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Amid Family Upheaval, a Heroine Finds Comfort in the Concrete

On the surface, Rebecca Stead’s THE LIST OF THINGS THAT WILL NOT CHANGE (Wendy Lamb Books, 224 pp., $16.99; ages 8 to 12) is a book about complicated circumstances.

Bea’s parents separated when she was 8, so now she splits her time between two apartments in New York City. Her father has fallen in love with a warm and wonderful man, and they’re planning a wedding, which means that Bea will be getting not only a stepdad, but also a sister.

On top of that, Bea is a kid who struggles with both eczema (a major annoyance) and anxiety, for which she regularly sees a therapist.

There’s a lot going on in her young life, and so her parents have given her a notebook in which to record the things she can rely on: the list of Things That Will Not Change.

In the hands of many authors, this would be a book about issues, but that isn’t the case here, as Stead — the Newbery Medal-winning author of “When You Reach Me” — centers the reader’s attention not on big topics but on daily moments.

Through Bea’s thoughtful gaze and matter-of-fact voice, we encounter a world of concrete details.

From the chipped yellow bowl Bea’s mother used for tomato salad before she stopped coming to the lake house to two beds pushed together at a sleepover with a crack in between them, we experience Bea’s frustrations, confusions and joys anchored in the physical world around her.

These details shine and echo from page to page, vividly conjuring up what it really feels like to be a kid.

There is no decoration here, no poetic embellishment. Rather, the book is a fabric woven of exactly the right threads.

Nor does Stead moralize or diagnose. In a scene in which she is talking to her therapist about an outburst, Bea explains: “When I saw that candy flying everywhere, it was like fireworks were going off inside me, but there were two kinds of fireworks — one kind felt really bad, like I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing, but the other kind felt good. Like I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing.”

As Bea works to understand and control her instincts, Stead honors the fullness of what it means to be an adolescent.

We identify with Bea deeply. Even when her choices result in pain and challenge for the family she loves, there is no judgment.

In an impromptu speech at the wedding reception, her father says, “I don’t know why good days are sometimes also difficult days, but this is a good, difficult day for our family, and I’m grateful to every person here for sharing both parts of it with us.”

Disaster has not been entirely averted, but neither has joy.

Similarly, while Bea tells her story in the past tense, there are layers to that past, and to her memory of it.

Though she’s been undergoing massive change for several years, many of the events in her life are recent, so she’s caught in a liminal moment, between the things she has learned and outgrown and the things with which she is still grappling.

There’s a human fallibility to Bea’s wisdom, making her all the more believable.

In the opening pages of “The List of Things That Will Not Change,” Bea tells us a story her father recently shared with her about his early life with his brother: “They grew up in Minnesota, across from a cornfield where, every summer, the corn grew very quickly. Dad says the corn had no choice, because summers are short in Minnesota. It was either grow fast or don’t bother.”

The same can be said for Bea. In a world of complicated circumstances, Bea is growing very quickly — changing and adapting. She ends the book differently than she began it. Yet her essential self remains constant throughout.

After all, as the title tells us, some things do not change. The things that matter most are there all along.

An undeniable truth, in an undeniably beautiful book.

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