Vikki VanSickle on Writing, Reading & Other Pipedreams

Everything I need to know in life, I learned from children's literature

Middle Grade Monday: The Story of Diva and Flea Review


I picked up the charming The Story of Diva and Flea  from Book Culture  while acting out my Kathleen Kelly fantasies in New York. It had been on my list for awhile (because Mo Willems) but with Paris so front-of-mind it felt particularly poignant. At its heart, this story is about making new friends, and how those friends can help you face your fears, but it is also a love letter to Paris.

I love Mo Willems. His characters are exuberant and his sense of humour ranges from slapstick to dead-pan. If the Elephant and Piggie series doesn’t make kids want to read I’m not sure anything will.  The latest installment in the Elephant and Piggie early reader series, I Really Like Slop, might be my favourite children’s book title of all time. Willem’s humour is ever-present in this very different story of a stray cat and a pampered dog who become friends, but this is a surprisingly tender and poignant Willems.

Whether they realize it or not, both Diva and Flea are lonely. Diva, a dog who is described as “smaller than a person’s foot” is afraid of feet and therefore never ventures outside her Parisienne courtyard. Flea, a self-described “Flaneur,” fears going indoors, as he has  traumatic memories of a broom incident. They eventually become friends and Flea teaches Diva to be a brave like him and Diva teaches Flea that indoors can be nice, especially if there is Breck-fest of Luh-nch.

There is an Oliver & Company* feeling to the story, with a streetwise cat and a pampered dog, but Willems gives these stock characters both depth and warmth. Flea is gentle with Diva and tries not to hurt her feelings. Diva is patient with Flea and generous with her food and person, Eva. Their friendship almost feels like a love story, and Tony DiTerlizzi’s spot illustrations give a sense of a classic French movie, with scenes of manicured gardens, gargoyles, the Eiffel tower and cafe-lined streets.

The consistent use of flaneur as a verb (“Do you see me? I’m flaneur-ing”) will make children giggle, as will the animals’ observations of life. For example, upon seeing people exiting out of metro trains, Flea muses “So that’s where people come from.” Much of the humour comes from the nature of the animals and how they misunderstand each other. In one of my favourite scenes, Diva discovers a dead mouse on her doorstep, a present left by Flea as an apology. By way of thank you, Diva says “That is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. But, in the future, bring me a small piece of ribbon please.”

In one of the final scenes, Flea teaches Diva how to “meet new Feet.” This sweet scene reminded me of the classic book Catwings, in which the winged kittens are told to seek out “Gentle Hands.” Flea instructs Diva to sit at the feet and say meow (she says woof instead) and wait for the “wondrous thing.” That thing is a pat on the head, which Diva describes as “wondrous indeed.”

This is really more of an early chapter book than a middle grade novel, but I couldn’t resist including it. The Story of Diva and Flea reads like a dream and feels like a classic. Check out the video below of Willems and DiTerlizzi talking about their collaboration.

The Story of Diva and Flea is available now in hardcover from Hyperion.

*I have been waiting my entire career to work in an apt Oliver & Company comp

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Middle Grade Monday: The Thing About Jellyfish


Multiple people, including author Carrie Mac, Danielle at Bookish Notions and Michelle from Mabel’s Fables told me that this would be a book I would love. They were correct. This National Book Award nominated title falls under one of my favourite categories, Poignant Coming of Age Story, and is particularly adept at detailing not only the toll that grief can take on a tween, but how friendships can change and nobody knows how to hurt you more than your best friend.

A pastiche of memories, jellyfish facts, and current action, The Thing About About Jellyfish chronicles the life cycle of a friendship cut short by an accidental drowning. The death of a friend is always tragic. But what happens when that friendship died months before the accident? Suzy and Franny became fast friends the minute they met in the swimming pool when they were five. As the girls around them start to change, becoming obsessed with boys and clothing and turning into the meanest versions of themselves, Franny makes Suzy promise to send her a big message if she ever turns into those girls.

