When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, 199 pp, RL 4
2009 Newbery Winner (and personal favorite of mine)
WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead
is NOW IN PAPERBACK!!!
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is the kind of book that, when you finish it - and you have dabbed a few tears from your eyes - you eagerly shove it into the nearest literate hands you can find so that you will then have someone to discuss its intricacies and brilliancies with. Sadly, for me, my nearest readers were otherwise engaged, but I found some great reviews by other bloggers that have helped me shape my ideas and figure out how to talk about this special, unique new book. And, best of all, the review in the New York Times Summer Reading Chronicle from August 13, 2009 answered the most important question of all when it comes to a kid's book. As a teacher, Monica Edinger, who wrote the review, touched briefly on the more pertinent and remarkable aspects of this book then provided this crucial insight, "My fourth grader students became obsessed detectives when I read this book to them. When I reached the end, when they saw just how everything fitted together, they were completely and utterly delighted." I envy Edinger the opportunity to test out new books in a more scientific setting than I am privy to, but am so grateful to know that a group of kids loved this book as much as I did!
Miranda, the narrator, is twelve years old and lives in New York City with her mother. It is 1979 and her mother, a frustrated law school drop-out, has been trying for three years to win a spot as a contestant on the game show The $20,000 Pyramid hosted by Dick Clark. When the book opens, she has finally gotten the chance to be on the show and Miranda and Richard, her mother's boyfriend, are helping her practice for her big day. Having been almost the same age as Miranda in 1979, I have distinct memories of The $20,000 Pyramid and the B-list celebrities contestants were paired with, some of whom were, as Miranda's mother says, "dumb as a bag of hair." Miranda does a good job describing the rules of the show and Stead includes a few scenes in which Richard and Miranda play through a practice round so that readers unfamiliar with the show should have a pretty good grasp of how it works. This is important because almost all of the chapters in When You Reach Me are titled like categories from the game show. Titles like, "Things You Beg For," "Things You Protect," "White Things," and "Things to Wish For," had me flipping back to the start of a chapter to re-read the titles and see how they fit into the plot. I love this aspect of the book which, along with other vivid details, concise dialogue and complex characters who slowly unfold like the plot, make this relatively short book feel much longer and leave a much deeper impression than one would expect. This is the kind of book you will be replaying in your head over and over agian for weeks after reading.
Throughout the book Miranda is addressing an unnamed someone who is leaving her notes, one of which includes the line, "I am coming to save your friends's life, and my own." This person has asked her to write a letter telling about everything that happened to her this past fall and winter in as much photographic, linear detail as possible. How Miranda receives this request, what lives will be saved and who it is leaving the notes make up the mystery elements of this book. Why the request is made makes up another element of the book that could be categorized as science fiction. Clues to the answer to the "why" include Miranda's almost obsessive love of A Wrinkle in Time, a personalized signed copy ("Tesser well - Madeleine L'Engle" - how cool is that?) of which Richard gives her for Christmas, replacing her very worn paperback. I suspect that, in the future, certain readers might carry around When You Reach Me, reading and re-reading it as Miranda does A Wrinkle in Time. Similarly, in the chapter titled, "Things That Make No Sense," Julia and another character try to explain the nature of time and the possibility of time travel to Miranda. I could say more about these details, but I would not want to deprive any reader the joy of discovering how these elements all fit together on her or his own and I may have already said too much...
The final element of the book, the one that ties all the plot threads together and makes it so remarkable, are the friendships that fall apart and come together in When You Reach Me. As the book begins, Sal, Miranda's closest (and only) friends since infancy, has been punched in the stomach by a boy in their class and coincidentally stopped speaking to Miranda. The absence of Sal opens up her world to Annemarie, longtime best friend of Julia, who is currently ostracizing Annemarie. The circumstantial coming together of Anemarie and Miranda has such a genuine ring to it that it brought back vivid memories of being in the same boat when I was a kid. How their friendship grows to make room for Colin, a hard to read but always entertaining classmate, and a lunchtime job at a local sandwich shop deepens the plot and the friendships while adding a realistic complexity and poignancy to the characters of Annemarie and the left behind Julia. Amazingly, Stead even manages to slip in an instance of racism that takes the kids by surprise and tears apart friendships for a time. This is done so smoothly and covertly that there is no didacticism whatsoever. Kate Coombs, children's book author, educator and blogger over at Book Aunt, helped me to unify my many thoughts and emotions surrounding When You Reach Me with her spot-on review. Coombs hones in on an aspect of the book that makes it universal, meaningful, and important - the way that Rebecca Stead writes about friendship - saying that "It's a book that talks about friendship in a way few books have," and goes on to quote one of the most profound and, as Coombs notes, poetic passages of the book in which Miranda's voice is, as Coombs writes, "clear as the air on a mountaintop:"
When we were too little for school, Sal and I went to day care together at a lady's apartment down the block. She had picked up some carpet samples at a store on Amsterdam Avenue and written the kids' names on the backs. After lunch, she'd pass out these carpet squares and we'd pick our spots on the living room floor for nap time. Sal and I always lined ours up to make a rectangle.
One time, when Sal had a fever and Louisa called in sick to her job and kept him home, the day care lady handed me my carpet square at nap time, and then, a second later, she gave me Sal's, too.
"I know how it is, baby," she said.
And then I lay on her floor not sleeping because Sal wasn't there to press his foot against mine.
This passage illustrates beautifully the connection between Miranda and Sal, while the rest of the book demonstrates the ways in which a connection like this can break abruptly, leaving only a few threads of connective tissue that will grow in new and different ways and, hopefully, re-establish the original connection. I can only think of a handful of children's books that present meaningful relationships between children in such realistic, palatable and profound ways. Wendy Mass, Ellen Potter and Jacqueline Woodson, all masters of this art, come to mind most readily. feathers by Woodson is a wonder, showing the intricacies of becoming old enough to be aware of the lives of your friends and the adults in your life and navigating the emotions and situations that arise from this. Like When You Reach Me, feathers is set in the 1970s and tells its story in a brief number of pages. Wendy Mass' Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, also set in New York City, presents the same deep friendship between a boy and girl growing up together in single parent households. At almost 100 pages longer than Stead's book, Mass manages to layer philosophical ideas amongst Jeremy and Lizzy's search for the missing keys that will unlock the box labeled, "THE MEANING OF LIFE: FOR JEREMY FINK TO OPEN ON HIS 13th BIRTHDAY." Finally, a book that could almost be the older sibling to When You Reach Me is Ellen Potter's SLOB. Just a few pages longer and set in a NYC neighborhood very similar to Miranda's, the book intertwines larger themes of loss and tragedy with familiar ones like friendship, fitting in and standing out. Narrator Owen is pointedly observant, like Miranda, but also heartbreakingly real in his efforts to work through his loss, both through the services of food and science. Anyone who likes Rebecca Stead's new book will find kindred spirits in these other books, as well as a story you will get lost in and not be able to put down until the last page, just like When You Reach Me.
One last note - I am always drawn in (or repelled) by a book's cover and this one caught my eye right away. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of my favorite picture book illustrators (mentioned in my post A Brief List of Excellent Illustrator/Authors) Sophie Blackall is the creative mind behind this work. Blackall is the illustrator of the Ivy and Bean chapter books by Annie Barrows, as well as the magnificent picture book that makes me cry every time I read it, Ruby's Wish written by Shirin Yim Bridges. She has also illustrated Meg Rosoff's Wild Boars picture books. Sophie has a blog where you can check out her alternative cover illustrations that didn't make the cut. I always love a peek into the working minds of artists and authors...