When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

11th March 2010

If you have not read this book and are at all worried about the future of children’s literature, run – don’t walk – to buy this book.

WAAAAAIT! Oh, you weren’t running? Ok – call me dramatic. You also need to pick up A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, one of my top reads of all time. Can you enjoy When You Reach Me without having read AWIT? I’m sure you can, but why not just give both a read? It will make the experience much more pleasurable.

Miranda, the 6th-grade narrator, is a latchkey kid in the 70s in New York City and its subsequent adventures, dangers, and homeless men on corners. She lives with her single mom who had hoped to finish law school but instead works as a paralegal-cum-secretary-cum-catchall with her boyfriend Richard, a charming attorney who doesn’t have a key to their apartment but inserts himself into Miranda and her mom’s life. Her mom is gearing up to be on $20,000 pyramid with Dick Clark, and Miranda and Richard train with her nightly, communicating in 7-word spurts. Miranda is best friends with Sal, who lives downstairs, until one day Sal is inexplicably punched in the stomach by another boy Markus, who appears to simply want to see a reaction. After that day, Sal avoids Miranda, and Markus notices Miranda’s fixation on A Wrinkle in Time (she carries her dog-eared copy with her wherever she goes), having several discussions with her on time travel.

The book is about the dailiness of middle school until Miranda begins to receive notes, the first saying:

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.

Miranda, although young, has been schooled by her mother in the dangers of NYC, and on receiving this note, she is “freaked.” They change the locks and look to see if anything has been stolen. As the notes keep coming, though, Miranda begins to believe that the notes are for her and that they have a monumental purpose.

On one hand, this is a novel of a 6th grader, striking out on her own and making friends after her best friend deserts her. She befriends Annemarie and Colin, after Annemarie and her former best friend, Julia, fight. Miranda doesn’t like Julia but doesn’t ever really know why. She is making her way in the world of emerging communication across the sexes, attempting to figure out her own feelings and hurts. She says after a spat with her friend Annemarie:

I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.

and then after befriending someone in need of help:

Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the thing you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to…. I wasn’t one of the girls who tortured her on purpose, but I had never lifted a finger to help her before, or even spent one minute being nice to her.

This is a strange new world for Miranda, thinking about her own feelings and the feelings of others. She is selfish at times, but in the way a child is selfish because her world doesn’t reach beyond herself. She doesn’t think of race, gender, age, class until situations pop up in the book forcing her to look at them.

Now, I’ve thought long and hard about how to discuss this book because there is one key element that is so important and that unless you are fully prepared for it, will throw you. So I will say: don’t forget the A Wrinkle in Time element. It’s important – vastly. Read closely and carefully. Otherwise, you may miss something that will make you want to read this book again and maybe even, again.

  • Sommer

    Can’t wait to read!

  • I haven’t read A Wrinkle in Time but want to read this. Is it necessary? I’m afraid I didn’t read through your post but will get back to it after because I like to know nothing about a book before I read. 🙂

    • I don’t think it’s necessary. I do think it would enhance the reading experience because it is deeply entwined in the story. And no worries – I don’t give anything major away. Sometimes I like to know a little bit about a book before I get started.

      • Thanks for the tip. I will read A Wrinkle in Time then, before digging into this. For the fun of it!

        • It really is great. There were moments when it seemed written for a child, but for the most part, it’s just great. I hope you enjoy both.

  • This book made me (1) want to read AWIT again; (2) wonder if I should read more than 1 young adult book in 10 years (aside from Harry Potter), and (3) look forward to the day when my kids get to read this book and talk about it with me. Some great lessons for the young and old. I reviewed it here: http://broccolirob.wordpress.com/2010/03/21/book-when-you-reach-me/

    • Rob –

      I know. I try to read it every couple of years. And yes, you should try some more YA. I’m picky about it though (wow, this is beginning to sound ridiculous). I don’t like all the crazy sci-fi vampire stuff, but I do enjoy really well written stuff. I will definitely check out your review. Thanks!

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