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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Party Pooper

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but . . . WHEN YOU REACH ME isn’t quite as good as you think it is.   Oh, to be sure, it’s one of the best books of the year–arguably the best fiction, certainly.  It just strikes me as an Honor book more than a Medal book.  And it’s not that I’d be unhappy with it as the Medal book as much as I’d be ambivalent about it.
The book does have numerous strengths and I’m sure we’ll discuss them at length, but I’d like to pick a bone with the time slip element which I find problematic and unsatisfying.  
We never learn the backstory for the adult Marcus, how he could travel back through time and why he choose to come back and save Sal, of all people.  Of course, Stead provides a serviceable explanation for his inability to do so–that the time travel has scrambled his brains–but that shouldn’t matter because a genuinely clever plotter would have found a way around that obstacle to dispense that information to the reader.
It might not seem like such a big deal to contemporary fiction readers, but us fantasy/science fiction readers get our noses all bent out of joint over stuff like this.   
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. BETSY FRASER says:

    We do? Why? I thought it was clever, answered and/or wrapped up the book neatly (what a great ah HA! moment) and I’ve already had one colleague pass this on to another and tell me that she ‘saw it coming all the way along.’ I wouldn’t have any problems at all with this as this year’s medal book.

  2. Yes, I’m sort of mystified as to why you didn’t find these questions to be answered adequately in the book.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But, Betsy, this kind of stuff happens all the time in the fantasy and science fiction genres! Please don’t tell me you think this plot is any more mind-bending than, say, DREAMQUAKE by Elizabeth Knox or ANGEL ISLE by Peter Dickinson. I’m perplexed as to why this kind of stuff is great and new and wondrous when it appears in contemporary fiction, but merely ho-hum when it appears in the fantasy and science fiction genres? Why the double standard? Admittedly, this is me reacting to reactions rather than the book itself. But, Wendy, I promise to reveal my thinking more fully in a subsequent post. In the meantime, I’ll let Nina chime in and I’ll reread the book, too, so that I can more fully articulate my thoughts.

  4. Monica Edinger says:

    I think this book’s strength is not as sci-fi or time travel, but for its setting, its characters, and the kid-level mystery. If it was mostly about the time-travel I could see your objections, but it isn’t. I’d compare it more to classics such as Mixed-Up Files before I’d compare it to A Wrinkle in Time or, even less, Dreamquake. (To me A Wrinkle in Time gives us a few bits for the story, but no more. You don’t need ot know it to read this book.)

    I HATE it when you go down the “compare this book with that book” route, I have to say. Especially when they are so different. What is cool about the Stead is it doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre niche.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I beg to differ, Monica. I think the characters and setting are very good, but I would hesitate to call them distinguished because I can name a dozen books this year with similarly strong setting and characters. I think what really sets this book apart are the mystery and science fiction aspects of the book.

    DREAMQUAKE and ANGEL ISLE are both very different books from WHEN YOU REACH ME–they feature third person narration, historical settings rather than contemporary ones, and target an older, more intellectually developed audience. I was only comparing the books on the single point of having a complex plot involving the physics of space and time, nothing more.

    Last year, when THE HUNGER GAMES was published there was a backlash against the popularity, and some questioned the book’s similarity to BATTLE ROYALE. I dismissed those concerns as easily as you are dismissing mine, and we are both right to do so, at least in terms of the Newbery, because being a wholly original book is not part of the Newbery criteria.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I take that back. I think pretty much all elements of WHEN YOU REACH ME are distinguished, but I don’t know that I would necessarily characterize any of the elements as most distinguished.

    I still think it’s the science fiction element that elevates this from the pack of contenders. Consider AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES where the historical setting is just as nicely done, the main character must navigate the same kind of friendship/enemy/crushes territory of adolesence, and the suspenseful plot has some mystery woven in for good measure; the only thing it’s lacking is some time travel. If only you knew, Gennifer!

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    Jonathan, that is better — comparing When You Reach Me to Al Capone Shines My Shoes. I can see your argument better then.

  8. Monica Edinger says:

    …not saying I agree with it though:)

  9. Monica Edinger says:

    …not saying I agree with it though:)

  10. For me all the elements of WYRM are good and maybe even distinguished in spots, but the way the book transcends/melds genre so seamlessly is what makes it fascinating. I compare it to A Wrinkle in Time pretty much only in that it this, too, felt like something very different and special when I read it. Of course, I’m only 30 so we’ve always had AWIT, but from what I’ve read that was the kind of reaction that book elicited.

    I do remember thinking that the book wasn’t perfect; I need to reread in order to remember why.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, obviously I can get away with lots of stuff on this blog that I could never say around the Newbery table. I could never bring up DREAMQUAKE or ANGEL ISLE (or a host of other speculative fiction not published in this particular year by eligible authors), but AL CAPONE SHINES MY SHOES would make a nice head-to-head comparison as would SENT by Margaret Peterson Haddix which, like WHEN YOU REACH ME, is also a time slip novel.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I do like the genre-blending aspects of WHEN YOU REACH ME, I’ve hinted that I do have some reservations about the seamlessness of it all.

