When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

Cover of "When You Reach Me"

Cover of When You Reach Me

Surprisingly, I didn’t fall in love with When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead (2009, 197 pages) the first time I read it a few years ago. The plot has a mystery aspect to it. I never read mysteries and I was not able to put the pieces together as quickly as I thought I should. I resented being confused. The second time I was clued in. This book lends itself to being read twice.

Or maybe it took a year of reading 50+ middle grade time travel books that don’t have what this one does–a plot that kept me on the edge of my seat, heartwarming depictions of different kinds of friendships and families, and the nostalgia-soaked setting of NYC in the the late 70′s –to allow me to fully appreciate it.

There is something unusual about this book that the reader notices from the first page. It is written in first person from the point of view of 12-year-old Miranda to someone who is unknown.

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… She’s going to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid… 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”.

The reader is made aware that this unknown “you” has predicted events in Miranda’s life, such as that her mother gets to be on the game show, before they happen. Miranda, who lives with her mother in New York City, has received these predictions via three notes she received. The first time Miranda got a note from the unknown person she is freaked out. The notes request that Miranda write the story of all that happens to her and give it to him.

The events of the story begin in the fall of 1978. Miranda tells the reader what happened as she mulls over which parts are most important and should be included in her letter. These chapters are written in past tense. However, the first chapter does not start at the beginning, but rather in the “middle” of the story. The first chapter, as well as several other chapters are written in the few weeks leading up to Miranda’s mother’s appearance on $20,000 Pyramid. These chapters are in present tense.

I still think about the letter you asked me to write…Sometimes I work 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.

It’s a unique book, not easy to summarize. I loved the time travel element of the book. It was not science-fictiony. The mechanics of how it was accomplished are not even touched on. When the characters did speak about time travel, it was in the tone of being humbled by how little we really understand of the universe.

The book has a strong sense of place. I enjoyed the details about being a middle schooler in Manhattan. Also, readers about my age (I was also 12 in 1978!) nostalgic about their childhoods will eat up  the period details re clothing, TV shows, etc …. I don’t think kids reading the story will appreciate all the references to the 70′s, but I’m glad Stead included them for the adult readers.

The story that unfolds is a very moving one, Miranda’s connections with her family members, friends, and neighbors at its heart. I loved the nuanced depiction of friendship, perhaps not common in middle grade novels. The author showed how a kid need not be friends or not-friends with someone, but can be something in between. It is not a light novel but has many moments of humor in it. Nor is it a “dark” story, but rather somewhat bittersweet. Actually, bittersweet may be too mild a word for a story that is packed with joy as well as sadness.

Rebecca Stead summarizes the book well in the youtube clip here. When You Reach Me won the 2010 Newbery Medal.

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About Susan

I'm a soon-to-be-published author, with a time travel tale of my own telling. Email me at timetravelmagic (at) yahoo (dot) com.
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15 Responses to When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

  1. I thought this was such an unusual and interesting book, and yes, very moving. I like the way Rebecca Stead’s mind works.

    • Susan says:

      Love how her mind works. Just realized yesterday the titles of many of the chapters of her books “Things that crack”, “Messy things”, etc.. are like the categories used on part of the $20,000 Pyramid show! I’m still studying the book and finding more layers!

  2. I enjoyed this book as well (I was 10 in 1978, so nostalgia-wise, that worked for me), although I figured out what was going on fairly early and that spoiled the “surprise” a little bit for me. Funny how that happens. But it is well-written and, as you say, a very moving story. Stead depicts that bittersweet friendship/not-friendship of middle graders perfectly. I’ve read a few other interviews with her as well and I always like hearing what she has to say.

    • Susan says:

      Yes, I remember reading somewhere that she wanted to show her own kids (I think) through this book what it was like to grow up with less supervision than kids have today, but when I went to write the review I couldn’t find the interview.

  3. I really liked this book, especially the setting and the time travel and development of the relationships. Thanks so much for spotlighting it.

  4. Thanks for this review. My son brought it home. I have been meaning to reading it. I need to put it back on the top of the stack. :)

    • Susan says:

      I’m curious to know if kids like the book as much as adults do!

      • Great review and final ‘comment’, Susan. I loved this book, but then again, I remember “The $20,000 Pyramid” with its cheesy 70′s set and those pivoting screens, so I too wondered if kids like the book as much as adults do. I found the subtlety of the time travel intriguing and its silent undercurrent completely complemented that strong sense of place that you applauded. The fact that there is no long-winded “SF” explanation for any of this makes the plot even more plausible. Kudos to Stead for a great read!

      • Susan says:

        Yeah, I don’t think there are many time travel books in which the time travel is so “subtle”, as you say. I watched $20,000 Pyramid growing up, too. As kids, my friends and I watched game shows and all kinds of junk on tv (i.e. Love American Style) in the seventies that I would never let my kids watch now!

  5. Joanne Fritz says:

    I adored this book, and not so much because it was time travel but because it was so beautifully plotted out, with so many realistic details. I loved the way it all came together in the end (and I have to admit, I never realized the chapter titles were categories in the $20,000 Pyramid!). And I remember that interview where she talked about kids having less supervision back then. It might have been this one: http://www.timeout.com/new-york-kids/things-to-do/rebecca-stead-interview#ixzz13spLVAHX

    I moved to Manhattan in the spring of 1978, so this book meant a lot to me. (Although, ahem, I was a bit older than you!)

    Have you ever read Rebecca Stead’s first book, FIRST LIGHT? I remember reading that when it came out and being impressed with it. Then when this, her second book, came along, I was blown away.

  6. Okay, that seals it. This is the next book I’m reading. I’d forgotten about this one and it got buried. Thanks for the great reminder. Well done review!

  7. Akoss says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book last year. Thanks for the reminder. :)

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