In this era of supersize children's books, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me looks positively svelte. But don't be deceived: In this taut novel, every word, every sentence, has meaning and substance. A hybrid of genres, it is a complex mystery, a work of historical fiction, a school story and one of friendship, with a leitmotif of time travel running through it. Most of all the novel is a thrilling puzzle. Stead piles up clues on the way to a moment of intense drama, after which it is pretty much impossible to stop reading until the last page.
The New York Times
Like A Wrinkle in Time (Miranda's favorite book), When You Reach Me far surpasses the usual whodunit or sci-fi adventure to become an incandescent exploration of "life, death, and the beauty of it all." Look in vain for cheesy time-travel machines and rock-'em-sock-'em action. Instead, the believable characters and unexpected ending invite readers to ponder the extraordinary that underlies the ordinary in this fictional world and in their own.
The Washington Post
Twelve-year-old Miranda, a latchkey kid whose single mother is a law school dropout, narrates this complex novel, a work of science fiction grounded in the nitty-gritty of Manhattan life in the late 1970s. Miranda’s story is set in motion by the appearance of cryptic notes that suggest that someone is watching her and that they know things about her life that have not yet happened. She’s especially freaked out by one that reads: “I’m coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” Over the course of her sixth-grade year, Miranda details three distinct plot threads: her mother’s upcoming appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid; the sudden rupture of Miranda’s lifelong friendship with neighbor Sal; and the unsettling appearance of a deranged homeless person dubbed “the laughing man.” Eventually and improbably, these strands converge to form a thought-provoking whole. Stead (First Light) accomplishes this by making every detail count, including Miranda’s name, her hobby of knot tying and her favorite book, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s easy to imagine readers studying Miranda’s story as many times as she’s read L’Engle’s, and spending hours pondering the provocative questions it raises. Ages 9–14. (July)
Children's Literature - Uma Krishnaswami
Charmingly eccentric and impossible to categorize, this middle grade novel pays homage to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time while employing many of that book's elements as it crisscrosses the boundaries between reality and fantasy, time travel and mystery. Three distinct storylines give the novel momentum: Miranda's mother's forthcoming contestant role on "The $20,000 Pyramid" game show, Miranda's friend Sal being punched by the erudite yet seemingly socially inept Marcus, and the homeless man whom Miranda and her friends dub "the laughing man." A host of secondary characters play significant roles as well. Stead completely nails both the endearing optimism of her pre-teen characters and their earnest attempts to make meaning of the world while achieving the perfect V-cut. The game show subplot is reflected in the book's chapter headings (e.g., "The Winner's Circle," "Things That Fall Apart," "Things You Realize"). The author plays with the construct of time throughout the novel, using letters that foretell the future, manipulating tense, and framing the entire novel as a second-person narrative in which Miranda is addressing the writer of the letters. If the text feels packed, it isand nothing is wasted. The movement between the ordinary and the fantastic creates a kind of magical realism, in which the extraordinary is every bit as acceptable as the everyday. Amusing, bemusing and occasionally plain puzzling, this book works its way to a deliciously twisty ending. It is an interesting, multi-layered book that can be read and interpreted at many levels. Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8–Sixth-grader Miranda lives in 1978 New York City with her mother, and her life compass is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. When she receives a series of enigmatic notes that claim to want to save her life, she comes to believe that they are from someone who knows the future. Miranda spends considerable time observing a raving vagrant who her mother calls “the laughing man” and trying to find the connection between the notes and her everyday life. Discerning readers will realize the ties between Miranda’s mystery and L’Engle’s plot, but will enjoy hints of fantasy and descriptions of middle school dynamics. Stead’s novel is as much about character as story. Miranda’s voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation. The story builds slowly, emerging naturally from a sturdy premise. As Miranda reminisces, the time sequencing is somewhat challenging, but in an intriguing way. The setting is consistently strong. The stores and even the streets–in Miranda’s neighborhood act as physical entities and impact the plot in tangible ways. This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers.–Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT
When Miranda's best friend Sal gets punched by a strange kid, he abruptly stops speaking to her; then oddly prescient letters start arriving. They ask for her help, saying, "I'm coming to save your friend's life, and my own." Readers will immediately connect with Miranda's fluid first-person narration, a mix of Manhattan street smarts and pre-teen innocence. She addresses the letter writer and recounts the weird events of her sixth-grade year, hoping to make sense of the crumpled notes. Miranda's crystalline picture of her urban landscape will resonate with city teens and intrigue suburban kids. As the letters keep coming, Miranda clings to her favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, and discusses time travel with Marcus, the nice, nerdy boy who punched Sal. Keen readers will notice Stead toying with time from the start, as Miranda writes in the present about past events that will determine her future. Some might guess at the baffling, heart-pounding conclusion, but when all the sidewalk characters from Miranda's Manhattan world converge amid mind-blowing revelations and cunning details, teen readers will circle back to the beginning and say, "Wow...cool." (Fiction. 12 & up)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 2009:
"[W]hen all the sidewalk characters from Miranda's Manhattan world converge amid mind-blowing revelations and cunning details, teen readers will circle back to the beginning and say,'Wow ... cool.'"
Starred Review, Booklist, June 1, 2009:
"[T]he mental gymnastics required of readers are invigorating; and the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest."
