I’ve been struggling over how to begin this review. I want to get it exactly right. I want to convey to you precisely what it is that I mean to say. If you’ve read any of my reviews before then you know that I like lots of stuff. There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read. Here’s an idea. Have you not heard of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? Well now you have. Go read it. Have you already read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? Excellent. Glad to hear it. Now go read it again. Have you already read and reread When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? That is fine and dandy news. Have a seat. You and I can now talk about it, and we’ll wait for the rest of the world to catch up. Which they will. Because it is one of the best children’s books I have ever read and books of this sort do not drop out of the sky every day. They don’t even drop out of the sky every year.
Now the conundrum. The book is sort of a mystery. It’s sort of a lot of things and if I go too deeply into what those things are, I’m going to give away elements of the plot. This is not something I wish to do for you because the true pleasure of this book lies, at least partly, in figuring out what the heck it is. Is it realistic or fantastical? Science fiction or religious? So I just won’t talk about the end, or go too far into the premise. Therein lies the problem with reviewing a book of this sort. I can’t talk about it without potentially destroying the experience for somebody out there. You can’t imagine the pressure. And I think I can summarize the plot without giving too much away, though. Here goes . . .
It’s the late 70s and the unthinkable has occurred. While walking home, Miranda’s best friend Sal is punched in the stomach for no good reason. After that, he refuses to hang out with Miranda anymore. Forced to make other friends, Miranda befriends the class yukster and a girl who has also recently broken up with her best friend too. But strange things are afoot in the midst of all this. Miranda has started receiving tiny notes with mysterious messages. They say things like “I am coming to save your friend’s life and my own” and “You will want proof. 3 p.m. today: Colin’s knapsack.” Miranda doesn’t know who is writing these things or where they are coming from but it is infinitely clear that the notes know things that no one could know. Small personal things that seem to know what she’s thinking. Now Miranda’s helping her mom study for the $20,000 Pyramid show all the while being driven closer and closer to the moment when it all comes together. When you eliminate the possible all that remains, no matter how extraordinary, is the impossible.
You know how sometimes in literature or writing classes a teacher will assign a first page of a novel as an example of a “good” first page? The kind that grips the reader by the throat and gives ‘em a good hard shake? Yeah. This book has that first page. You are gripped from the start. Then the plot begins its slow backing and forthing in time. We’re in April of 1979 . . . and then we’re in August or September of the previous year. The jump back and forth isn’t jarring, it just requires that the brain be a little more awake during the reading. In fact, there are a lot of moments in this book that would come off as confusing or impossible to understand were it not for the fact that Stead is keeping a close and steady eye on the whole proceedings. What could be a muddle or a mess is instead a gripping mystery with moments of touching realizations and truths cropping up left and right.
Another sign of a good book: the whole show-don’t-tell rule of storytelling comes into play time and time again. Miranda casually mentions facts about the people around her that define them and bring them into sharp focus. The fact that she was named after the Miranda’s Rights or that her mom won’t let her eat grapes because of how the grape pickers are treated in California. The same can be said for Miranda herself. She’s defined best by sentences like, “ ‘Nice tights,’ I snorted. Or I tried to snort, anyway. I’m not exactly sure how, though people in books are always doing it.” The book is an amazing mix of humor and depth. On the funny side are mentions of things like the SSO’s, which stand for the strawberries at the corner sore that fail to fulfill their promise and thus are deemed “strawberry shaped objects”. On the other hand, the implications at the end of this book can be sad. Sad and interesting and fascinating all at the same time. Kids may find themselves contemplating free will by the story’s end. There are worse fates in this world.
The crazy thing is that it’s also the kind of book that smart kids will really really like AND the kind that award-giving librarians will really really like. We aren’t usually so lucky. There’s a kind of broccoli and peas mentality to great works of children’s literature sometimes. This idea that if something is well-written that it can’t possibly be interesting as well. And even crazier than that is the fact that this isn’t going to appeal to just one kind of kid. It’s going to be adored by both boys and girls. By kids who are into science fiction and kids that refuse to touch anything but truly realistic stories. Heck, you could even label this book historical fiction since it takes place in 1978-79. And not the fake 1979 that you sometimes seek invoked in bad television shows and movies either. This is an accurate portrayal of a time period when a person really could spend their days helping their mom prepare for a stint on the $20,000 Pyramid. A time when a girl could be handed books with pictures of spunky-looking girls on the covers… and subsequently reject them because they are not A Wrinkle in Time.
