Mar 1, 2012

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

M,
This is hard. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life and my own.
I ask two favors.
First, you must write me a letter.
Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key.
The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you.
Rebecca Stead’s Newbery winning novel When You Reach Me tells the story of twelve-year-old Miranda, who lives with her mother in the Upper West Side in New York in 1979. The novel is narrated by Miranda herself, who soon tells us she’s writing it as a letter to an unknown recipient, for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses. Miranda writes about her mother’s preparations for the $20,000 Pyramid game show, about falling out with her best friend Sal, about her obsession with A Wrinkle in Time, about the appearance of the mysterious Laughing Man who stands on a street corner near her house, and about the strange notes she’s been receiving from someone who seems to know all about her future.

When You Reach Me successfully combines elements of realistic fiction, science fiction, and mystery. The speculative elements are intelligent, carefully thought out, and seamlessly integrated with the rest of the plot; still, what really made the novel for me was the characterisation, the intricate portrayal of Miranda’s relationships with her family and friends, and the everyday details of a young girl’s life in 1979 New York.

The growing distance between Miranda and Sal is at the centre of When You Reach Me: Miranda tells us that the riff began when one day another boy punched Sal out of nowhere, but even before we hear Sal’s side of the story there are hints that there might be things she’s oblivious to. Being apart from Sal forces Miranda to make new friends at school – she reaches out to Annemarie, another girl in her class, to Colin, and even eventually to Julia, a rich girl Miranda always thought of as stuck-up. What Miranda eventually realises is that friendships grow in the sharing; that expecting her best friend to be everything to her and herself to be the only person he has will not bring them closer, but rather hinder the bond they share.

When You Reach Me gets bonus cool points from presenting a close friendship between a boy and a girl with no hints of romance whatsoever. I can’t repeat enough times that I don’t think there’s anything at all wrong with romance and that I love a good love story, but this is still something I’d like to see more of in children’s and YA literature.

One of my favourite moments in the novel is when Miranda witnesses Jimmy, the owner of the diner where she and her new friends Annemarie and Colin help out during their lunch break, make racist comments about their classmate Julia, whom she perceives as a rival for Annemarie’s friendship. Miranda quickly realises she had previously aligned herself with Jimmy’s racism by being so pleased that he disliked Julia and wanted her gone from the diner, even if her motivations were jealously rather than bigotry. The scene is incredibly well-written: Miranda is horrified she has tacitly condoned Jimmy’s racism and worried about what her friends will think of her, but nonetheless she manages not to make it all about her. This episode also has the effect of breaking the comfortable nostalgia that could otherwise permeate this novel: the reader is immediately reminded that looking at the past as a golden age can have the effect of erasing the experiences of people whose lives would have been palpably different only a few generations ago.

The science fiction elements of When You Reach Me become more obvious towards the end of the novel, as do all the ways in which Rebecca Stead is paying tribute to Madeleine L’Engle. The story is written with amazing attention to detail: the fact that even the smallest, most seemingly random element turns out to be a crucial piece of the puzzle makes for a very satisfying read.

Bits I liked:
“Some people think it’s possible, you know,” Marcus mumbled.
“What?”
He pointed at my book. “Time travel. Some people think it’s possible. Except those ladies lied, at the beginning of the book.”
“What?”
“Those ladies in the book—Mrs. What, Mrs. Where, and Mrs. Who.”
“Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which,” I corrected him.
He shrugged.
“What do you mean, they lied? They never lied.” I was getting annoyed. The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book. It’s like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.

Once a month, Mom takes the subway down to this actual jail and talks to criminal pregnant women about what to expect after they have their babies. They all think she’s some kind of saint for bringing
them potato chips and animal cookies. Mom says that jail is a hard place, and that it can make people hard, too.
“It changes them,” she told me once. “Jail stops them from becoming who they might grow to be.”
“Isn’t that the whole idea?” I asked. “It’s supposed to stop them from being criminals!”
She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. A lot of people make bad mistakes. But being in jail can make them feel like a mistake is all they are. Like they aren’t even people anymore.”
Her bringing the chips and cookies is supposed to help somehow. It’s not really the cookies, she says. It’s the fact that someone brings them.
They read it too: The Avid Reader’s Musings, Books & Other Thoughts, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Rhapsody in Books, Fluttering Butterflies, Ready When You Are, CB, Becky’s Book Reviews, A Book a Week, intoyourlungs, Wordy Evidence of the Fact

(Have I missed yours?)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

22 comments:

  1. Oohh I loved this one when I read it. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I think it's a really well-done novel and one I wish more people would read.

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  2. Yep, what you said. :) I liked this a lot, despite the fact that it was quite different from what I expected given its "fantasy" label. Glad you enjoyed it too!

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  3. You mentioned the boy/girl friendship with no romantic bits. I really liked that too. My best friends growing up were almost all boys and I could never seem to find books with similar friendship that didn't end with one person falling in love. I also thought it was interesting that the sci-fi elements aren't really in it until the very end. I thought that worked really well in this case. So glad you liked it!

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  4. I remember when this book first came out, it pretty much exploded all over the book blogosophere, which of course made me skip nearly all the posts on it. But your review made me pause and I'm so glad I read it because this really does sound like a charming book. It really sounds like Stead hits that nice balance of heavy and light here, and really, any book that features a heroine who is passionate about books sounds eminently delightful to me!

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  5. I can't believe I still haven't read this, but your review makes me really really want to. Great thoughts!

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  6. Yea! I really loved this novel. It reminded me so much of novels from my youth, that as you mention, don't always have romance. Plus, I loved that while she pays homage to A Wrinkle in Time, it isn't an exact copy.

    Yesterday I finished The Lantern, which was supposedly inspired by Rebecca, and it was so close that I was annoyed pretty much the whole time.

