Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me was one of those novels gathering dust on my shelves since 2009, peeking its colorful head out every so often to squawk, “Hey, I’m still here, you know. Unread. Think you’ll get to me any time soon? You’ve read, like, thirty review books this year. And you paid good money for me, you idiot.”
Books can be so rude.
Set in the 1970s, When You Reach Me defies categorization. Its middle-school protagonist Miranda seems to settle it in a middle-grade or young adult fiction camp, but the themes — family; loyalty; friendship; time travel — speak to a diverse audience. As a 27-year-old who hasn’t dealt with bullies or mangled friendships in quite some time, I still found myself intrigued by Miranda’s story and easily relating to the complicated web of school dynamics. And there are these mysterious notes . . .
The time travel aspect was one of the most startling and delightful bits of this unique, fast-paced story. Loosely centered on the friendship between Miranda and best friend Sal, When You Reach Me has a series of odd letters at its heart. Miranda is a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle, devoting her days to reading A Wrinkle In Time (which she refers to only as “her book”), and the reader starts to think all this time-travel business has gone to her head. She’s daydreaming, I thought. Or, She’s hallucinating.
To be honest, I wasn’t always sure of what was going on. But that disjointed nature — that confusion — made the ending all the sweeter.
For young readers, Miranda is the type of heroine we would wish our daughters to emulate. She’s whip-smart, inquisitive, watchful, loyal. She’s fearful of the crazy man on the corner, the one who seems to spend most of his time sleeping beneath a mailbox, and devoted to her mother. Throughout the narrative, Miranda’s single mom is preparing for a stint on a game show — and “The $10,000 Pyramid” is seen as a chance to help elevate their small family beyond their meager circumstances. Though Miranda never speaks of being poor in New York City, there’s a huge gap between she and a classmate, Julia — a gap Miranda constantly acknowledges. She was a sweet kid, I kept thinking — and a caring one. A kid you’d like to have yourself.
So much is happening here: Sal and Miranda’s floundering friendship; the kids’ new “job” working at a deli on their lunch breaks; the friction between Sal and a kid who pummels him on a city street — one who ends up being Marcus, a pivotal character; and the strange notes that keep falling out of Miranda’s possessions, tucked away and packed with private knowledge. As Miranda further explores the concept of time travel with Marcus, the only other kid who doesn’t seem to think her interest is crazy, the pieces come together.
Though the plot is relatively simple, the story has great depth. Three years after purchasing this book, I’d forgotten what inspired me to pick it up — but other readers’ suggestions came flooding back to me as I read. It’s unconventional, surprising, heartwarming, true — all facets of a book I’m happy to call a winner. And when you’re finished, you’ll want to start all over again . . . piecing together the mystery that surprised me from the start.
4 out of 5!