So what happens when your ex-best friend, current enemy, dies? Suzy does not know how to mourn Franny. It has been ages since they were anything even resembling friends, but the last memory she has of Franny is a sad one; Franny in tears as a result of the “big message” Suzy sent to her. Suzy is guilty, confused, and does not know what to do with herself. So she stops talking and becomes obsessed with jellyfish, concocting a theory that Franny was killed by a jellyfish sting and then setting out to prove it.

Through flashback, we see how Franny changes and the devastating effect it has on Suzy. The death of a child is always tragic, but this book is more about the death of a friendship rather than a person. The moments of greatest sadness and empathy for me were ones where Franny or Suzy were intentionally hurting each other. Lots of books talk about bullying but rare is the middle grade novel that goes into such excruciating detail about the cruelties soon to be former friends inflict on each other. There is no sting like the sting of betrayal, and Franny and Suzy are engaged in a cold war anyone who has been a twelve year old girl will recognize. Exclusionary tactics, whispering, cruel names, cold shoulders, public humiliation and the airing of private information are all weapons in the arsenal of warring tweens.

Suzy is an odd duck and she knows it. She feels behind her peers in terms of the traditional bench markers of adolescence yet feels superior in intelligence. She is lonely but can’t trust the friendly advances of misunderstood lab partner, Justin, a classic middle grade crush. Her interest in science reminded me a tad of Ellie from Jennifer Holm’s wonderful The Fourteen Goldfish. Very different narratives, but similar protagonists. I like these thoughtful, science-minded and goal-oriented heroines. Let this be something we see more of in middle grade fiction.

At times the piece-y format of the narrative felt a bit clunky and broke up the flow of the story, but overall I loved Ali Benjamin‘s insight into the mind of a growing, grieving tween. Suzy is a victim but she inflicts some pretty brutal blows of her own, which is a reality that is often ignored or omitted in fiction. Here is a complicated, crunchy and authentic character. I like how Benjamin makes strong choices in Suzy’s actions. Readers will want to wrap her into a hug at one moment, and then shake her at another. When Suzy is weird she is WEIRD, but she is also lovable and totally unforgettable.

The Thing About Jellyfish is available now in hardcover from Little, Brown and Company.


Middle Grade Monday: Halloween Edition


Anne Shirley isn’t the only one who loves October. I love everything that this, the most gilded of months, has lots to offer: brilliant foliage, black cat decorations as far as the eye can see, post-season baseball* and of course, a glut of spooky stories. Here are three new middle grade novels you should add to your read-it-under-the-covers list:

A Curious Tale of the In-Between


YA author Lauren DeStefano dips into middle grade fiction with a spine-tingling tale of friendship triumphing over loneliness and evil. Lonely children tend to be more likely to be befriended by ghosts, and such is the case of Pram, who’s ability to talk to ghosts catches the eye of a spiritualist and puts her in danger. DeStefano’s prose is spare but evocative, allowing the reader space to wonder and come to her own conclusions. The misty cover perfectly captures this gloomy yet gorgeous atmospheric read.

The Nest


Lest you forget that Canadian superstar Kenneth Oppel is a stylist, his latest book is a great reminder. Starkly different from the sprawling adventure stories that readers have perhaps come to expect from Oppel (such as Airborn and The Boundless), The Nest is internal, unsettling, and unforgettable. Comparisons to kid lit horror classics Coraline and Skellig are well-deserved. Creating a sense of the uncanny is a rare feat, and Oppel pulls it off effortlessly in a dark fable that both adults and children will savor.

Myles and the Monster Outside


Even younger children love to be scared, and Canadian author Phillipa Dowding delivers a suspenseful story with just enough chills to satisfy (but not terrify) the 7-10 year old set. Myles is a gentle, yearning character who spends one night trapped in the car pursued by a ghostly, red-eyed figure that his mother nor his siblings can see. Rest assured that the twist in this one pulls at the heart strings, but is unlikely to cause nightmares.

For more scary stories and terrifying tales, check out last year’s round-up

*Please be gentle, I’m still getting over the Jays’ loss on Friday.


