As her mother prepares to be a contestant on the 1970s television game show, "The $20,000 Pyramid," a twelve-year-old New York City girl tries to make sense of a series of mysterious notes received from an anonymous source that seems to defy the laws of time and space.
Original publication date
This is a very quirky novel, and it took me a while to get into it, because the short chapters seemed completely disconnected at first, but nevertheless I found myself reading on compulsively. One of the few things I knew about the story is that it was about time travel, though the connection to this theme only became evident at the end, by which point all the different threads suddenly come together in a brilliant way that makes you want to read the story all over again. Excellent and definitely recommended.
Review: For me, the main reason I was attracted to this book in the first place was its connection to A Wrinkle in Time, which, like Miranda, I also read over and over as a kid. (Although I preferred A Swiftly Tilting Plant, but that's neither here nor there.) I don't think I realized initially that it was mid-grade rather than young adult fiction, although the age of its protagonist clued me in pretty quickly. The good news was that I enjoyed it way more than is normal for most mid-grade books; Stead manages to make Miranda's voice believable for her age without making the book seem dumbed-down or like it was pandering to the grade school set. The plot is very evocative of familiar grade-school issues, but it also has enough nuances to keep adult readers engaged. The only time I got annoyed with the age level was during a discussion of the paradoxes of time travel; Miranda simply could not understand how you could arrive somewhere before you left, despite several explanations by her better-informed (or more imaginative) classmates, which made her come off rather dim, in contrast to the intelligence she displays throughout the rest of the book.
This book is difficult to classify in terms of genre as well as age. In that way, it's similar to Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord: most of it reads like normal fiction, with the fantasy/sci-fi elements only showing up near the end. When You Reach Me does a nice job of integrating them into the story, though, so that the fact that it's science fiction and not general fiction sort of sneaks up on you as you read. I suppose one could call it a mystery, although I didn't find it particularly mysterious, especially after about the halfway point. It also struck me as almost historical fiction, in its way; a lot of emphasis is placed on the late '70s setting, and I wondered how many of its elements would be recognizable to grownups but completely foreign to today's 6th graders.
Overall, while I didn't find this book to be a knockout the way many people did, I did think it was sweet, enjoyable, and with a level of sophistication beyond what its size might suggest. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: The obvious recommendation is for folks who, like me, grew up on A Wrinkle in Time, but I also think people that enjoy good-hearted kids' books that aren't as straightforward as they appear will get a kick out of it as well.
I could tell you right now what to expect out of this book, but I have a feeling that just giving you a brief description of what happens in it wouldn't do it justice. There's a whole lot going on here that isn't even mentioned on the jacket flap, and spoiling any of it would be cruel. It really is amazing that the book has so many different ideas, yet it doesn't get overstuffed (indeed, the book is around 200 pages and not a word is wasted). Other authors would pick one idea and stick with it; Rebecca Stead juggles it all, and it looks effortless coming from her.
There are a boatload of characters, and each one is unique and memorable. Miranda, the protagonist, is a very likable girl, easy to relate to in many ways. She goes through a lot of the typical twelve-year-old girl stuff, but remains interesting, intelligent, and genuine throughout. All the other kids are unique as well; Sal, Annemarie, Colin, Julia, Marcus, take your pick. (Yes, I think even Alice was more dimensional than the average side character in a middle-grade novel.) They're all distinct and richly characterized, and the way they all link together is twisty and fascinating. The adult characters don't get a lot of screen (page?) time, but the same applies to them.
The colorful cast of characters alone would be impressive, but there's also that little "time travel" thing going on. I read "A Wrinkle in Time" shortly before reading this book, as I was told it would benefit me (there are a lot of references to it in the story, but I wouldn't say it's necessary to read it first), so I think that might explain why I didn't really find the back-and-forth-in-time thing to be confusing. I doubt other kids will, either. Anywho, I'm not sure if the time travel has loopholes in it or not, nor do I care to find out. The important thing is, when everything comes together in the end, it all makes sense. Pay attention to every last detail in the story; they all matter.
I wouldn't really count this as historical fiction; though it's set in 1979, it feels like it could work no matter what decade it is. A few details would have to be changed, but whatever, the story feels timeless. The details of the decade, however small and unobtrusive they are, feel truthful, and not the "That '70s Show" version of history. Honestly, though, if the book was like that, I still wouldn't have minded it considering the near-perfection of everything else in there.
So, what else can be said about this book that hasn't been said? It's remarkable. I don't say that about a lot of books. (Okay, maybe I say that about books that I talk about in long, sprawling reviews like this, but I wouldn't write so much about them if I didn't like them so much.) It is very, very deserving of awards recognition come January 18th. I will be rooting for it, as I have read most of its competitors and, though I liked them, they don't compare. This is really something else, and no matter what kind of book you like, "When You Reach Me" is perfect for you. Trust me on that one.
First I have to say that A Wrinkle in Time has been my favorite or among my very favorite books since I was nine years old, and I’ve never been able to write a true or worthy review for it; I can’t even try.
There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of books I wish I’d written. Occasionally, I come across a book I should have written. This is a book I definitely should have written. It touched me to the core in that incredibly familiar way that seems to come from within, not the outside. Some details are “off” of course, but the gist is precisely what I would have written had I thought of it first.
I inhaled this book and read it in one day, which is highly unusual for me, but used to be more typical when I was much younger. It was a joy to read. If I’d read this when I was 10, 11, 12, I suspect I’d have loved it even more.
The time travel part was exquisitely done, New York too, 1979 also, the kids were completely believable, as were the adults. Memories of mine surfaced, never forgotten but powerfully brought to the present. This might not be a perfect book, but I had a near perfect experience reading it. I enjoyed trying to solve the mystery along with Miranda. I felt a deep emotional involvement, which I love feeling when I read a book.
