Note: I wrote out a review that took several possible digressions and were not the savory critical paragraphs one would hope to see, nor are they linked together by linear thought and clever segue. I, of course, sat down to edit, and felt that horrible urge to re-write the whole thing. (I should get an editor.) This review is not a re-write. Please take it as a practice run in persevering toward an end-all conclusion. Practice before reading the book I am about to review: When You Reach Me. Because you will read it won’t you? (if you haven’t): it won the 2010 Newbery.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2009
I picked up Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me because it was won the 2010 Newbery. I only knew a few other things about it: it is getting rave reviews; it is late 1970’s New York; and time travel is involved. If I knew nothing and picked up the book I received from the library waiting list, I would still know absolutely nothing, except that Stead’s previous book First Light received praise. Surely this book cannot be completely dependent upon marketing?! [Of course, it could.]
Here is the “Official Description” I found on-line (thanks to The Longstockings Blog):
By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:
I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.
The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.
After reading the book, the synopsis of When You Reach Me is still complicated. The official description is necessarily deceptive. I could say the story is centered around the creation and consequence of the enigmatic notes of a mystery person to a 12 year old girl in New York 1978: What does that first note mean “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own?” Or, the book is a story of a 12 year old girl to the mysterious one of the future who needs her help to rescue two lives, one of a friend, and the second, his own. Kudos for the attempt by publishers.
Can we go with the “What if?” What if you received notes from the future amidst both the odd and mundane occurrences of a 6th grade year that may culminate in someone’s death. Unfortunately, the book lacks the suspenseful tension to pull this off. The story is distracted with the details and the emotional tensions are fill-in-the-blank. If the reader can make the connections of “oh, I know what it feels like to…” then the emotion will be ready for the latter pages of the book. However, as a precaution, read the book in one sitting, in case it was the boredom that interfered with my inability to find the blanks already filled.
I read When You Reach Me because it won the Newbery.
Though I like time travel stories in general, the 1970s do not appeal. That the year is 1978 (the year of my birth) into 1979 (the year of my sister’s birth) cannot draw me in; then, why should it? However, I can see the nostalgia trips as the setting and story progresses. I can see how it comes across as a complete other time, a trip into the past on its own, so different from the young readers’ experience of today. The author needn’t create any new place or new theory; but explore what has already been given. Stead would solidly place her protagonist Miranda in one moment in one time, on the known planet Earth–in New York, late 1970s.
The setting proved uninteresting. Well, except the dentist’s office, that was weird. Worse, I found Miranda uninteresting–as you’ll find, she is necessarily “normal;” even her struggles with being poor come across as “ho-hum, weren’t we all lacking in some way compared to another, and wasn’t it soo difficult?” Fortunately, some of the other characters are good: Sal is a good mystery. Marcus is also odd enough to intrigue, so is the “laughing man.” Jimmy and Annemarie’s father creep me out a little. And I like Richard. Even so, is it all much too identifiable?—a non-too-fantastic fantasy. Time travel as not necessarily fantasy/science fiction; I find this conclusion to be lovely; but was it intentional?
The events Miranda records are not interesting enough to have me curious for the what-comes-next. I mean, “Oh no! Jimmy thinks they stole his money! What will ever come of it?” Goodness knows there are unevenly paced “these notes are giving me the creeps” and “to which friend’s death could “you” be referring?”–not that Miranda has all that many? Well, Miranda can’t do anything about it, I suppose, nothing that would disrupt the time-lined events that would culminate in the event.
The protagonist, Miranda, is 12, in the sixth grade, only child of a single mother, comes across as completely average, but for a quirk (which isn’t so unusual, actually): Miranda is a huge fan and constant reader of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. The reader needn’t have read L’Engle’s work as Stead does a good job of providing background for her references. And what is referenced is all that is important to know when reading When You Reach Me. A Wrinkle in Time has time travel and so does When You Reach Me, if you find greater parallels that would strengthen Stead’s text let me know.
If you haven’t yet read L’Engle, give time and space to reading both books close together. As it is, Stead’s book makes a bold move to keep the award winning and timeless classic A Wrinkle in Time as a constant presence throughout. L’Engle’s is more easily the greater talent. Okay, it may seem unfair, and distasteful, to even make a comparison. But in reading and being reminded of L’Engle’s foray into the imaginative realms, as is Stead’s move, comparisons are helped. I think L’Engle’s better writing could potentially harm Stead’s book, despite their plot and stylistic differences.
I found this after writing my review/notes:
February 23, 2010: I am a voracious reader. A Wrinkle in Time is my favorite book. But this one doesn’t compare by a long shot. It tries to be all mysterious and frequently alludes to this wonderful science fiction/adventure/growing up book, but ends up being choppy and confusing. The characters are flat. The fact that this is an historical novel is irrelevant. The subplot about the mother being on a game show is irrelevant. The friendships, new and old, are not well explored. Nothing is very developed.
The references to my favorite book are just deceptive. Maybe it would have been improved with better editing. I wonder if the editor ever read A Wrinkle in Time with its solid characters, interesting plot, and heartwarming theme?
How did this book ever win the Newbery? (And people, try spelling it right.)
