Background: It's a bit unnecessary to review the book that won the Newbery Award last week, isn't it? I mean, we all know that it's well-written, right? Most libraries, and many individuals, are going to buy it, no matter what I say about it. And yet, I feel compelled to say a few words.
Review: Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me is a book for middle grade and middle school readers. It's a book that defies further categorization by genre. It's a mix of realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction, and mystery. Although it has a female protagonist, it's quite boy-friendly, too. But none of those categorization questions matter in the slightest. Because, simply put, When You Reach Me is a wonderful read, well-written, intriguing, and insightful.
Set in 1978-1979, When You Reach Me has a bit of an old-fashioned feel, reminiscent of books that I read in elementary school. But Stead manages, I think, to strike a good balance with the historical references. She uses enough to give a flavor for the time period (latch-key kids and Afterschool Specials), but not so much as to alienate new readers, or to feel contrived. And it's clear that Stead's choice of time frame wasn't lazy (as I've occasionally encountered, when an author finds it easier to describe the setting of his or her own childhood, rather than learning details about today's kids). I read in an interview that Stead chose this time period because she wanted to give her young protagonist a greater degree of freedom than most kids have today. This seems quite reasonable to me.
When You Reach Me is about Miranda, a sixth grader who lives in a New York City apartment with her single mother. Miranda receives a series of mysterious notes, notes that appear to foretell the future and that ask for her help. Miranda's quest to solve the mystery of the notes is set against her struggles with a rival at school, her sadness over her friend Sal's withdrawal from her, her interactions with a new friend, and with two boys, and her mother's preparation to be on The $20,000 Pyramid.
Miranda is a great character. She's selfish sometimes, but grows throughout the book. She knows when she's not doing the right thing. She's close to her mother, and doesn't miss the father she never knew. She likes to read, but she has one book (A Wrinkle in Time) that she reads over and over again. She's intelligent, but knows that she's not one of the smart kids in her class. She's eminently relatable for kids. The other characters in the book are quite three-dimensional, too, from Miranda's mother, who is unhappy in her work, to Miranda's rival, Julia, who is more vulnerable than she first appears.
I think that When You Reach Me also strikes a nice balance between action and introspection. The plot keeps readers guessing, and eagerly turning the pages for more clues, while certain passages will make them stop and think. Like these:
"Mom says that each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.
But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there's a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again." (Page 71)
"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 things you would normally have done, are like ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to." (Page 144)
What I like about these passages, especially the second one, is that they're insightful, but still written as a kid would write them. I think that this writing style is deceptively simple, and is a big part of what makes this book accessible to kids. Miranda is a real 12-year old. She just happens to be one who thinks about how time travel works, and is floored when she confronts racism in someone she thought she liked. (Miranda is white, but Julia is described as having light brown skin and dark brown eyes, one of ten kids in Miranda's second-grade class expected to use brown construction paper for self-portraits).
In short, I give two thumbs up to the selection from this year's Newbery committee. When You Reach Me has it all. I'm glad to know that it's destined to be widely read. I do echo Susan Kusel's recommendation to me, that enjoyment of When You Reach Me will be enhanced for new readers by reading (or re-reading) A Wrinkle in Time first. Don't miss this one.
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
Publication Date: July 14, 2009
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Too many to list. The first one that I recall was from Betsy at A Fuse #8 Production.
© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).