Some Book: George


All over the country there are debates about whether the needs of transgender children are being met in our school systems. I’m thinking particularly of this recent case in Edmonton, in which the mother of a seven year old transgender girl is fighting for her daughter’s right to use the girls’ washroom. The Catholic school board is set to review and debate a new policy, but the mother feels that without a provincial policy in place conflicts like these are sure to arise again. This story makes my heart ache and I am so thankful for books like George, which should not only be required reading for children, but for adults making decisions for children. 

George knows she is a girl, even if to the outside world she looks like a boy. She has dreams of wearing skirts and make up and keeps a stash of women’s magazines hidden in her closet that she can flip through and pretend that she is one of the girls in the photos. It is getting harder for her to pretend to be a boy. When auditions for the school’s production of Charlotte’s Web come up, George wants to try out for the role of Charlotte

It is fitting that George identifies with and yearns to play Charlotte, the wise female spider who understands the power of words. Charlotte is perhaps the most graceful character in children’s literature. Grace is a word I kept coming back to while thinking about this book. Alex Gino’s prose is graceful and unfettered, yet full of nuance. I hesitate to call a book with such impact gentle, and George experiences violence at the hands of a school bully that is not at all gentle, but the tone is pitched just right for younger middle grade, ages 8-11, and I believe this is the age group that needs this story the most. I’ve gone on about how YA is too late to address sexuality, identity, or any controversial issue. We’re kidding ourselves if we think children don’t wonder about these issues before the age of 10. Why not acknowledge their questions and curiosity and provide them with informed information and stories with heart and truth to bolster confidence and inspire empathy? Stories like George?

Empathy is a quality we talk about but I’m not sure that I see it in the never-ending news stories about inadequate rights for LGBT students and challenges to sexual education. You cannot teach empathy without demonstrating it, and George is a perfect example of empathy in book form. Through the narration, which is third person but very firmly inside George’s head, we know that George refers to herself using female pronouns. It is jarring when characters do otherwise. Words like ‘brother, my boy’ feel wrong and their implications carry much more weight. This is a simple but effective technique that allows readers the tiniest glimmer of what it must feel like to be George. It would be hard for a reader to walk away from George with not only a deeper understanding of what it is like to be trans, but also how we can support trans people.

It goes without saying that this is an excellent discussion book. The concept of being trans can be tricky for children to wrap their heads around, particularly in a culture that sees people as Pink or Blue. Let’s face it, many adults have trouble understanding and accepting the concept.  Gino is careful in presenting a variety of reactions to George. There is an especially lovely scene between George and her older brother Scott when she tells him she isn’t gay, she’s a girl. Two things happen. One, Scott says “That’s more than being just gay,” suggesting that it is harder people to come to terms with transgender people than it is to come to terms with homosexuality. The second observation is that Scott “looked at George as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time.” What a lovely moment of acceptance. For those looking to use George in the classroom, Alex has a section on their website about how to talk about George and transgender people in general.

I have to give a shout-out to George’s best friend Kelly, she of the slogan t-shirts and loud opinions. Kelly is exactly the friend George needs. She embraces George being a girl and comes up with the plan for George to go to the city zoo with her and her uncle (who has never met George) as Melissa, the name George calls herself. George comes to her house, tries on girls’ clothing and lip gloss and gets to spend one day as her true self. The scene has a jubilant feel to it and ends with Melissa contemplating the best week of her life “so far.” This quiet promise of good things to come, that things will get better, is exactly the kind of affirming message that children struggling with issues of identity and acceptance crave and deserve.

George is available in hard cover now from Scholastic.

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Middle Grade Monday: The Doldrums


I dare you to look through this book without a) gasping b) petting the cover and c) calling over your friends or colleagues so they can also gasp and pet the cover. Of course it is the untenable thing-the story-that counts, but when the package is this deluxe, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Luckily Nicholas Gannon‘s words, characters, and art live up to the promise of the book’s beautiful packaging.

