Ever since I found out Rebecca Stead had a new book coming out in 2020 I have been anxiously awaiting its arrival. Published on April 7, 2020 I am thrilled that The List of Things That Will Not Change is everything I expect from Rebecca Stead’s work! It is insightful and tender at the same time it is strident and powerful.
Bea is almost 13 as she tells us this story. She lets us know that she mainly wants to tell us about the events surrounding her dad’s second wedding. In order to put those events into perspective, she needs to backtrack a little. When Bea was 8 her parents told her that her dad was gay and they were getting a divorce. They tell Bea that they still love each other, just “in a different way.” It is at this time that Bea starts having trouble managing her impulsivity–acting out when overcome by big emotions like anxiety, fear, sadness, anger–even joy. Because a lot of things DID change when her parents divorced, they gave her a special notebook that included The List of Things That Will Not Change–starting with their complete love for her. This List and anything she adds to it is intended to help her know which pieces of her life remain steady even as others are shifting unexpectedly. The List does provide some solace and sense of security for Bea and her therapist, Miriam, helps her sort out the things that aren’t on the List.
The way in which Stead connects the events from the divorce to her Bea’s father’s subsequent wedding to Jesse is masterful. She pairs both positive and challenging feelings and events the way they occur in all our lives throughout the story. Bea is allowed to describe and feel her feelings alongside other characters whose role is to help Bea gain insight and learn to develop a nonjudgmental and compassionate tone from which to view her emotions and actions. I think it’s so important for young readers to see their own “mean” thoughts and behaviors mirrored in Bea’s life.
There are appropriate (and realistic) consequences–some intentional and some not–for her choices, but the story helps quiet the unspoken fear that we are “bad” because we have an unkind thought or impulsively make a mistake:
“It’s horrible,” I told her. “I’m horrible. But I pretend I’m not!”
“Bea, you did something hurtful. But you are not horrible.”
Bea perfectly articulates the chaotic confusion that so often comes with big, intense emotions. Feelings are natural and every one of us experiences them, but understanding their role and how to translate those emotions into thoughts and behaviors that are helpful to us is an ongoing struggle for all of us. It can be particularly overwhelming in those middle years as we are transition from child to adolescent to adult. Bea asks the questions, thinks the thoughts and feels the feelings we all have.
I love that Bea is learning to describe her feelings–what they feel like in her body–which is an important tool in identifying what’s going on inside us:
What a feeling feels like: When I get mad, I feel cold. I don’t feel huge, like when I’m happy. It’s more like I’m filling up with something that runs over my edges and rises up behind me like a gigantic pair of bat wings.
Stead pairs things like joy and sadness in the same moment–which we often see reflected in our own lives. Acknowledging the sadness or anger in a moment (or a change) allows us to lean more heavily into the joy of that same event.
My only niggle is that there are some moments where Bea is supposedly 10 years old but seems to be speaking and behaving at a much younger level (around 8 years old). I am unsure if this is intentional to show Bea’s immaturity and build a foundation for some of her impulsivity or not. If it was not an intentional choice by the author, then it annoys me.
One other important aspect of this novel that I particularly like is the role of Bea’s parents. The story focuses on Bea: her thoughts, feelings, etc. but it does not imply that her parents are not going through their own struggles. In fact, it clearly acknowledges that they are. What is brilliant is that Stead has crafted the story in such a way that the parents recognize that their struggles are theirs–and when they are trying to help their daughter the focus is on how to help Bea find her way through her stuff.
This is a fantastic middle-grade read. It is a story that lends itself just as much to sitting quietly and absorbing it as it does to prompting discussions on a variety of topics from self-esteem to tolerance to emotion regulation. The List of Things That Will Not Change is ultimately a story about love: the fact that love expands–never diminishes–our lives. It’s just as much about loving yourself and who you are as it is about loving others. I would use this as a read-aloud at home (I would’ve loved to read it aloud with my own kids when they were in 4th – 6th grade) or as an independent reading choice for middle grade readers. I love Rebecca Stead’s work and this one does not disappoint!