Since Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal in 2010 for When You Reach Me, the publication of each new book by the author is an opportunity to spend time with appealing characters and nuanced storytelling. Her latest novel, The List of Things That Will Not Change, is about 10-year-old Bea, who, following her parents’ divorce, keeps a notebook detailing the constants in her evolving family landscape. Stead spoke with PW about addressing strong emotions head-on, including parents in middle grade stories, and how sharing food can foster intimacy.
The List of Things That Will Not Change is about 10-year-old Bea, but the story is told by 12-year-old Bea. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
I wanted Bea’s story—the story of the year her father gets remarried—to be told as a story, and I wanted Bea to be the person to tell it. These may feel like obvious choices, but the truth is that when you start a book, nothing is obvious! Those two decisions led to some useful questions: From when is Bea telling the story? I wanted her to be on the other side of the story, but still a child. And what are the important pieces of this story for Bea? Where does this story end for her? Those answers revealed a lot about Bea herself, and about the truth of the story she’s telling.
Bea, like many kids her age, is learning to manage bursts of emotion—her balloons of joy and her sudden anger. Do you remember what it was like to have strong emotions at that age?
Absolutely. Emotional life is the beating heart of my memory of childhood. In fact, I don’t think I can remember anything that isn’t tied to an emotion. Feelings rushed in and out with great power and speed.
Bea sees a therapist, who teaches her methods of coping with her anxiety as it appears throughout the book. Was it important to you to include concrete examples? Why?
The bedrock of Bea’s relationship with [her therapist] Miriam is the idea that strong emotions are human and nothing to feel shame about. Often, Miriam is helping Bea to simply recognize her feelings: her anger may be obvious to her, but the fear behind the anger might be less so. I think many of us have trouble recognizing what we’re feeling, and kids are no exception. The exercises Miriam gives Bea—setting aside time to worry every day, or thinking about where in her body she “feels” her feelings—are reinforcing the idea that feelings are powerful and normal. Feelings are an essential language that we can learn to read.
Food is woven into many relationships in The List of Things: Bea’s father owns a restaurant named after her; Bea’s mom is learning to cook as a way to become independent from Bea’s father; Jesse teaches Bea and her class about oysters; and there is an incident involving a 7 Up cake. What is the significance of food for Bea?
I haven’t actually mapped the “food plot” in this book—I kind of want to do that right now—but I know that I infuse food with meaning. One of my favorite moments in the book is a small one, not officially plot-related, where Bea and a friend share a piece of cake bite by bite, passing it back and forth until it’s just a spitty crumb on a fingertip. This is something I did regularly with one childhood friend. We did it without talking about it, and it indicated something to me about our closeness. Bea, at 10, is longing for closeness, and that’s why this moment is part of the story she chooses to tell at 12. If she were a different person, a spitty piece of cake probably wouldn’t mean much.
Nuanced relationships, both with adults and with other children, play an important part in this book, as they do in your other books. Do you find it easy to write these interactions? Is it important to you to include supportive and present adult characters?
Yes, and yes. I write for middle graders, kids whose lives are still mostly centered around parents and family life. They haven’t yet shoved off from the shore. I’m not inspired by the familiar notion that to tell a good story about kids, you first must dispose of their parents. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy that kind of story. I do. But, so far, when I explore the landscape of a new story, parents always show up.
And, for this book, I had a very specific source of inspiration, which probably isn’t obvious: Vera B. Williams. I once heard her talk about the importance of creating stories where children are well-loved, where they are at the center of their universe. She was talking about More, More, More, Said the Baby. As soon as I heard that, I thought, “I want to write a story like that.” Bea’s life isn’t simple. No kid’s life is simple. But she is so well-loved, so protected, that one early reader told me it really got on her nerves. That love has formed Bea, even while it has failed to give her everything she wants.
Your previous solo book, Goodbye Stranger, came out about four and a half years ago. Have you been working on The List of Things since then?
Believe it or not, yes.
With the exceptions of Bob and First Light, all your books have an urban setting. What draws you to write about that environment?
It’s where I’ve spent my life. I’m a “collector” type of writer—my work is much stronger when I start with pieces I recognize.
Your two most recent solo books are for older middle-grade readers. What draws you to this audience? Do you have any interest in writing for older or younger readers?
In my mind, The List of Things That Will Not Change is for kids a bit younger than readers of Goodbye Stranger and Liar & Spy. The territory is younger, I think. Bea, as I’ve just mentioned, is sheltered, and allowed to be younger than many of her peers. And yes! I am interested in writing for younger kids. I’d love to write picture books. So far, I’m not drawn to YA.
Bob was cowritten with Wendy Mass. How was the transition back into writing on your own after that experience?
Bob was a secret project for years and years, and it sort of ran alongside our solo writing projects, so there was no transition necessary. Writing “pen pal” style, trading chapters, uses a different part of the writing brain. It was a joyful experiment. Writing my own novels is a deeper, murkier experience, with all the good and bad that comes with depth and murk. I can’t always see where I’m going, but I’m always hoping that there is a purpose to getting lost.
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead. Random/Lamb, $16.99 Apr. 7 ISBN 978-1-101-938096