Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

Oh my goodness. My students were not kidding around when they recommended this one. When I asked them what we should do for a read-aloud together, several very eagerly recommended When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. What intrigued me was that they couldn't quite peg it as a particular genre. ("It's kind of realistic fiction...but also a fantasy...or sci-fi, maybe? But with mystery too--and it takes place in New York!") Any novel so clearly forging its own genre-path seemed worth a look. I vetoed it as a read-aloud (so many of the kids had already read it), but I made a mental note to check it out. It took me a while, but I finally got around to tracking it down at the bookstore. That was two days ago. Within 48 hours, I had read the book and--voila!--started this blog. (When a book causes you to inadvertently burst aloud, "This is AWE-some!" on a crowded subway car, well, you've just got to share it with people.)

My reading life was probably at its most passionate from the ages of 9-13, and this is a big part of why I love teaching what I do (6th grade Reading, Writing and Social Studies). During those years, I devoured books. Packing for summer camp was always a challenge because it involved an impossibly-heavy duffel bag of books, not one of which, I assured my mom, I could do without. Don't get me wrong, I was a reader through high school and college and continue to be, but there was nothing like the way I completely lost myself in the worlds of the books I read at that age. And even now, as a teacher, I am not nearly as well-versed in middle-grade literature (the teacher-y term we use for books aimed at this age-group) as I would like to be--especially the more recent additions.

Well, When You Reach Me has completely snapped me out of it! I was instantly sucked into this book and I cannot wait to explore more of what has been going on in the last decade of middle-grade reading (and go back and revisit some of my long-lost pals--The Giver, Bridge to Terabithia, Tuck Everlasting--sigh). BUT--don't let me get ahead of myself. Let's talk about When You Reach Me...

The book begins with eleven-year-old Miranda, speaking to a mysterious "you." This "you" has apparently instructed her (through an anonymous note) to write a letter that explains "what happened." This request has Miranda totally perplexed and more and more freaked-out with each event of the book. As the plot unfolds, Miranda realizes that the mysterious note-writer knows things that should be impossible to know. Is she being watched? Is she in danger? Who is leaving these strange notes?

But to make When You Reach Me sound like another thriller or mystery is just too simple. The real beauty of this novel was in the characters. Miranda is so real and likable. She is street-smart and vulnerable at the same time. The novel takes place in New York City (the upper west side) in the late 1970's, but it could easily take place today. In fact, Miranda reminded me constantly of many of my own city-kid students. She's so clever and independent, but, at the same time, loving and sensitive to the feelings of others (in spite of herself, at times). Still stinging from the sudden and confusing end of a deeply close friendship, there were so many moments when my heart hurt for her as she tried to regain her balance and move forward, making new friends, navigating the city and, all the while, trying to figure out those creepy notes. You can't help but like Miranda, and so you end up completely sucked into the mystery, trying to solve it with her.

This book pretty much has it all. It has a mind-boggling mystery, quirky characters, ongoing allusions to the classic A Wrinkle in Time, the heartache and excitement of moving from childhood to adolescence, a pretty fun throwback to the 1970's game show The $20,000 Pyramid, and beautiful moments that crack you wide open and feel like a flashlight landing on the heart of things. Here is one of the loveliest:

"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 have normally done, are like these ghosts everyone can see and pretends not to."
(p. 144)

Miranda has a wisdom that sneaks up and surprises you at the unlikeliest of moments. So (in case you couldn't tell), I highly recommend When You Reach Me. It's a workout for the brain and the heart.

Release date: July, 2009
Newbery Medal Winner, 2010

Things to think about as you read When You Reach Me:
-Setting (both time and place)

You might also like...
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

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