Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I am not ashamed to admit that I'm an awards hound. Give me a list of books that have either been shortlisted for or won an award, and I'll immediately go online and request copies from my local library. I am, however, ashamed to admit that I waited until Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me won the Newbery Medal to check it out even after Betsy Bird said way back in April, " ...this book is, pretty much, one of the best children's books I have ever read."

After FINALLY reading it, I have to agree with Ms. Bird and so many others around the blogosphere who love this book.

It's the late 70's, and sixth-grader Miranda spends much of her time helping her mother practice for The 25,000 Pyramid game show. Her best friend, Sal, has suddenly stopped talking to her, and to make her "normal" life even more complicated, she's started receiving mysterious messages that not only seem to predict the future but convince her that she must help prevent the deaths of her friend and the letter writer. But who are the letters coming from and can Miranda do what is asked of her?

To wrap this book up in a neat little bow is difficult because there is so much going on. Not only is it a mystery, but it's a coming of age novel where Miranda is forced to make new friends and step outside of her comfort zone for the first time in her life. It's not until the very end that you realize what exactly is going on, and you're tempted to read the book over again to look for the clues that are scattered throughout.

What is most impressive is that Rebecca Stead is able to weave the complex storyline together in a fairly short novel with beautifully-written prose. Miranda is a truly believable character who many kids will identify with. And the references to A Wrinkle in Time, the book Miranda has read over and over again, were delightful. Those familiar with A Wrinkle in Time will have fun finding the similarities between the book and what is going on in Miranda's life.

This is a book, I'd give to any tween who likes both realistic fiction and a bit of sci-fi and mystery. For the perfect gift for a young book lover, pair When You Reach Me with A Wrinkle in Time. 

Reading level: 9-12 | Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (2009) | ISBN: 978-0385737425 | Source: Purchased e-book

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  1. Well, your review has hooked me now. I'll keep an eager eye out for it!

  2. I do much the same as you: I generally choose our read alouds based on 2 things: a) they are by authors I adore (ie: Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Prachett) or b) they are 'old' Newbery winners. Even when I am in the Sally Ann I search along these parameters. I feel sad to say that some of the new Newbery winners have been real duds for us.

    I have this one on my iTunes. My daughter really liked it, but I haven't listened to it yet. Glad to see the positive review!

  3. Here's what I love about this book. First, of course, the compelling mystery. Stead gives the mystery depth beyond the mere content of the notes by lacing the book with the science fiction theme of time travel. The most obvious way this theme shows up is in conversations Miranda has with certain friends—in particular Marcus, a math and physics prodigy who thinks time travel is theoretically possible. However, time travel is also woven into the book via Miranda’s attachment to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (the only book Miranda reads), a book in which the protagonist, Meg, travels through time to save her family members.

    Second, I love Stead's focus on the theme of friendship. Specifically, the novel addresses the question of how to hold on to old friendships without stifling them, and it insightfully brings out the stabilizing effect that new friendships can have in the effort to preserve or reclaim old ones. I'm holding back here in order not to spoil the plot, but suffice to say that the novel’s narrative reflections on friendship are extremely thoughtful and resonant. This theme of friendship will speak deeply to tweens navigating the frequently tumultuous social world of middle school.

    Finally, the book is also just very clever. For example, Miranda’s mother wants to win on The $20,000 Pyramid. The final part of the game show is called the “Winner’s Circle”, in which a set of objects is described to the contestant and she is required to say what category the objects belong to. So, if the objects were “a tube of toothpaste, someone’s hand” the contestant would say “things you squeeze”. Stead cleverly titles most of the chapters in the book with categories like that, such as “Things You Keep in a Box,” “Things That Go Missing,” and “Things You Hide.” And sure enough, Stead puts objects in each chapter that fit into these titular categories. After a while, it became a fun extra game to find what the “things that smell” or “things that kick” were in the chapter I was reading!

  4. My daughter just finished it and loved it! I couldn't help myself I read it too. I enjoyed it myself. Now to top that book. Any suggestions?