Amazon Best of the Month, July 2009: Shortly after sixth-grader Miranda and her best friend Sal part ways, for some inexplicable reason her once familiar world turns upside down. Maybe it's because she's caught up in reading A Wrinkle in Time and trying to understand time travel, or perhaps it's because she's been receiving mysterious notes which accurately predict the future. Rebecca Stead's poignant novel, When You Reach Me, captures the interior monologue and observations of kids who are starting to recognize and negotiate the complexities of friendship and family, class and identity. Set in New York City in 1979, the story takes its cue from beloved Manhattan tales for middle graders like E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, and Norma Klein's Mom the Wolfman and Me. Like those earlier novels, When You Reach Me will stir the imaginations of young readers curious about day-to-day life in a big city. –Lauren Nemroff
Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Rebecca Stead
We had the opportunity to chat with Rebecca Stead over e-mail about her second novel, When You Reach Me. Here’s what Rebecca had to say about growing up in New York City, meeting Madeleine L’Engle, and how writing a novel is a lot like solving a puzzle.
Amazon.com: When You Reach Me captures Manhattan in the late 70s perfectly. Why did you choose to set a book for young readers today in the not-too-distant (but very different) past?
Rebecca Stead: I grew up in New York in the seventies and eighties. When I was in elementary school, I became acquainted with a mysterious sort of character, who I wanted to use for this story. When I began to write about him, I was suddenly remembering all kinds of details and moments and places from my own childhood and happily writing them into the book. And in this way the book’s setting sort of rose up around the plot.
There’s another reason I set the story in the past, which is that I wanted to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy, and I wasn’t sure that it would ring true in a modern New York setting. For better or for worse, life is different now.
Amazon.com: Madeleine L'Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time plays an important role in When You Reach Me. Why did you choose pay homage to this particular classic in your own book?
Rebecca Stead: I loved A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I didn’t know why I loved it, and I didn’t want to know why. I remember meeting Madeleine L’Engle once at a bookstore and just staring at her as if she were a magical person. What I love about L’Engle’s book now is how it deals with so much fragile inner-human stuff at the same time that it takes on life’s big questions. There’s something fearless about this book.
It started out as a small detail in Miranda’s story, a sort of talisman, and one I thought I would eventually jettison, because you can’t just toss A Wrinkle in Time in there casually. But as my story went deeper, I saw that I didn’t want to let the book go. I talked about it with my editor, Wendy Lamb, and to others close to the story. And what we decided was that if we were going to bring L’Engle’s story in, we needed to make the book’s relationship to Miranda’s story stronger. So I went back to A Wrinkle in Time and read it again and again, trying to see it as different characters in my own story might (sounds crazy, but it’s possible!). And those readings led to new connections.
Amazon.com: I love the way you incorporate hints of science fiction into the ordinary events of Miranda’s life. What scientific possibilities (or realities) did you find most interesting growing up?
Rebecca Stead: I thought about time a lot when I was a kid. Not in a mystical way–it was just the passing of time, the idea of time stretching out forever, that interested me. I used to wonder, "What will my room look like on my thirtieth birthday? What will be the first words I say in the year 2000? When I’m forty, will I remember the ‘me’ I am now? Will I remember this moment?" I guess part of it was thinking about how we leave ourselves behind in a way, which I think we do, throughout our lives.
I was also really interested in what is "knowable." There’s a certain number of people alive on this planet right now, and it’s a simple number that anyone could write down or say aloud, and so in some sense that number exists as a truth, yet we can’t know it. That’s the kind of thing I thought about when I was Miranda’s age.
Amazon.com: Each of the book’s chapters is just a few pages in length, but each scene is fully drawn. Why did you decide to write the story in this way? And why do most of the chapters begin with the words "Things That…" or "Things On…"?
Rebecca Stead: A lot of my writing is fragmented for some reason. It must be something about the way my brain works. I used to write short stories, and this was the form they frequently took. When I started writing my first novel, First Light, a lot of the raw material was also fragmented, and I had to sort of develop them into traditional chapters, which was what worked best for that story. But When You Reach Me is a little like a puzzle, and I loved the challenge of smoothing these small pieces until the whole thing fit together just right.