Stead also foreshadows subtly, which is a near impossible thing to do. I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately where you’ll get near the end of the chapter and there will be this big sentence in black and white reading, “Years later she would look back on that moment and wonder what would have happened if she only hadn’t blah blah blah.” Or “It would haunt her dreams for years afterwards.” Or “Had she known then what she . . . “, you get the picture. Stead does allude to the future, but subtly. There’s a moment when Miranda mentions that she hadn’t been in a particular store since December, then flashes back to November or so. If you’re paying attention, you’re left wondering what’s going to happen, but not in a way that intrudes on your reading experience. It’s a subtle move on Stead’s part. Foreshadowing with stealth.
I’ve been calling it LOST the book, referencing the television show that leaves you with as many questions as this novel initially does. But unlike LOST, the answers are forthcoming. And the crazy thing is, it all fits together. Every little piece of the puzzle. You end up rereading the whole thing just to watch the puzzle pieces fall into place before your eyes. The kind of rereading that Miranda does to A Wrinkle in Time. I have a theory about that book, by the way. I believe that author Rebecca Stead may have read and reread that book just like Miranda does when she was a kid herself. I mean, who else is going to spot the time travel flaw in that book? How many times would a person have to read it before they caught on to what was going on?
In the end, there’s a darkness to When You Reach Me. A darkness and a depth that pulls you in, but somehow doesn’t depress you. I guess some kids will get depressed. The kids that only read light, happy stories where everything turns out sunshine and roses, sure. But for the reader that really gets into it, When You Reach Me is fun, challenging, and able to reach a whole swath of different kinds of readers. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most fascinating children’s novels I’ve ever read. You won’t find anything else quite like it on the market today.
On shelves July 14th (put it on your Goodreads To-Read list until then)
First Sentence: “So Mom got the postcard today.”
Notes on the Title: As I write this review (and this will probably change pretty quickly once the book starts selling in droves) if you type “When You Reach Me” into Amazon.com you will come across other suggested titles as well. Books with monikers like “Wonder When You’ll Miss Me”, “Take Me With You When You Go”, and “If You Really Loved Me.” This is an interesting move on Amazon’s part. It’s almost as if it read the title “When You Reach Me” and came to conclusion that this was a meaningful teenage girl’s novel about self-discovery, boys, and learning how to truly become yourself. Certainly that was my first thought when I read the title. Now through rigorous training and self-flaggelation I have trained myself to memorize this title. Other librarians, however, have some difficulty remembering it, and who could blame them? Aside from this year’s fellow title “Anything But Typical”, this book has one of the most difficult names to remember. It does not zip, nor does it stick in the brain. I suggest that someone quickly write and produce a viral pop song about this book where the sentence “When You Reach Me” is in the chorus, so as to pound those four little words into potential readers’ brains. Promoting great books is difficult enough as it is without having to fight against the words on the cover.
Of course, let’s be fair. This was probably an extraordinarily difficult book to name. I know for the fact that this wasn’t the original title either. I’m just flipping through it to find alternate titles, but summing up something this original is hard. “Smart Kid” might work, but it sounds like a flippant cheery tale about a girl who wears cool socks or something. “Bookbag Pocketshoe” might be fun. More memorable certainly. And “The Laughing Man” . . . that’s my favorite. Yep. If I could have named this book I would have called it The Laughing Man. However, my aunt has just pointed out that that was the title of a J.D. Salinger short story. So how about “Lifting the Veil”?
Notes on the Cover: A couple librarians told me that they hadn’t picked this book up right away because of the cover. I can see that, but it actually doesn’t bug me all that much. It’s not brown, and brown is always my number one children’s cover pet peeve, so it scored points right there. It’s by Sophie Blackall too and she did that adorable Wombat Walkabout which came out this year. And then there are little clues all over the cover if you look at it. The shoe. The two dollar bill. And a strange image of a mailbox with the shadow of a man without a man. Seriously, I think it’s cute. But no. No child will think to pick it up on first glance. Yet once they start reading they’re going to start figuring out that the objects on the cover are clues to the story inside. So it has things to recommend it. I wonder if some kids will try to work out whether or not the map is accurate.
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Misc: You must must MUST read this post on Educating Alice. Teacher Monica Edinger read the book aloud to her students and they, in turn, wrote about the book on their blogs. Her post discusses the title, but also links to their thoughts. Want evidence that kids think When You Reach Me is amazing? Look no further.