MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Author Rebecca Stead got an idea for a new character from a chance encounter.
REBECCA STEAD: The idea came from a girl. She was wearing cat ears. And I said, nice ears. And she said, thanks, I've been wearing them for a year. I don't know why. And then she ran away.
BLOCK: That girl wearing those black cat ears helped inspire the central character of her new book for middle-grade readers, "Goodbye Stranger." Rebecca Stead says it's about love and how that helps three girls stay strong in middle school.
STEAD: I wanted to show a solid relationship that was pushed a little bit. And so most of the story is about three 7th-grade girls who have a lot of love for one another but who are taking different paths as 7th grade continues, and so they're challenged a little bit. But it's not one of those stories where the kids break up and then come back together. They're always there for one another. And that was probably the only thing I absolutely knew about this story when I started writing it.
BLOCK: It's interesting because this period, 7th-grade girls - and you said they're taking different paths - this is a point when girls of that age do diverge really quickly and some grow up much faster than others. They're under all kinds of huge and really confusing pressures. But it sounds like you were adamant that these girls, they would not let it them split them apart.
STEAD: No. And I think that there's a lot of comfort in reading a book like that. And I think that I was thinking in a way of the kid I was in 7th grade when I wrote it. And the kind of book that, you know, has hard moments and it has harsh words, and it has really uncomfortable situations, but there's a kind of safety in it because these girls never have to doubt themselves, their friendship.
BLOCK: One of the storylines in the book, in "Goodbye Stranger," is about the perils of texting photos, verging on sexting - maybe not quite there. Why did you take that on? Is this something you've been thinking a lot about?
STEAD: One thing I knew from the very beginning, one of the very few things I knew when I started writing, was that one of the characters would send a picture of herself to a boy, which would bring her a lot of unwanted attention. And I quickly figured out that this girl is actually going to feel good about herself. And what's sort of gotten into the mix is this idea that if you are a girl who is, you know, maybe 13, as Emily in the story is, who is feeling pretty terrific about herself, that you almost have a responsibility to protect the world from yourself or from your body. And I think there's also a lot of discussion about school dress codes in the story. And I think that there is a relationship between Emily's feelings and sending the picture and the dress code and the way the school responds to what she's done in the story. I mean, I personally find the idea that girls need to cover their shoulders in school a little bit strange. And I think...
BLOCK: This is a hot topic among middle-schoolers, I assure you.
BLOCK: Yeah, absolutely.
STEAD: Are you experiencing (laughter) any of this?
BLOCK: This has been an issue, yeah, in our middle school, absolutely.
STEAD: Yeah, it's everywhere. And I think that we need to listen to kids' opinions and have an open discussion that is less, maybe, driven by fear and - fear on the part of adults, I mean. And I think that - I do think that when we're telling girls, you know, you have to cover your shoulders because otherwise you're a distraction to other, you know, people in your class, probably something is wrong. And I'm mostly drawing these conclusions after just listening to kids.
BLOCK: As tight as the bond is among these three 7th-grade girls, there are alternating chapters that are told from the perspective of a girl who is slightly older. She's in high school and the ground has really shifted for her with her friendships that have become poisonous. And I wonder if you could read a section where she is thinking about that and about what she's lost. This is on page 12.
STEAD: Sure. (Reading) You sit on the rough plank floor and wedge your back into the nearest corner, the one that was always yours. You could almost see them in their places - Vinny to the left, Zoe to the right. They're not your friends anymore. They're both other people now. The girls you can see looking back at you are gone. No one talks about these disappearances. Everyone pretends it's all right.
BLOCK: Rebecca, that breaks my heart. It really does (laughter).
STEAD: Mine too (laughter).
STEAD: Yeah, it's sad. I mean - and I think that in part, this story - which is a much smaller story that's kind of woven into the story about the 7th-grade girls and their friendship - is a kind of echo and just acknowledgment of other ways that friendships can go. And in the end, I think it's a story about a girl who is figuring out over the course of one day that a friendship that has always been her most central kind of deepest friendship is over and that what she needs to do is say goodbye. And I know that there are times when the person that you loved is gone and you have to acknowledge that.
BLOCK: And not romanticize what you had and what you think might still be there.
BLOCK: Rebecca, one of the things I really appreciate about your book is that the parents are not ciphers and they're not antagonists. They're not subjects of ridicule. They actually have really good, healthy relationships with their children.
BLOCK: Important to you?
STEAD: Very important to me. And I have noticed that I spend a lot of time writing about parents. And I think that parents are really important to kids, and so are some teachers and other people in their lives. But there is this kind of jokey sense that one job of a writer who's writing for children is to get the parents out of the way. And so the kids can, you know, have their own story. And, you know, there are times where you do want that. And I also think though that, you know, parents are enormously important to kids who are 11, 12 and 13. It's probably, you know, that's probably still the most important relationship in their life.
BLOCK: Yay parents.
BLOCK: (Laughter). On behalf of parents everywhere, I think.
STEAD: Yeah. (Laughter).
BLOCK: That's writer Rebecca Stead. Her new novel for middle-grade readers is titled, "Goodbye Stranger." Rebecca, thanks so much for being with us.
STEAD: Thank you.
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