-feely, emotional book that the majority of boys are going to run away from. This extremely narrow target audience is also true of Stead's 2010 book which won the Newbery Medal, When You Reach Me. Not only did that book appeal to primarily tween girls, you also needed to be familiar with Madeline Le Engle's book, A Wrinkle in Time. I guess I just feel that the most prestigious award for juvenile literature should go to a book that is not only appealing to kids but also to a wide range of young readers.
OK, on to my major beef with Goodbye Stranger. I already mentioned that some of the subject material of Goodbye Stranger may be too mature for younger readers. In a subplot of the story one of Bridge's best friends, Em, is coerced by an eighth grade boy into texting a semi-nude (bra) picture of herself. Of course, the picture gets texted to multiple people, gets posted online, etc. and Em must face all of the repercussions of her actions. Kudos to Stead for taking on the serious topics of sexting and online privacy. With every kid over the age of twelve carrying a cell phone and the prolific use of twitter, snapchat, facebook, etc. these are issues that kids are currently facing and I was excited to see a book address them.
In my opinion, though, Stead's handling of the sexting issue was a complete failure and even a disservice to the young girls who will read this book. I know that sounds incredibly harsh, but I can't help it. The conclusion to the whole sexting drama in Goodbye Stranger just set my teeth on edge. Let me set the scene and you can decide whether or not you agree with me. Of the three main seventh grade girls, Em is the first to develop. That and her prowess on the soccer field make her instantly popular and attracts the attention of Patrick, the eighth grade boy every girl in the school drools over. The two begin a series of flirtatious texts in which they send pictures of various body parts. Of course, it starts out innocently with pictures of feet, ankles, hands, etc. but then Patrick raises the stakes by sending Em a picture of his full body in just boxers. He continues to needle Em about it being her turn until she finally sends a picture of herself in a bra. Big surprise, the picture ends up online and texted to everyone in school resulting in Em being harassed and labeled as the school slut. Eventually, adults are made aware of the situation. Even though, the picture is deleted from social media and cell phones, Em continues to face harassment from other students as well as teachers, who deem her to be a "bad" girl that is a negative influence on the rest of the student body. Honestly, up to this point I was on board with the story, because these can be the very real and unfortunate consequences of sharing personal photos and/or information.
Where Stead totally lost me, though, is her depiction of Patrick's character. Despite the fact that Patrick texted pictures of himself first and then goaded a younger classmate into reciprocating, he never faced any negative repercussions for his actions. Patrick never even attempted to stop the circulation of the picture (Sherm did that), nor did he inform Em that the person who originally texted the picture to everyone was a girl who she thought was her friend. I know, I know in reality there is a double standard and the whole boys will be boys attitude places the majority of responsibility and blame on the girl. However, Stead could have at least made Em realize that any boy that pressured her into doing something that made her uncomfortable wasn't worthy of her adoration. Instead, Stead relieves Patrick of all culpability in the situation and even had Em continue in a relationship with him. What!! My husband told me that I was getting a little too worked up over a piece of fiction, but the fact that this is a book that many young girls will read made me even more angry. Stead set up the perfect opportunity to address an important issue and instead of setting a positive example for young girls she tied it all up with a happy, romantic pink bow. As the mother of a thirteen year old girl I was disappointed. As the mother of eleven and nine year old boys I was outraged because if my boys ever did what Patrick did they would be in deep, deep doo doo.
I have one more point to make and then I will end my tirade. At the end of Goodbye Stranger Em makes the comment that she is not upset the picture got out. Why? Because she got so many positive comments about her appearance (i.e. "You're hot") that she felt proud. Wow, what a great way to end the book. Em decides that her self worth comes from people appreciating her physical appearance. Now, I am all for feeling beautiful in your own skin, and I would never want girls to feel ashamed of their bodies, but come on! Young girls should not need use selfies and the internet to boost their self-esteems.
All right, I will hop off my soapbox now. If anything, I hope that my comments will at least lead to some discussion. Especially with tweens that choose to read it.