When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

Cover image

Publisher: Yearling
Copyright: 2009
ISBN: 0-375-85086-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 197

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Miranda is in the sixth grade and lives in New York City in an apartment complex with her mother. She reads and re-reads A Wrinkle in Time obsessively. Her mother is single (but dating, someone Miranda likes). When the story opens, her mother has just learned that she's going to get to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid. But the opening of this book is near the end of the story; it takes much of the book to catch up with the game show, and with the mysterious letter that predicted the date of her mother's notification.

I picked up this book on the basis of an unusually unspecific review by rushthatspeaks and very carefully read it completely cold, just as recommended. I won't go quite that far, but I agree that some descriptions of this book would significantly spoil both the puzzle aspect of the story and some nicely timed revelations. This review, while being less circumspect than rushthatspeaks's, will therefore be more non-specific than normal.

When You Reach Me won the 2010 Newbery Medal, and to me reads as clearly written for children. That can be a plus even for an adult reader, since it has the straightforward clarity, focused sparseness, and tight length of a lot of children's literature and avoids the sprawl so common in adult novels. But it is a story about kids growing up in urban New York City and occasionally obsessing about friendships and social cliques, and there were a few points where I got impatient with the characters' inability to understand things that had already become blatantly obvious to me. It's children's literature that's quite readable by adults, but it's worth being aware of the target audience going in and being in the right mood.

My favorite part of this book is not actually the main plot, which was not as interesting as I was hoping it would be. It's the portrayal of childhood independence, friendship, and responsibility, and the best moments are the small, detailed touches. It's a book that puts the development of empathy, more than any other characteristic of maturity, in the center of the story, which is a path straight to my heart in a story. And it talks about empathy in interesting and subtle ways, without too-easy moral lessons and with deft attention to how tricky and internal empathy is and how it feels when it suddenly appears. This is rare. It's one of my core memories of growing up, but I don't usually find an author who can talk about it. Miranda's reactions aren't mine, but I could recognize some of the same patterns of development.

It's also a book with diverse characters, and that diversity I thought was handled extremely well. You should take this with a grain of salt coming from a white, male reviewer, but at least for me it was a cut above the average in showing both race and class as tricky, multi-faceted, and unexpected mine fields. Here too, spoilers are all too easy; this is a story that unfolds in unexpected ways, and going in without a lot of pre-knowledge makes it work better. Stead does a great job of putting the reader into Miranda's head.

When You Reach Me has a very grounded, mainstream feel. The kids feel realistic, the problems are embedded firmly in their urban setting, and their family situations are neither idealized nor dramatically horrible. This can be a bit surprising when one picks this book up after reading books filled with tension and drama. But there's a neat subtlety and playfulness to it. As someone who watched far too many game shows while bored as a child, I particularly loved the chapter titles, which are mostly the sort of categories that show up on The $20,000 Pyramid and which interact with and comment on the story in neat ways. (If you read this book, consider going back at the end of each chapter and re-reading the chapter title. That added a lot to the book for me.)

I can't say this book blew me away, nor will I be pressing it on everyone I know, but I enjoyed reading it, and I'm glad this sort of thing is winning Newbery Medals. I'm in favor of this sort of subtle care in setting and relationship in children's books.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-05-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21