Starred Review, The Horn Book Magazine, July & August, 2009:
"Closing revelations are startling and satisfying but quietly made, their reverberations giving plenty of impetus for the reader to go back to the beginning and catch what was missed."
Starred Review, School Library Journal, July 2009:
"This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers."
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, June 22, 2009:
"It's easy to imagine readers studying Miranda's story as many times as she's read L'Engle's, and spending hours pondering the provocative questions it raises."
Review, People Magazine, July 13, 2009:
Review, The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2009:
"Readers ... are likely to find themselves chewing over the details of this superb and intricate tale long afterward."
Review, The Washington Post Book World, July 15, 2009:
Review, The New York Times Book Review, August 16, 2009:
"Smart and mesmerizing."
From the Hardcover edition.
Read an Excerpt
Things You Keep in a Box
So Mom got the postcard today. It says Congratulations in big curly letters, and at the very top is the address of Studio TV-15 on West 58th Street. After three years of trying, she has actually made it. She's going to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid, which is hosted by Dick Clark.
On the postcard there's a list of things to bring. She needs some extra clothes in case she wins and makes it to another show, where they pretend it's the next day even though they really tape five in one afternoon. Barrettes are optional, but she should definitely bring some with her. Unlike me, Mom has glossy red hair that bounces around and might obstruct America's view of her small freckled face.
And then there's the date she's supposed to show up, scrawled in blue pen on a line at the bottom of the card: April 27, 1979. Just like you said.
I check the box under my bed, which is where I've kept your notes these past few months. There it is, in your tiny handwriting: April 27th: Studio TV-15, the words all jerky-looking, like you wrote them on the subway. Your last "proof."
I still think about the letter you asked me to write. It nags at me, even though you're gone and there's no one to give it to anymore. Sometimes I work on it in my head, trying to map out the story you asked me to tell, about everything that happened this past fall and winter. It's all still there, like a movie I can watch when I want to. Which is never.
Things That Go Missing
Mom has swiped a big paper calendar from work and Scotch-taped the month of April to the kitchen wall. She used a fat green marker, also swiped from work, to draw a pyramid on April 27, with dollar signs and exclamation points all around it.
She went out and bought a fancy egg timer that can accurately measure a half minute. They don't have fancy egg timers in the supply closet at her office.
April twenty-seventh is also Richard's birthday. Mom wonders if that's a good omen. Richard is Mom's boyfriend. He and I are going to help Mom practice every single night, which is why I'm sitting at my desk instead of watching after-school TV, which is a birthright of every latchkey child. "Latchkey child" is a name for a kid with keys who hangs out alone after school until a grown-up gets home to make dinner. Mom hates that expression. She says it reminds her of dungeons, and must have been invented by someone strict and awful with an unlimited child-care budget. "Probably someone German," she says, glaring at Richard, who is German but not strict or awful.
It's possible. In Germany, Richard says, I would be one of the Schlusselkinder, which means "key children."
"You're lucky," he tells me. "Keys are power. Some of us have to come knocking." It's true that he doesn't have a key. Well, he has a key to his apartment, but not to ours.
Richard looks the way I picture guys on sailboats--tall, blond, and very tucked-in, even on weekends. Or maybe I picture guys on sailboats that way because Richard loves to sail. His legs are very long, and they don't really fit under our kitchen table, so he has to sit kind of sideways, with his knees pointing out toward the hall. He looks especially big next to Mom, who's short and so tiny she has to buy her belts in the kids' department and make an extra hole in her watchband so it won't fall off her arm.
Mom calls Richard Mr. Perfect because of how he looks and how he knows everything. And every time she calls him Mr. Perfect, Richard taps his right knee. He does that because his right leg is shorter than his left one. All his right-foot shoes have little platforms nailed to the bottom so that his legs match. In bare feet, he limps a little.
"You should be grateful for that leg," Mom tells him. "It's the only reason we let you come around." Richard has been "coming around" for almost two years now.
We have exactly twenty-one days to get Mom ready for the game show. So instead of watching television, I'm copying words for her practice session tonight. I write each word on one of the white index cards Mom swiped from work. When I have seven words, I bind the cards together with a rubber band she also swiped from work.
I hear Mom's key in the door and flip over my word piles so she can't peek.
"Miranda?" She clomps down the hall--she's on a clog kick lately--and sticks her head in my room. "Are you starving? I thought we'd hold dinner for Richard."
"I can wait." The truth is I've just eaten an entire bag of Cheez Doodles. After-school junk food is another fundamental right of the latchkey child. I'm sure this is true in Germany, too.
"You're sure you're not hungry? Want me to cut up an apple for you?"
"What's a kind of German junk food?" I ask her. "Wiener crispies?"
She stares at me. "I have no idea. Why do you ask?"
"Do you want the apple or not?"
"No, and get out of here--I'm doing the words for later."
"Great." She smiles and reaches into her coat pocket. "Catch." She lobs something toward me, and I grab what turns out to be a bundle of brand-new markers in rainbow colors, held together with a fat rubber band. She clomps back toward the kitchen.
Richard and I figured out a while ago that the more stuff Mom swipes from the office supply closet, the more she's hating work. I look at the markers for a second and then get back to my word piles.
Mom has to win this money.
From the Hardcover edition.