Archer B. Helmsley has grown up in a house full of oddities and trinkets his adventuring grandparents have brought back from their world travels. His grandparents are currently missing and his parents don’t understand Archie or his wander-lust. Luckily Archer makes a friend in neighbour Oliver Glub, who is not as keen on adventuring but will give it a go for Archer’s sake, and Adelaide L. Beaumont, recently arrived from France with a wooden leg and an air of mystery. The three friends hatch an escape plan, but naturally things do not go as expected.


This is a very classic middle grade story about friendship masquerading as an adventure story. That isn’t to say that there isn’t adventure in this delightful tale- there is lots of mystery, calamitous situations, mysterious trunks, encounters with odd strangers, etc. In a way the book demonstrates how anything can turn into an adventure when you’re with friends. Archer, Oliver and Adelaide don’t even realize how lonely they are until they find each other. Gannon has an assured, sensitive narrative voice and some truly lovely phrasing. I found myself wanting to underline certain lines to help imprint them on my brain.


Gannon’s art is warm and delicate and captures the same slightly nostalgic, cozy tone as his writing. Art includes a mix of black and white spot illustrations, coloured plates, and sepia-toned architectural drawings. You can get a sense of the art by visiting the wonderful website, which also includes character descriptions, selected scenes, and lots of carefully curated extras.  This is the ideal book to read curled up in an over-sized chair on a rainy day. It made me crave milky tea in a delicate cup, cozy knitted sweaters, and mail in thick envelopes, sealed with wax. Perfect for fans of The Greenglass House, The Mysterious Benedict Society, classic New York story The Saturdays, Under the Egg and anything by E. L. Konigsburg.

The Doldrums is available now in hard cover from Greenwillow, an imprint of Harper Collins.

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Middle Grade Monday: Harriet the Invincible


If you don’t already know Ursula Vernon, you will soon. This author-illustrator is on the verge of making it big. The creator of the very funny Dragonbreath series as well as a few equally hilarious middle grade novels, Vernon’s new series Hamster Princess casts my new favourite rodent in a proposed series of fractured fairytales.

The gift of invincibility has made Harriet Hamsterbone extremely confident. Determined to make the most of her invincibility before a sleeping curse sets in she spends the first 12 years of her life adventuring and slaying monsters. Even when her invincibility wears off and she is as mortal as anyone else, her confidence and exuberance remains. How wonderful to have a heroine who deals with challenges, be they sleeping curses, ogrecats or arranged marriage, head on.

Vernon’s sense of humour shines. While Harriet is a great comedienne, reluctant-adventurer Prince Wilbur gets in a few zingers himself. Much of the humour exists in the dialogue, including a series of graphic asides with speech bubbles (i.e. “You must have missed someone. Are you sure you kissed all the newts?”), but there are some very funny illustrations, too.  The image of Harriet riding her beloved steed, a quail named Mumphrey, silhouetted against a grand landscape, still cracks me up.

Fairytales, be they traditional or reinterpreted or new stories in the classic tradition, are everywhere. Some of the best-selling book series (The Descendants; The Land of Stories) and most popular TV shows (Once Upon a Time) or films (Cinderella; Maleficent; Frozen) of the past few years are fairytale related. As a culture we cannot seem to get enough of them. Princesses in general seem to be forever being debated (Disney princesses vs warrior princesses; princesses in pink vs princesses in black). Harriet Hamsterbone is a welcome addition to the world of middle grade princesses; a confident, funny, and capable royal with a penchant for fractions and a desire to right wrongs.

Obvious readers include fans of the Babymouse, Lunch Lady, and Origami Yoda series, in addition to fairytale and princess devotees, but I am hard pressed to think of a kid who would not laugh out loud at Harriet’s adventures. With large font, frequent illustrations and a great premise this is an excellent choice for early chapter book readers, but it would also make a wonderful read-aloud, particularly in the classroom. Learn more about Harriet and Vernon’s other series here.