And I sure wish I had Miranda’s gift book!
It also has the most lovely and meaningful dedication page I’ve seen in ages.
I emailed a childhood friend, who also has always loved A Wrinkle in Time, the second I finished this book, to insist she has to read it.
I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.
This was a wonderful day, thanks to this book.
Edited the next day to add:
Many parts are very funny.
Unlike many cross genre books, readers don't have to appreciate all the genres; one will suffice: realistic middle school fiction or science fiction & time travel; either will work. Also, recommended for those who appreciate friendship stories and family stories. Really, if you know the book A Wrinkle in Time, add this book to your to-read list. If it's already on your list, bump it up. It won the Newbery and this is one of the times when the book is deserving of the award!
It’s the story of Miranda’s year in sixth grade -- of being suddenly on the outs with Sal (a boy who’s been her best friend since birth); of navigating new friendships, new social classes, a homeless guy on the corner, and possibly a new step-father; of helping her mother prepare to be a game-show contestant.
Into this mix comes a series of mysterious notes that intrigue Miranda, and freak her out a little bit -- not only because they come to her out of nowhere and from who-knows-whom, but also because they predict the future. Also in the mix are references to Einstein, to science (a teacher named Mr. Tompkin?) and to science fiction (Miranda re-reads A Wrinkle in Time), all of which add layers to the mystery of the notes.
The world Stead creates in this novel -- a reflective tween’s point of view, her friendships and rivalries, her family life and the retro (late ‘70s) Manhattan setting -- are reminiscent of Louise Fitzhugh’s beloved classic, Harriet the Spy. There is less emotion in this novel than that one, but the mystery aspect is quite well done, and positively begs a re-read to examine exactly how Stead stitched it.
Every time I read this book, I am impressed at the tight plotting and skillful writing. Listening to the audio version was no exception, and Cynthia Holloway's narration perfectly captured Miranda's smart, youthful voice. This is a book that gives its readers credit for intelligence without seeming at all pretentious, and while I may have its flaws, I certainly can't pick them out. The characters are nuanced and grow throughout the course of the story, the pacing is steady, the story is neither too long nor too short, and there are bonus references to A Wrinkle in Time. What's not to love?
Unfortunately, I think I may have suffered from too-high expectations going into this book, because it ultimately left me feeling flat. The interactions between the characters didn't seem real to me; relationships tended to be based on sudden, grand revelations rather than gradual and natural developments. When the main character did carry on real conversations with others, I found that I didn't particularly like her; for someone who had read A Wrinkle in Time a hundred times, she showed remarkably little curiosity about the puzzles posed by time travel and preferred to scornfully dismiss the topic as "too weird" than to have fun imagining the possible implications. And when time travel did make an appearance in the story itself, the revelations felt almost anti-climactic after the elaborate build-up. There just wasn't enough complexity there. I was especially disappointed when the promised explanation for one character's strange behaviour turned out to have nothing to do with the main mystery at all, but instead was an exaggerated reaction to one of those "grand revelations" that apparently determined the course of all relationships.
Overall, this wasn't a bad book, but I don't think I'd recommend it.
I do wonder however if this is the type of book that adults love more than kids, as both the setting and Miranda's love of A Wrinkle In Time seem to speak to adult readers.
Ultimately, the basic storyline here is one that seems as if it ought to feel like old hat, but it's so well-constructed that it works beautifully, anyway. The writing and characterization are good, and the author gives you just exactly enough of the right kind of hints about what's going on to keep you feeling engaged and intrigued, and by the time you arrive at the ending, it might not feel entirely surprising, but it does feel right. Or such was my experience, anyway.
Definitely a book that can be enjoyed by both adults and kids.
Ever sit in a movie theater when a film is just beginning and notice that the screen display depicts two separate layers of the same image? You look back toward the projection booth, shouting, “Focus!” Then you have that magic moment when the two layers snap together and everything is absolutely crystal clear. Rebecca Stead’s book is that moment of clarity! What a terrific mystery, though it is not clearly a mystery. What a terrific time travel science fiction romp, though it is not really a time travel science fiction book. What a great coming of age story, though it isn’t really a coming of age story. When You Reach Me deals with a single parent family but it is not that gritty issue book. What this book is, is a book that middle schools, elementary schools, and even high schools should purchase because of its excellent, genre-defying novel featuring excellent writing and magnificent storytelling that defies easy classification. Look for this one to show up on the Newbery list in January.
Miranda is receiving strange notes. Sometimes the notes are found in her home. The fact that their spare door key is missing may have something to do with this. These notes hint at the death of a friend, but the unknown note writer does not name names. Meanwhile, a rather strange student punches Miranda’s friend, Sal in the face without provocation. Miranda’s mother is in love with Richard, but she doesn’t trust herself enough to give Richard a key to the apartment, perhaps because she works with pregnant girls in jail and trust comes slowly. There is the crazy laughing man kicking at imaginary enemies. No wonder Miranda’s mother is so concerned about her safety. Throw in a racist storeowner, the $20,000 Dollar Pyramid, basketball, Madeline L’Engle, a bit of epilepsy, and, dear reader, you are equipped to ride When You Reach Me directly into the sun and onto the Newbery table! While I am typing this in December 2009, I have received a note, perhaps written on January 18, 2010!
Forced to make new friends, Miranda starts spending time with 2 others at school and begins to receive mysterious, cryptic notes that seem to know what will happen to her in the future.
A page-turner that accurately depicts NYC in the late 70s, this book is not to-be-missed. Children ages 10-12 will greatly relate to Miranda's struggle with maintaining friendships while growing up and changing.