    I would propose for your consideration, then, CHARLES AND EMMA which is blends biography, science, and romance.

  13. Though I enjoyed this book very much, I felt the same way about some of the details of the time travel. I need to re-read it, but I remember thinking that it all felt unnecessarily complicated — why leave clues scattered in shoes and bags rather that saying what he intended more directly? I also struggled to make sense of logic of the time travel — how was it possible that the man was writing a letter to the main character (blanking on names, sorry), seemingly knowing many of the details of what was going to occur (where he was going to hide the notes, etc), telling her to write him a letter about what was going to occur?

    I’m not expressing this very well, but basically, it seemed to me that there was a loop that didn’t make sense — he had to HAVE the letter already in order to know enough to tell her to WRITE the letter.

  14. Sandra, he did indeed have the letter but because time is an endless loop (or, rather, a diamond ring), he also knew that the only reason she’d written the letter is because he asked her to. It’s that seeing-yourself-endlessly-refelcted-in-a-pair-of-mirrors effect.


    Jonathan. Why Sal of all people? Why not? The implication is that had Sal been killed by the bus it would have destroyed Marcus. Marcus comes back to save Sal, and himself, he says. I actually think it’s the LACK of backstory about Marcus that makes this so distinguished. It forces the focus on the protagonist, and that corner-of-the-veil-lifting moment when she sees a complexity to the world that she can only barely comprehend…but she sees enough to give her the faith to forgive Marcus, and Sal, and Julia, and her mom…. for all the small things that are so hugely significant when you are twelve.

  15. Exactly what Nina and Monica are saying…I would also add that the plotting (fabula) of the story itself is beautifully done. Starting the narrative proper in April and allowing Miranda (the narrator/protagonist) to tell the story from where it all began is a great device. The novel is not told in flashback but rather in the narrator’s subjective retelling or mental the sifting of events as she considers what to write in the letter. (I wish I had my copy of Gennette on hand as to better articulate this) It is important to note that we are not reading the text of the letter to Marcus but instead the story which Miranda needs to tell herself in order to be able to write the letter. Rereading the novel really brings this into focus. The time travel/sci-fi stuff is fun to try getting your head around, but the real brilliance of the work is in the writing, plotting and characterizations.

  16. I agree with Nina about the lack of Marcus-backstory being a strong point here. I think one of the things that makes the book fascinating is the way it makes the reader turn these points over and over in his/her mind. So many possibilities, so many explanations.

    And without the book in front of me, I’ll say that I simply thought–another spoiler here–that Marcus wanted to save Sal because he considered Sal’s death his fault. Isn’t that enough?

  17. Sal’s death??? Sal never died.. Marcus saves Sal because he already did and know that if he doesn’t figure out a way to go back and save Sal then he will be arrested and his friend will lose a friend. What I love about the time travel aspect (which is not the main reason I love the book) is that you get to imagine Marcus’ reaction to Miranda’s letter. Does he read it right away? Does he wait? You also get to think about Marcus growing up and working his whole life to develop a means of traveling back to in time. Does Marcus go back immediately or does he wait for his wife to pass before traveling? I love that Stead has tasked the reader with this part of the narrative, and I think it is one reason the book stays with you so long after reading/rereading it.

  18. Jonathan Hunt says:

    So much to discuss with this novel. I’m about two thirds of the way through my second reading and want to complete it before I attempt another proper blog post about it.

    I’m keeping all your thoughts in mind. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of backstory being a strength. I think it subverts the very genre conventions that it purports to use. I can be convinced on this point, but I’ll need to think my way through it.

    I’m not sure I understand your point about flashback vs. subjective retelling, Eric. I never understood this text to be the actual letter, but rather her rehearsing of the events. The current thread is written in present tense, the flashback threads (for lack of a better word) written in past tense.

  19. Jonathan, I totally respect your opinions about books, as you well know, but I disagree with your wording here: “WHEN YOU REACH ME isn’t quite as good as you think it is.” It is, in fact, as good as I think it is. I was utterly delighted by it. But maybe not as good as YOU thought it was, in other words. But maybe you were being funny. I like funny. And who has done time travel any better for middle-graders? The subject is just a wee bit complex.

  20. But Sal would have died if Marcus hadn’t saved him, right? Am I crazy?

    …but Leda, “who has done time travel any better for middle-graders”, now there’s a loaded statement. For me, as for Eric, the time travel is not my favorite thing here, though it is important to making this book a special one; but if I got started naming awesome middle-grade time travel books, it’d be a while before I stopped.

    Jonathan, “subverts the very genre conventions that it purports to use”–I don’t know why this is a problem, but also, nowhere does Stead state that’s she’s writing a time travel novel, at least in the text; why should she have been bound by any “genre conventions”? Why is anyone?

