When You Reach Me: A Time Travel Tutorial
September 16, 2009 by Leave a Comment
While the characters, setting, style, and theme are all distinguished elements of WHEN YOU REACH ME, I don’t know that any of them push the book past the other serious contenders into the realm of most distinguished. Rather, the book’s claim to most distinguished rests primarily on the plot which uses the conventions of genre fiction, namely mystery and fantasy/science fiction.
I do think those genre conventions are fair game for discussion because I would argue that Stead implicitly enters into a contract with the reader to deliver a certain kind of story and if she doesn’t fulfill that contract then the reader has a right to feel cheated. In this instance, I think our debate will come down to just how we allow that contract to be fulfilled. My thinking on this point has evolved over two readings of the book and with your perceptive comments it will likely to continue to do so.
The fantasy and science fiction reader has a right to expect that the rationale for time travel is going to be addressed. Magic cannot exist arbitrarily without rules. Will Stanton and the Old Ones have the power to manipulate space and time. Hermione Granger has a Time-Turner that enables her to revisit the past. We don’t really know how each of these work, but we’re given the rationale and we accept it. We don’t need a detailed explanation of the physics of tessering–you had us at angelic beings. But what do we know about the time travel in WHEN YOU REACH ME? Burn scale, the dome, A WRINKLE IN TIME, diamonds on a ring. I don’t need much from Stead, but I need more than this.
I understand that many of you like the fact that you have to infer the rationale for the time travel, and I am open to this interpretation the more we discuss it, but I still have reservations. I recall an episode of Top Chef (a favorite TV show of mine) where one of the contestants had made something that could be garnished various ways, but he was berated by the judges for leaving too many decisions in their hands because they expected *him* to be the chef. Don’t we feel similarly about writers? Don’t we want to feel that we are in the hands of a master storyteller? Or do we want to feel like we are reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book?
I also want to point out here that there is no inherent flaw with the time travel logic of A WRINKLE IN TIME. L’Engle has posited a theory of time travel wherein a person can only exist in one place at one time, whereas Stead has imagined a theory where multiple versions of a person can co-exist at the same time. Within the world of WHEN YOU REACH ME there exists a flaw only because when Marcus travels back and co-exists with his younger self, thereby disproving L’Engle’s theory.
Stead’s theory of time travel is hardly a new invention in children’s literature. As I have already mentioned, in HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, Hermione uses a Time-Turner to visit the past in order to take a larger class load. And, like WHEN YOU REACH ME, a second reading reveals all the rich plotting details worked into the story. But THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN is hardly the intellectual workout that WHEN YOU REACH ME is, and so it begs this question: Does WHEN YOU REACH ME have genuinely difficult concepts or is the storytelling exceptionally convoluted?
I also alluded to THE DARK IS RISING earlier. Like WHEN YOU REACH ME, it features a time slip with a big reveal at the end: The Walker is Hawkin. Because we know Hawkin’s backstory the reveal packs quite a punch, and I miss that punch in WHEN YOU REACH ME because I don’t know the adult Marcus’s backstory. This story should almost have two main characters–Miranda and Marcus–but the characterization and character development of Marcus (in both of his incarnations) is so sketchy for me that he remains a big question mark. To me, the character of Marcus is an even more egregious omission than the time travel element.
We don’t typically think of THE DARK IS RISING and THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN as time slips because they are complex novels that have so much else going on. So just because WHEN YOU REACH ME has lots of different facets, I don’t think we can use that as an excuse. Of course, I would never mention either of these books around the Newbery table, and I do so here only because I am trying to work through my own thoughts and, too, it seems that many people have either not read many time slip novels or recognized them as such. I could have mentioned numerous books, but I chose just these two to make my points because they should be widely known among children’s literature enthusiasts, at least more so than DREAMQUAKE and ANGEL ISLE which I mentioned in the comments to my last post.
I do like WHEN YOU REACH ME, make no mistake about it, and it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that it’s the odds-on favorite for the Medal, but I don’t seem to share this it-must-win-or-I-will-jump-off-a-tall-building vibe that I’m getting from so many people. Now if THE LOST CONSPIRACY by Frances Hardinge were eligible, there’s one to jump off a tall building for . . . .