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible is published by Dial books, available now from Penguin Random House Canada. To get a sense of the illustrations and hilarious hi jinx, check out the trailer here:

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Middle Grade Monday: Something Wiki


Middle grade fiction isn’t always gentle or fantastical. Sometimes it can be downright moody, icky, and gross. Thank goodness. Puberty is rarely gentle or magical, so why should fiction tackling the subject be?In Something Wiki, we get a peek inside the mind and body of tween Jo Waller. Each chapter opens with a wikipedia entry that our young narrator has edited to suit her own experiences. This is Jo in a nutshell- internet-savvy, smart, and just entering that phase of tweendom where she is keenly, physically aware of herself.

It is clear that Canadian author Suzanne Sutherland remembers what it is to be a tween. This is a very physical book and there are lots of discussions about the physical experience of adolescence. The kind that make adults cringe and tweens go YES, MORE, PLEASE! Jo is constantly concerned about her acne, the treatment of which runs through the whole book like a low-grade fever. There is also lots of blood, but not the guts and gore kind, the everyday kind- from stepping on a tack, to pimples that have popped, to good old once a month menstrual blood.

One of the things I love best about middle grade is the navigation of relationships. Jo is in the middle of some mean girl games in addition to hard-core adulation of her older brother, a very cool musician with a downtown apartment. I love how much Jo looks up to her big brother and his girlfriend. When she discovers her brother’s girlfriend is pregnant, she starts to think more about sex and also comes to realize that they are both people with problems who make mistakes- not these big, cool, unattainable gods she has worked them up to be in her mind.

I also like the glimpses of Toronto, something Sutherland did well in her debut novel When We Were Good. So much middle grade seems to be set in small-town, middle-of-somewhere North America (something I am guilty of)  but here we are firmly in downtown Toronto. Urban readers will appreciate a glimpse of their lifestyle and rural or suburban readers get all the fun of experiencing the truth of city life (still pretty boring when you’re underage). Other than Susin Nielsen, who sets her novels in Vancouver, not many Canadian kids’ writers use major Canadian cities as a backdrop.

With short chapters, lots of believable dialogue and a breezy pace, young readers will fly through Something Wiki before passing it off to their friends.

Something Wiki is available in paperback now from Dundurn Press.

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Middle Grade Monday: Sunny Side Up

sunny side up

With that bright blue cover, bouncy font and beach-y theme, Sunny Side Up looks like a typical summer read. But looks can be deceiving. Sunny Side Up is a moving story about coming to terms with difficult secrets disguised as a typical summer read. So-called ‘typical’ elements include a summer spent away from home, steamy days spent by the pool, and adventures with a new friend. It is not surprising that tween-whisperer Jenni Holm makes the elements atypical– instead of camp or a cottage Sunny is sent to stay with her grandfather in a retirement community, the local pond has Big Al, a resident Alligator, and adventures include a cat-rescue business Sunny and her new friend Carl start up, a which provides a fantastic sequence of the two of them sniffing out a whole list of cats with great names.  But half the book is comprised of Sunny’s flashbacks to the months leading up to summer, at home in Philadelphia, chronicling the decline of Sunny’s older brother, Dale.

You will know Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm from the wonderful Babymouse series. Nineteen books later, Babymouse still remains one of my favourite chapter book heroines, a sort of sassy cross between Ramona Quimby and Bianca from The Rescuers, but still her own mouse. Jennifer has also written a number of middle grade novels, three of which have been Newbery honour winners: The sublime Turtle in ParadiseOur Only May Amelia, and Penny From Heaven. And don’t forget about The Fourteenth Goldfish, which now lives in my permanent middle grade top ten.

A delicate balance is struck between Florida fun-times and the darker flashbacks. Sunny’s backstory unravels like a mystery, which adds a nice pace to the read. This is an astute and gentle treatment of children who are dealing with substance abuse in their families. In an author’s note, the Holms’ refer to their own experiences and explain that they wrote the book so children in this situation could learn not to be ashamed and that it’s important to talk about feelings. It also strikes me as a good way to introduce the topic of family struggle (with or without substance abuse) in general.