  21. Monica Edinger says:

    Wendy, yes, yes, yes! What I was trying to get at yesterday was that I’m uncomfortable judging this book under norms determined by other scifi or time travel books; the idea that there is a particular way these need to go and then having to see how this one measures up to them.

    Nina, thanks for reminding me of the diamond. And the veil. Someone recently emailed me wanting an explanation for the time travel and I was unable to provide it — forgot about this and the idea of it being constant, not linear.

    Jonathan, glad you saw that this does have distinguishing characteristics:) To my mind, one of the strongest elements is the setting — as one reviewer (I think it may have been Roger Sutton, but can’t recall), it is almost a character, it is so strong.

  22. My question about who does time travel any better was idiotic and I take it back. Back, I say!

    Anyway, it’s When You Reach Me that we’re talking about, and not all those other books, however great they are.

  23. I’m with you, Jonathan, but for other reasons. To me, there was too much in the plot (Pyramid, Sal wanting guy friends, Mom romance, mystery, time travel etc). Some of it wrapped up nicely, I agree, but other times it was like one big homage to AWIT.

  24. I’m a fan of When You Reach Me, a very big fan. I couldn’t wait for summer to end so I could get this book into the hands of my students. The first boy to come in and have a discussion after reading it asked what I would never have thought to ask: “Why didn’t the laughing man just tell Sal not to run into the street?”

    Why indeed?

  25. Sonderbooks says:

    I enjoyed When You Reach Me, and it did linger in my mind. But I’m leaning where Jonathan does, toward more of a Newbery Honor feel. Is it because I’m a fantasy/sci-fi fan and the time travel was very simple and easy to see coming? Kind of a First Time Travel book. Nicely done, though.

  26. Is it just me, or is there sort of an assumption that the people who love When You Reach Me are NOT fantasy/sci-fi people? I’m not sure where this comes from. Now, I’ll openly say that I don’t care for “high fantasy” most of the time, or really technical science fiction. But I love fantasy and science fiction when they’re rooted in my own world, and I’ve been a big time travel fan since I was very small. I just didn’t find the time travel in WYRM to be either obvious or particularly simple. And I know there are other WYRM-lovers who ARE big on fantasy of all kinds.

    I’ve also noticed that many people who don’t love AWIT think it’s too important to the book, and those who do love it say eagerly “it doesn’t matter at all whether you’ve read AWIT!” I have no perspective on this question…

  27. Any story in which the two main points of cultural reference are A WRINKLE IN TIME and the 10,000 PYRAMID — both of which make perfect sense in context — is ok in my book!
    If we’re going down this path: if the laughing man could have gotten the message to Marcus not to punch Sal in the first place, it would have saved a lot of heartache all around. But then where would the story be??
    What stayed with me most from this book are the relationships. The friendships are so interesting and complicated, as are the mother/daughter, mother/boyfriend, daughter/mother’s boyfriend dynamics.

  28. For myself, I simply wondered why the laughing man didn’t leave notes for Marcus saying things like “don’t punch anybody in the stomach today” or “try to apologize and become friends with Sal.” Why involve Miranda at all, if the intention was to save Sal’s life? The only answer I can think of is because it simply wouldn’t be as dramatic that way.

    Also, is there any particular reason why this book is set in the 1970s beyond Stead’s desire to write about her own childhood? I truly enjoyed the setting; I found myself waxing nostalgic over latchkey kids and pay phones. But there seems little about the period that informs or affects the characters and their decisions. (Try to imagine if A Wrinkle in Time or From the Mixed-Up Files had been given a time setting from their respective authors’ childhoods. Egads.) Can anyone give me some feedback on this? It’s the same criticism I saw lobbed at Pat Murphy’s The Wild Girls, which I loved.

  29. I don’t think the laughing man could have warned Marcus, because he was afraid of what would happen if he and Marcus were in the same place. Each time he saw Marcus, he immediately went running off in the opposite direction.

  30. I don’t know if I can answer the question about why the story was set in the ’70s. Something about the fluidity of time as a theme in the story? A way to put readers slightly off balance, in terms of setting (time/place), from the beginning? Explain the AWIT craze? (though published in ’62) Portray pre-Gossip Girl New York, without glitzy/hipster distractions?
    What I did appreciate, though, is the lack of ’70s kitsch for nostalgia’s sake. So many contemporary YA novels set in past decades (lots from the ’80s recently) are packed with winking references. Stead chose her cultural/temporal landmarks with great care and using great restraint. I never felt like she was trying to relive glory days or wax nostalgic about the past.

  31. Brooke, you have summarized my questions about this story beautifully. I, too, wondered why Miranda was involved at all. I think I know why – she needed help, too, and this way, the laughing man could lend her the assistance she needed as well. Plus, she was a “believer” in time travel, and open to the concept. Had these hiccups been addressed in some small way, I would’ve thought the story near flawless. As it stands, I still think it’s a gorgeous tale, and I thought about it for days after turning the last page.

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