The chapter names are (mostly) the names of categories inspired by a game show called The $20,000 Pyramid. As she tells her story, Miranda is helping her mother get ready to be a contestant on the show. They practice every night, and the game sort of seeps into her general thinking. The book is about all sorts of assumptions and categories we carry in our heads, so it felt right on that level, too.
Amazon.com: At the very beginning of the novel, we learn that Miranda’s mom is going to be a contestant on the 1970’s TV game show The $20,000 Pyramid. Without giving away the ending, why is this opportunity so important for them as a family?
Rebecca Stead: They need the money! Part of what’s happening for Miranda during this year is that she gets pushed outside of her formerly tiny world. Not far, but enough for her to start thinking about class, and the way other people live. She starts to see the way she lives in a new way, and has to deal with that. It’s the beginning of that kind of awareness for her, and so the money they hope to win has a lot of meaning for her, but it’s a meaning that changes.
Amazon.com: Is there some significance to the way that Miranda, her mom, and her mom’s boyfriend Richard all prepare for the big event?
Rebecca Stead: They have a pretty nice system, which starts with their neighbor, Louisa, who scribbles down each day’s Pyramid clues at her nursing job because she’s the only one with access to a television at lunchtime. After her shift, she leaves the clues with Miranda, who copies them down on cards. Miranda and Richard take turns feeding clues to Miranda’s mom while the other one keeps time. They operate as one kind of New York City family, which is probably the important thing.
Amazon.com: Why do Miranda and her friends Annemarie and Colin like working in Jimmy’s sandwich shop during lunch hour? Especially since he doesn’t pay them. Why don’t they hang out at school instead?
Rebecca Stead: It doesn’t feel like work to them. They are twelve, and all they want to do is see what it’s like to be out in the world together. It’s the most exciting thing ever, except when it’s boring. Hanging out at school means sitting in the lunchroom, which is not fun. They couldn’t even sit together there, because Colin would always be sitting with the boys.
Amazon.com: Do you think latch-key kids like Miranda are any different today than they were back in the 70s? How about city kids versus suburban kids?
Rebecca Stead: I’m now raising two kids of my own in New York City, and I think a lot about the differences between today’s "preteen experience" and the one I had. Kids are generally less independent now, I think. My friends and I had a lot more freedom than I let my own kids have. The community just doesn’t support it anymore. Now we have 24-hour-a-day news and twenty-two different police dramas that make constant fear seem kind of reasonable. And the internet has changed everything, obviously. Kids socialize in cyberspace now. I’ve heard that the suburban experience has also changed a lot. My husband grew up in the suburbs and his parents hardly ever knew where he was at age twelve. Those days are gone, I think.
User Ratings and Reviews
5 Stars Things That I Love About This Book
This is the reigning Newbery Award winner, I FINALLY read this book… in one day. It was awesome. I can totally see why it won the golden Newbery medal. Miranda's mother is practicing to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid… you know, that show where a celebrity describes words and you have to guess them, and then vice versa, and in the end they go into the winners circle and the celeb has to list things in a category, and you need to correctly guess the six categories? So the chapter titles are mostly categories. Things That Are Hidden. Things In An Elevator. And in the end Miranda's mother actually gets to be on the show.
There are all the usual things – the seemingly minor characters that end up coming into the story in bigger ways, the mystery that becomes obvious, the main character's favorite book that ends up being important to the plot… and of course (kinda giving something away here but not too crucial to the plot), the girl Miranda thinks hates her for years, who it turns out thinks MIRANDA hated HER first! People are not always what they seem at first, and it's fun figuring it out. Plus, whose life is she supposed to help save? That part kept me guessing til it came to that moment.
So before I give away anything else, let me just say that this is a great book, and you should read it. Children's books are great, and even though parts of this were predictable, there was a lot more to it than that and it's worth a read.
5 Stars My daughter loved it!
My ten year old daughter loved this book! She couldn't put it down. I asked her what she liked about it and she said, "I love everything about it. It is exciting and mysterious! I read it eight times!"
