Title: When You Reach Me
Author: Rebecca Stead
Age Category: 9 to 12 years +
Genre: Middle-grade Fiction
When You Reach Me: Summary
Miranda—the protagonist of the 2010 Newbery Medal-winning juvenile fiction book When You Reach Me
Miranda has lost her best friend, Sal, who lives in her apartment building. One day, while the two of them were walking home from school, a neighborhood kid named Marcus punched Sal, and from that day on Sal just seemed to drift away: he no longer waits to walk with Miranda, and he refuses even to look at her when they bump into each other. In the confusing void left by Sal, Miranda strikes up new friendships with Annemarie—who was recently ditched by her sometimes-snotty best friend Julia—and Colin, “this short kid who seemed to end up in my class every year” (p. 54). The three of them get lunchtime jobs together at the local sandwich shop, Jimmy’s, and bond over cheese sandwiches with smelly pickles.
One day Miranda finds her apartment mysteriously unlocked after school, and the spare key missing from its hiding spot, unnerving both her and her mother. Shortly thereafter Miranda receives the following mysterious note:
“This is hard. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you” (p. 60).
Miranda continues to receive notes like this—four in all—each as eerie and enigmatic as the first. The notes set her a mystery to unravel: Who is sending the notes? What kind of trip is the sender planning to take? Which of Miranda’s friends will be saved? And from what? And what’s with that crazy homeless guy on the corner that sleeps with his head under the mailbox? These questions, along with the rift between Miranda and Sal, drive the story forward.
Subjective Appeal: Compelling Mystery
Many things make this juvenile fiction book appealing. The first, of course, is the mystery: the reader is as intent on solving it as Miranda is. 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 children’s book via Miranda’s attachment to L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time
Despite the compelling mystery, though, When You Reach Me
This juvenile fiction book is also just very clever. For example, as I already noted, 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. For example, if the objects were “a tube of toothpaste, someone’s hand” the contestant would say “things you squeeze” (p. 39). 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!
Developmental Value: Friendship and Redemption
In addition to these factors that give When You Reach Me
Stead’s elevation of the value of friendship is perhaps the most important and striking example of what makes this book good for tweens. Her focus on the deep importance of friendship is a welcome counter-weight to the catty, superficial social culture typical of middle school.
The possibility of redemption is another developmentally valuable theme that Stead explores in her children’s book. For example, the book builds toward second chances for Miranda’s mother—both vocationally, and relationally. Similarly, Miranda has a redemptive conversion in the way she views and treats her classmates Julia and Alice Evans. Whereas before she viewed Julia simply as a competitor for Annemarie’s affection, and Alice as the weird kid who waited too long to go to the bathroom, toward the end of the book Miranda’s veil is suddenly removed, revealing Julia as Annemarie’s faithful friend, and Alice as an insecure outsider. This insight gives Miranda new compassion and kindness toward both of them.
In sum, When You Reach Me
Have you read When You Reach Me? If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments!