M,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.
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.
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.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
He pointed at my book. “Time travel. Some people think it’s possible. Except those ladies lied, at the beginning of the book.”
“Those ladies in the book—Mrs. What, Mrs. Where, and Mrs. Who.”
“Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which,” I corrected him.
“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.
(Have I missed yours?)
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.