Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me
Written By Rebecca Stead
Recommended Ages: 9-14

Sometimes a new book comes along that you know is going to make a big splash in the world of children's literature. That's how I felt when I finished reading When You Reach Me. From the beginning, it drew me into the world of sixth-grader Miranda. Set in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1979, When You Reach Me introduces us to Miranda in a year where she is dealing with friendships gone awry, new friends, first crushes, the beginnings of race and class awareness and, yes, even a little time travel.

The story is written in first person and the accessible language immediately draws you in. In the first chapter, we learn that Miranda's mom just received a postcard from the television show The $20,000 Pyramid, saying that she had made it as a contestant. Very early on, it is clear that the reason her mom wants to go on the show is because they need the money. The contest provides an interesting backdrop throughout the story, and grounds the setting quite nicely. We learn that her mom is a paralegal who had to drop out of law school when she found out she was pregnant. Miranda's relationship with her mom is deftly depicted, as they move through the pre-teen/mom dance of push and pull.

The beauty of the book is that Miranda's world will feel familiar to fifth, sixth and seventh graders. She is very likeable and real, and the other kids in the book are three-dimensional characters. They are sixth graders, with all the typical middle-school angst going on in their lives. We learn that Miranda's best friend Sal has recently stopped talking to her, after an incident in the street where a random kid punched him. Miranda is sad and confused by his sudden change in behavior. She also develops a crush on a boy in her class, and navigates a best friend triangle with typical pre-teen awkwardness. But where the story really takes off is when Miranda starts receiving notes that look like they come from the future. The first one reads:

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."

So there's a mystery involved and I'm not going to give away any of it. I can't say much more about the plot, because it's more important to let the puzzle unravel itself to you without any clues. Suffice to say, it is compelling and will make you not want to put the book down until you read the very last page. The ending is quite satisfying.

One important thing I forgot to mention is Miranda's complete devotion to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. For kids that have read the story, it will be a comforting sidebar. For kids that haven't, well I suspect they may want to go pick up a copy afterwards. There is talk of time travel, and that in itself is one of the great wonders of the book. I imagine it will make for some fantastic classroom discussions, as kids share their ideas of what is going on. I also think this would be a great book for families to read at home together, since the time--1979--is sure to evoke a lot of childhood memories from parents.

A final note on the setting. I can't imagine When You Reach Me could have been set anywhere else but in New York City in the late 70's. Stead does a fantastic job of making place an integral part of the book. Miranda is a latchkey kid, and friends with shopkeepers and other regulars in her neighborhood. She is street savvy, and walks around very aware of her surroundings. Yes, her mother worries about her out on the street, but still lets her walk to school and other places because that's what kids did in those days. In a way it was sad to remember just how much more freedom kids had then, than they do now.

I'm sure you can tell by now, that I really enjoyed When You Reach Me. There's a lot of buzz that this could be a Newbery winner next year. Whether or not it wins that coveted honor, I think it should be placed on every middle-schooler's suggested reading list.

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