Written by Rebecca Stead
I still think about the letter you asked me to write. It nags at me, even though you’re gone and there’s no one to give it to anymore. Sometimes I work on it in my head, trying to map out the story you asked me to tell, about everything that happened this past fall and winter. It’s all still there, like a movie I can watch when I want to. Which is never.
(When You Reach Me, page 2)
Miranda is finding notes addressed to her in the most obscure of places, asking her to write a letter. The note writer says he is coming to save the life of Miranda’s friend, and her letter will help him do it. Stranger still, the cryptic predictions included in the notes are starting to come true. Meanwhile, Miranda is just trying to get through life as a latchkey sixth grader in New York City. Sal, her lifelong best friend and neighbor, gets beat up randomly by a kid neither of them know, and afterward tells her he doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore. Now Miranda must focus on troubles such as trying to make new friends and avoiding the crazy homeless man that hangs out at the mailbox around the corner from her house. Placing the mysterious in the midst of the mundane, Rebecca Stead gives us a down-to-earth story of the home and school life of a twelve-year-old girl, interwoven with intriguing science fiction and mystery elements.
Young readers will immediately identify with the believable voice of Miranda, particularly as she navigates the tough social world of sixth grade. In fact, all of the characters are engaging and fully-realized. The storyline is extremely enveloping. Smart, shifting narrative that jumps forward and back in time keeps the clues and ideas coming without revealing too much. However, what puts this book into the running for greatness is that the day-to-day interactions of Miranda with her friends and her mother are just as captivating as the bizarre happenings with the notes, and often the notes totally escape your mind, just as they do Miranda’s. The realistic and the speculative are on entirely equal terms.
It could be easy to take for granted just how perfectly When You Reach Me fulfills the dictates of a great children’s novel. The book is clever and intricate, but not confusing. It introduces many big ideas and morals, but in small and subtle ways. It’s a relatively high interest read, and yet it also could hold up to the scrutiny of any elementary upper grade language arts curriculum. For the quality of this book and its likely ability to please young people, educators, and parents all at the same time, it seems like a serious contender for the Newbery. Indeed, search the Internet and you will find many people saying so. Unfortunately, it’s possible that such a little book could be smothered by the hype that has preceded it and that this review further promulgates, as new readers may come to it with unreal expectations. Remember, it’s not a book unlike anything you’ve ever read, it’s not a grandiose fantasy, and it’s probably never going to sell five million copies and give rise to a series of blockbuster movies. It’s just a little novel done extremely well, which turns out to be a rare thing.
Review by Josh Whiting, Granite School District Library Media Department
Rating: Five Stars
Interest Level: Grades 5+
When You Reach Me
Written by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books / Random House
Release Date: 14 Jul 2009