    This book, though, I really enjoyed. It's one I'm glad to own.

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  7. As I mentioned on twitter, it was one of my favorites of 2011. I liked how it all came together at the end, just like a children's version of the wonderful A Prayer for Owen Meany.

    I agree with your, the sci-fi part wasn't the most important. Actually, if Stead had found another excuse for the letters, the book would still be wonderful without the sci-fi.

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  8. This sounds wonderful! I'm always on the lookout for more platonic friendships in YA, too. Romance brings me great joy, but I want to see more stories that acknowlege that it isn't the only option.

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  9. Sheesh, do I feel out of it...I've never even heard of this book! And it sounds so freakin' wonderful!!! Even if nothing else in your whole review would have convinced me (which of course, it already had), that last passage would have sold me hook, line, and sinker!

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  10. I read this on a bit of a whim during the summer because I needed to pick something up to tide me over for a long bus ride. This one interested me because it won the Newberry and got a great review on The Book Smugglers and I ended up enjoying it immensely. Here's my review. :D

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  11. I don't read a lot of science fiction but do enjoy some science fiction elements from time to time. I really want to read this one!

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  12. I really enjoyed this book. I read it as part of The Classic Double Challenge along with Wrinkle In Time.

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  13. I really enjoyed this book and glad you did too. When You Reach Me is a perfect match for A Wrinkle in Time.

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  14. God I do NOT EVEN UNDERSTAND people who don't want people to read the books they love. I have seen this sentiment expressed so many places and it is utterly foreign to me. Why would you NOT want people to like the same books you love? If you like the people, then yay! You can have a pleasant conversation about that book!, and if you don't like them, then hooray, now you and they have something in common you can talk about.

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  15. This sounds like a very mysterious and smart book!

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  16. Lu: Me too! It's not that often that I pause to admire how a book is crafted, but I really did in this case.

    Kiirstin: I think reviews like yours helped me adjust my expectations. Definitely not very fantastic, but great all the same.

    Melissa: It's such a pity stories about friendships like this aren't more common, isn't it?

    Anon: Yes, I really thought she did. I hope you enjoy the book if you decide to pick it up :) (Is this Heather/Zibilee having trouble signing in by any chance? If not I apologise, but it just sounded like her :P)

    Amy: I think you'll like it a lot :)

    picky girl: I loved that too - it's a tribute, not an appropriation.

    Alex: Can you believe I still haven't read that?

    Memory: That would be a great topic for a themed reading list. There have to be more out there!

    Debi: It was popular for a brief spell after it own the Newbery, but it doesn't seem to get reviewed a lot anymore, which is a pity. It really is a great story :)

    Michelle: Sorry I missed your review! Will add it in a minute. So glad you enjoyed it too!

    Kathy: I think this will definitely appeal to non sci-fi fans.

    Sara Kovach: A wonderful combination! The reason why I finally picked it up now was exactly because I'd re-read A Wrinkle in Time.

    Vasilly: Yes it is!

    Jenny: I once started to draft a post about this, but it never really came together and so I gave up. I don't ever *really* want other people not to read a book - not even a book I hated, let alone one I loved. If I recommend my favourite book to someone and they hate it, at least I'll have learned something about their taste. So yes, I agree with you. But at the same time, I can relate to being young, feeling isolated, seeing books as your main refuge, and therefore being childishly and selfishly protective of them. I had a lot of problems with bullying in middle school, and this one time a girl who was horrible to me on a daily basis saw me with a book and mockingly quoted what the bullies in the story says to the protagonist at me. At that point most of her daily taunts just completely bounced off me, but this one thing, from the book I was using to escape a miserable school existence, really, really hurt me. I mean, even then I completely realised that my favourite books weren't mine alone, and that bullies were not bullies 24 hours a day and actually spent most of their time being ordinary girls who read and may even have things in common with me. But to have this thing that was so precious to me, so crucial to my daily survival, used against me just crushed me. I guess this is why I could relate to Miranda (and to Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, who says something similar): it's silly and irrational, but sometimes you desperately want a book to be yours alone. Argh, sorry that this is so long. There you have it: the overly dramatic post I never wrote in a nutshell :P

    Tasha: I really thought it was :) It's easy to figure out the solution to the mystery before Miranda, but that doesn't detract from it in the least.

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  17. Based on what you have said about it, and the quotes peppered throughout your review, I am thinking that I really need to read this book. I have read some very positive reviews on it, but your was by far the most intricate and developed, and now I need to find it!

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  18. This book reminded me of A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY -- the belief that a person is made for a specific task and that personal sacrifice can serve the better good.

    As the only American kid to dislike A WRINKLE IN TIME, Rebecca Stead has even nudged me toward giving it a second chance. With the 50th anniversary of WRINKLE this year, maybe it's time!

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  19. Great review! :) I've read this one 1 or 2 years ago and I really liked it! Even though it's YA, it does not have a simple story, and I love books that give you pieces in a puzzle and manage to put then all together in the end. After reading this one, I went straight to re-read A Wrinkle in Time,

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  20. Great review! I love this book so much—and I, too, especially like that it's a story with a boy/girl friendship that is portrayed as being just . . . you know, a friendship.

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  21. I, too, loved this one for many of the same reasons you mention here. I agree also with your point about feeling protective of books and of my experiences with certain characters and stories. There is an intimacy to our reading sometimes, and like Miranda, I don't often want someone looking over my shoulder during an intimate situation. Here's my post: http://wordyevidenceofthefact.blogspot.com/2010/10/i-heart-newbery-medals.html

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  22. I liked this one, but didn't love it, I was expecting something different - I picked it up because someone described it as The Time Traveller's Wife in YA. I wish I didn't have that expectation, I don't think I aprreciated the detail as much as I should have.

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