4 Stars Quirky
Reason for Reading: I'm working my way through reviewing all the Newbery winners.
Miranda has been best friends with Sal since they were in diapers, but one day Sal gets punched walking home from school and their friendship ends. Miranda starts running into the boy who punched him, Marcus, and they become acquaintances. Miranda loves the book A Wrinkle in Time and reads it over and over and over. Nobody can get her to try a different book and Marcus starts talking to her about the science behind the time-space travel component of the book. On Miranda's block there is a strange homeless man who talks about strange things, yells things out, talks to her, calls her "smart girl" and every now and then kicks his leg out into the street. He also sleeps with his head wedged under a mailbox. Oh, and Miranda also receives strange messages from an unknown person asking her to do things but most specifically to write the sender a letter. It isn't until the end of the book that all these elements come together and make perfect sense to Miranda.
An enjoyable book. The science fiction element is light and comes into play towards the end to explain all the strange events. The book also explores friendships as Miranda has relationships with a boy she's known from being a baby, a bully, a friendly neighbourhood woman, a crotchety old man, a girl who is made fun of at school, and a girl who has been dumped by the snooty popular girl, as well as the snooty girl herself. All of these people at some point Miranda befriends and she learns a lot about how appearances can be deceiving and to get to know the inside person before making judgments. Though sometimes a person's true self can a disappointment.
I thought the story was well-written, the characters likable and interesting. I read the book quickly and thought the ending was clever. The story never went past good, fine or ok with me though. From a Newbery winner I expect more.
4 Stars BOOK HARBINGER: Sweet, profound
It's 1979, and Miranda received her last "proof" today: Her mom will be on The 20,000 Pyramid in April. Between practicing for the speed round and the Winner's Circle with the egg timer, Miranda walks to her 6th grade class through her New York City neighborhood with her best friend, Sal. They know where to get donuts, what deli is best, and how to avoid the scary homeless man on the corner. But when Sal gets punched by the corner bully for no apparent reason, it sets off a string of events that turn Miranda's world upside down. Sal refuses to see her, her hidden apartment key is stolen, and she receives a series of cryptic notes, from which she learns someone is coming, and a friend's life is in danger.
I'd heard some buzz about When You Reach Me before it won the Newbery Medal this year and have had it on my TBR list since. Although I don't read many books for junior readers, Miranda is a mature protagonist, and all her friends – adult and child alike – are so likable it's hard not to connect with them. They all had their flaws, strengths, and insecurities, and you're rooting for them. Hoping Miranda's mom will find a job she likes, that her mom's boyfriend Richard will get a house key, that Sal will talk to Miranda, that Annemarie and Julia will be friends again, that Jimmy will let them work at the deli, and that Marcus will learn to time travel someday. With the simplicity and beauty of the writing and the intriguing puzzle-centered plot, it turned out to be the perfect book to rescue me from my reading slump. I'm not sure how I missed that Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time features prominently in the book as Miranda's constant companion. Reading that classic for the first time in grade school will always be one of my most memorable reading experiences. I can still see the first image I constructed of the garden and Meg and her father as I read. A part of me expected more shocking twists or self-aware profound thoughts, but Rebecca Steed's metaphors are subtle and sparse. One of my favorite passages:
"But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there's a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love.
I've thought a lot about these veils. I wonder if, every once in awhile, someone is born without one. Someone who sees the big stuff all the time. Like maybe you."
I devoured this book in a day. I was driven by a need to know which friend of Miranda's was in danger, and if she'd make friends, and who the note-writer was, and how the Fred Flintstone bank, the lost key, Richard's heeled shoe, and the crazy homeless man fit together. Overall a sweet, deeply meaningful coming-of-age story with a little bit of history, adventure, and layman science fiction, something I'd want my son to read when he grows up.
5 Stars One of those rare PERFECT STORIES
Read a review, bought the book, and shared reading it out-loud with my 10 year old daughter. We loved it. My 13 year old daughter loved it. I now buy it for birthday gifts for other children. A perfect story where every detail means something in the ultimate conclusion. We only wish it had been longer. Happy Reading!