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.