The Holms are trail-blazers in middle grade graphic novels, a genre which has been given a huge boost by the popularity of Raina Telgemeier’s books. Sunny Side Up will appeal to Telgemeier fans but at 216 pages it is a slimmer novel with less text. It is a nice step up for fans of Babymouse and chapter book readers in the 8-11 range, though older children will find much to love here as well. Learn more about the book and how it came to be by tuning into the brand new children’s literature podcast The Yarn, hosted by middle grade champions Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker, and available on iTunes.

Sunny Side Up is available now from Scholastic Canada.

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Middle Grade Monday: Monstrous


This cover captured my heart long before its heroine Kymera did. But now that I’ve read her tale, Kymera’s story is one that will stay with me for a long time. In an overall strong book the character of Kymera is perhaps the strongest element and I have no doubt that other readers will root, worry, and cry for her as I did. Imagine if Dr. Frankenstein created a girl with cat eyes, a snake’s tail, and the wings of a raven and taught her to be a superhero and you have the very basic premise of Monstrous.

We meet Kymera when she first awakes and we are told- as she is- that she died but has been brought back to life with a few adjustments (including a tail, wings, and claws) by an ostracized scientist grieving the loss of his wife (her mother) and daughter (Kymera, though she has no memories from her life before). Father teaches Kym about the kingdom of Bryre, which is being tormented by an evil wizard. The girls of Bryre are falling sick and Kym sneaks into the prison where they are kept and steals them one at a time, bringing them back to her cottage in the woods before they are sent to safety in neighbouring kingdom Belladoma. At first Kym is happy to do as her father bids, never speaking to anyone, never straying from the route, trusting him implicitly. But for each day that she is alive, she starts to become curious and craves friendship, knowledge, justice and reassurance. When she befriends Ren, a boy who works as a messenger for the King, and her memories start to come back, Kym starts to question the things she has been taught.

This is an engrossing fairytale with an unusual and empathetic heroine. MarcyKate Connolly has stitched elements from various fairytales and horror stories into a dark but lovely tale. Great fantasy addresses the bigger questions in life but does so without feeling pedantic. In Monstrous the stakes are always high. There is much to discuss here about growing up, power, responsibility, and sacrifice. Though the tone is gentle, Connolly does not try to hide her narrator’s blood lust or taste for vengeance, nor the villagers readiness to burn a stranger at the stake. Gambles are taken-sometimes with lives- and lost. The blood and consequences create a capital F Fairytale and also a classic tragedy in the Greek sense.

The language is vivid and it is easy to imagine Kymera and her world, which is both familiar and new. The cover illustration is beyond perfect and though this is definitely a Bookish Book I couldn’t help but picture the incredible work a studio like Ghibli could do with an  animated version. I would love to see how they bring the Rock Dragon, the dungeons of Belladoma, and most importantly, Kymera herself- to life. A tween may delve into this book and not come out for days but I think it could also be read-aloud to younger children, provided they aren’t easily upset by injustice, betrayal, and death. Adult readers may see the twists before they are revealed, but young readers or those less familiar with fairytale tropes will likely be taken by surprise as truths are discovered.

I would love to talk about the ending, and how brave Connolly is in her decisions- which are heartbreaking yet felt necessary- but I do not want to spoil the joy of reading this novel, which was a transportive experience. Find me on twitter @vikkivansickle and we can gush there. Fans of Eon, The PeculiarThe Glass Sentence, and Talon will definitely embrace the strange and lovely Kymera.

Monstrous is available now in hard cover from Harper Collins.


Middle Grade Monday: Goodbye Stranger


A Rebecca Stead book is always unexpected and always a delight. I very much enjoyed her Northern fantasy First Light and remember hand-selling the heck out of it to die-hard City of Ember fans in my bookseller days. Then I read When You Reach Me and was struck by how timeless it felt, despite being very rooted in a time & place. Liar & Spy was a quieter character study, very much setting up the reader for the meditation on friendship and contemporary adolescence that is Goodbye Stranger.

