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Middle Grade Monday: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

by ◊ 2 years ago 5 Comments Switch View

Four mysterious letters change Miranda’s world forever.

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.

-cover and description courtesy of goodreads

Atmospheric Analysis: When You Reach Me‘s illustrated cover subtly evokes the dystopian world visited by Meg Murry and company in A Wrinkle in Time, while intermingling elements from this novel’s universe, from Miranda’s New York City skyline to the shoe that becomes integral to the story’s unraveling.

Planetary Class: Can a novel set in the ’70s be considered contemporary? If so, then When Your Reach Me is contemporary speculative fiction. If not, perhaps, a historical take on the same.

Mohs Rating: When You Reach Me comes in at a four on the Mohs scale for its One Big Lie. Interestingly enough, application of this lie forms the novel’s central argument.

Viability Rating: Was New York in the ’70s a viable world? All those kids running around unsupervised! At one point, the children even get a job in a deli. At twelve! I didn’t believe it for a second!

I kid, I kid.

Xenolinguistical Assessment: Miranda’s narration is chatty and natural. There’s also some interesting experimentation in form, from the letter format to the title headings.

Expanded Report: I’m late to the party with Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, winner of a Newbery in 2010 and recipient of widespread acclaim. It certainly deserves its praise; this is an engaging, fascinating middle grade novel, which takes stylistic risks all while celebrating a work of classic children’s science fiction, namely Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

A Wrinkle in Time is twelve-year-old Miranda’s favorite book. She retreats into its pages when her best friend, Sal, decides he doesn’t want to be her friend anymore. So Miranda branches out, befriending a small gaggle of interesting classmates.

There’s the time-traveling obsessed nerd. The secret epileptic. The snooty rich girl. The cute thief. All of these characters are rendered vividly, with realism and with nuance.

When You Reach Me‘s realism is probably its greatest asset. This is a sci-fi novel, sure, but it’s an incredibly grounded sci-fi novel. The little details here make Miranda’s New York City as nuanced as any science fictional landscape. One description, of her mother’s response to their ratty apartment when they first moved in, struck me as particularly true and touching.

This is a novel very much of its time–the time in which it’s set, not the time in which it was written. Miranda’s New York isn’t the New York of today but rather New York in the ’70s. In some ways this is a necessity; the plot very much hinges on Miranda’s identity as a latch-key kid. The wide latitude she and her friends are given (they go out for lunch, and even work in a local deli) would not be believable in modern children, even tough inner city kids like Miranda and Sal.

But the setting also works on another level, self-consciously evoking nostalgia for ’70s children’s literature–not only L’Engle’s works, but also the works of realist children’s writers like Judy Blume, Emily Cheney Neville, and Louise Fitzhugh, among others. If you know anything about the history of children’s fiction, you might know that this was an era with a strong emphasis on emotional honesty. Writers had moved passed the cheerful, “safe” renditions of childhood presented by ’50s writers such as Carolyn Haywood, and instead endeavored to speak to children with a trademarked earnestness and honesty.

Stead’s Miranda successfully recalls the heroes of these books, though her ending was a bit more pat than what you typically find in ’70s kid-lit. It seemed to reflect a feeling of resolution and finality more in keeping with the sensibilities of modern kid readers. Still, it was true to its premises, expanding along fascinating and unexpected SFnal lines.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this is strongest as a nostalgia piece, invoking A Wrinkle in Time while not quite transcending it. Perhaps that’s a tall order, but one of the trademarks of L’Engle’s Kairos books was their timelessness. While, like other authors of her generation, L’Engle’s children (though precocious) were emotionally true, they also seemed to exist in a universe unfettered by linear time. As Miranda says, “The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven” (8). Meg’s world was one without generational markers, which is, in part, what gave it such long legs.

Will When You Reach Me have the same staying power, the same potential to speak to middle schoolers fifty years from now? I’m not entirely sure. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great middle grade novel, a fun beginner’s exploration of certain physical concepts, a stirring mystery, and a strangely beautiful commentary on the power of friendship. But it dates itself, quite self-consciously, by embracing a story of yesterday’s children . While I don’t doubt that this will be a comforting book, familiar but still fresh, for many adult readers, I do feel that L’Engle’s mantle still remains unclaimed.

When You Reach Me is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local indie bookstore.

About the Author

Phoebe

Phoebe North is a twenty-something writer of YA speculative fiction. She lives in New York State with her husband and cat (who may be the most intelligent being in her household). Visit her website at phoebenorth.com. View all posts by Phoebe »

Discussion - 5 Comments:

  1. I’m not clear on what aspect makes it science fiction?

    Reply Quote

    • Phoebe

      It’s a pretty significant spoiler. Trust me, though, it is definitely SF. :)

      Reply Quote

  2. I was writing this super-long comment about how much it bugs me when stories are set in the past for no reason other than nostalgia, but I just deleted all of it because, though I’m not convinced the book’s 70s setting is essential to its narrative, I really like this book a lot and my comment seemed really negative. Also it made me sound like such a humorless blowhard, oh my god.

    Anyway, since this is SF site, all I’ll point out is that the 70s setting strains the credulity of the SF aspect of the plot: there’s some pretty high tech stuff in the book, and we know that it arrives within the children’s lifetime. But since we know they were kids in the 70s, the characters have to be in their late 40s or early 50s today and that tech is nowhere close to being around. A minor quibble, especially seeing that the technology we’re talking about is thought to be outright impossible according to our current understanding of how physics works, but it’s worth mentioning.

    But, yes…this is a fantastic middle grades book, and I wish more authors were experimenting with the form like this.

    Reply Quote

    • Phoebe

      Ooh, I hadn’t thought about that rather obvious continuity error (though part of me wonders if that might have been in some way intentional, since the SF aspects are introduced via discussion of continuity error in A Wrinkle in Time). It’s interesting–I had a conversation on GR with another reader who insists this book will be a timeless classic of historical children’s literature. But the fact is, it doesn’t feel historical. The setting is treated matter-of-factly, and it feels clear to me that the author sees this time period as a sort of default sphere of reference (likely, considering her age). I’ve seen modern readers struggle even with Judy Blume’s books for historical aspects, and I wonder if the same might some day happen here Even though, again, it’s a wonderful book.

      Reply Quote

  3. I like the format of your reviews, particularly the Mohs rating. Perhaps because I grew up in the 70′, I really enjoyed that aspect of this book. Found the specifics about the time travel confusing, tho’ maybe I’m just simple minded.

    Reply Quote

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