My favourite Judy Blume novel is Just As Long As We’re Together, which is essentially about girls navigating the politics of being a trio of best friends. In a way, Goodbye Stranger is a post modern meditation on Just As Long As We’re Together, exploring a spectrum of relationships, from downright cruel to occasionally toxic to fair-weathered to remarkably strong. It sounds unbelievable to say that Stead touches on all the questions of adolescence in one novel (friendships, first romance,  changing relationships to parents, finding your tribe, identity), but not only does she manage it, she does it so deftly it left me stunned and unable to pick up another book for days.

There are essentially three story lines about friendship that overlap- though the plot told entirely in second person feels relatively separate until all is revealed in the end. Bridge, Tab and Emily represent the healthiest possible kind of friendship. Even when dealing with little betrayals they stick to their promise of no fighting and when they DO argue, it is remarkably mature if not a touch idealistic. This is contrasted by a second-person anonymous storyline chronicling the ups and downs in another group of girls that is heartbreaking and at a times chilling (THE CINNAMON)!)

This is also a book about the first stirrings of romantic relationships. Much of the narrative is taken up with a photo Em sends to her maybe-boyfriend that is seen by a group of boys and eventually the whole school, threatening her reputation.  Stead handles this murky and topical scenario carefully and dare I say gently, addressing the issue and its implications but choosing for the best-case scenario. To me this makes perfect sense for the age group, some of whom will be scared silly by the idea of sending a photo of themselves to a boy, and others who have already done so and may relate to the stinging repercussions.

While Em is getting into kissing and embracing her burgeoning sexuality Bridge is moving at her own slower pace with Sherm, who is the cutest of cute and quite possibly my favourite tween love interest since Thomas J in the movie My Girl*. Bridge and Sherm clearly have a mutual interest but neither is ready to take it past spending time together and conversation. Adults are terrified by the desires and awakening romantic appetites of tweens but the truth is that they exist and deserve to be addressed. I love that Stead has two characters of the same age in very different places, romantically speaking. But romantics are rewarded with a truly gorgeous epilogue that I will refrain from re-typing word-for-word except for the following sentence, my new favourite line about love:”Kissing Sherman was like saying “And. . .and. . .and. . .”

The book is not just about girl relationships. Bridge’s older brother Jamie is embroiled in a competitive and toxic friendship of his own with Alex, a frenemy who is bent on tricking Jamie out of his beloved possessions in a cat-and-mouse game involving a limited number of steps per day that seems rigged to make Jamie fail. Sherm, Bridge’s not-quite-love interest, is also present in a series of letters written to his absentee grandfather who he hasn’t quite forgiven for up and leaving him. There is much to be gleaned here about the complications of tween and teenage friendship, male or female.

I haven’t even mentioned Tab and her glorious indignation at injustice and her strong moral code, or the cat ears that Bridge has seemingly inexplicably started to wear and what they represent. This book is an embarrassment of riches and I don’t want to waste your time praising them here- go read it yourself! I will say there are coincidences and twists of fate one has come to expect from a Stead novel and the uncanny dialogue that feels not only authentic but also transcends time and place to feel timeless, like dialogue in a play. This book begs for multiple readings and each time the reader will come away with new insights and a deeper appreciation for Stead as a middle grade magician.

Goodbye Stranger has vaulted into my all-time top ten and I can’t recommend it enough. Rebecca Stead is now the Golden Standard that I personally aspire to as a middle grade writer and belongs in the ranks of Madeline L’Engle, Judy Blume and E. L. Konigsburg. Give this book to a tween in your life and take a peek yourself to get a glimpse of the complicated world contemporary tweens are navigating which is perhaps not so different from what you experienced, but likely has not been so deftly or eloquently expressed as by Stead.

Goodbye Stranger is available now from Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

*For  proof of my undying love for Thomas J and his impact on my own writing, please see Benji in my books Words That Start With B; Love is a Four-Letter Word and Days That End in Y

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