Disappointed at Best by RealReader27 was found on Barnes and Nobles. Most other comments about the Wrinkle in Time presence in the book were nostalgic: oh, that was one of my favorite books at that age.
I agree with half of RealReader27’s comments. I am not so flagrant with the irrelevancies; though the subplot about the game show: a curiosity, sure. I know the postcard is one of the “proofs” but a more challenging proof would have been “your mom will win.” but then, all that practicing throughout would be irrelevant, wouldn’t it?…
I think much of the book’s enjoyment would be found in the ignorance of anything about the book (including that it won the Newbery); though figuring out how the time travel aspect all works while reading isn’t too painful.
Time travel and time-lines…not to mention Layers and parallels, past present future, multiple people moving along the calendar year, and layered yet again upon it.
The very base time-line that frames the whole narrative is the present. The first and last of the books chapters are written in present tense. Easy, right?
Miranda’s mother is going to be a contestant on the game show The $20,000 Pyramid hosted by Dick Clark. The book uses the reception of the announcement (a postcard inviting her mom to the show), the preparation, and her competing on the show as one time-line. The game show time-line is a good frame for historical placement, the concrete present of Miranda’s predominant consciousness.
There is the time-line of the story Miranda is writing out, at the behest of the mysterious note leaver: the book, the first person narrative we the readers are following. The concrete layer of the game show time-line is based upon the more abstract of the narrator’s memory, the “story” she needs to write as a letter (“Your letter must tell a story—a true story”—note 2).
The chapters read like the snapshots, the “photographic” moments presented in one of the conversations Miranda has with a boy of her age, Marcus, and a girl in her class, Julia. They are attempting to explain a concept of Time, of parallels and paradoxes. We essentially move from one photograph to another, along a particular layer, though not necessarily disregarding the existence of the other layers; as we could be capable of jumping from “diamond to diamond” (using a ring analogy with diamond chips evenly spaced around it); regardless we are biologically constantly are moving along a line… (104).
Miranda is the “reader” needing to be brought greater awareness of what is going on in her world. We know what our 1st person narrative allows, and remain withheld of information or perspective. Miranda progresses throughout the story. There is positive change, but it is the movement of her, the maturing of the character, that carries us along the biological/game show time-line: the girl who comes to understand Sal’s motivations, or even those of her other newer friends, increasing in compassion and connection with the people around her. I can read this in the story, but I am not %100 sure it was written for me…not sure who made the intuitive leaps.
The story is set to chapters with titles that read like $20,000 Pyramid categories, “Things You Wish For,” “Things That Stain,” etc. A nice creative move that is not wholly continuous throughout; and some chapters are an easier fit than others. I guess much depends on how you feel about titles, whether of the book, or chapters. If you do not use numbers, you are doing something aren’t you? In naming them? A greater consideration of the names would require a reread, not something I am prepared to do at the moment.
Miranda writing a letter to “you.” There are moments where Miranda seems to speak to “you” but is not writing to “you,” a paragraph or two here and there. The most apparent is at the end in “Parting Gifts:” “Or I could give Marcus some advice, like if he gets hungry while he is visiting […] Or I could tell him about Julia. But I’ve decided I won’t say much” (197).
Damn it, now I have to go back and figure out what Miranda is writing down, and what she is saying aloud. Are these snap-shot chapter sequences, her replaying them out before writing them (“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” (2).) ? The movie is hers to see, “you” can’t see it: he has to read it in the letter. This then begs the question: when is “you” the note leaver and when is “you” the reader of the book (which is also like a letter), if “you” is ever, in fact, the reader? Or is this other “you” is Miranda as she is prone to talk to herself (“my brain said” (111), “my brain yelled” (189)).
Is the ambiguity intended, by-product, useful?—another time.
This book as an intended letter, a memory told to the note leaver. Miranda is writing the letter with an awareness and some understanding of what has now passed. She is thinking back over “this past fall and winter” (2). The story related is not a journal Miranda is keeping after finding the first note which would ask her to write the letter. She writes the letter after the events take place.
The narrator would debate where to start, naturally. And how to create a story that could come across as a person trying to pick through the important events that lead to the end after which she could finally write the story so that we could begin. Should one depend on the idea that memory would latch on to highlights of the fall and winter, relevant or not, thus better masking the clues that Miranda cannot yet possibly see? Unfortunately the tautness of the writing, the length of the book, everything should be relevant in readying Miranda for the denouement.
As a reader, I know that there has to be some significance, and not just those of character building scenarios that facilitate the change of the protagonist over time. If I were really intrigued, I would read and continue turning pages, patiently waiting for it to all unfold in the stories pace/time and in the later pages of the book. I say patiently, not eagerly. The unfolding is tedious, not due to cleverness on the writer’s part, but dealing more with my disinterest with the mystery’s vehicle.
The book is only 197 pages!
I laid the book down several times, even drifted through a chapter and had to re-read. Could be that I am in a reader slump, prone to daydreams, or life (though I can say I am not terribly over-scheduled at the moment). If not for the determination that I would finish this relatively short book, I could have laid it aside without regret.
I persisted because When You Reach Me won the Newbery.
I was not caught in the mystery of the note leaver. Not until page 157; after which I would read to the last page, and then recollect all those pages beforehand. ( I was not one of those who were eager to re-read out of sheer delight (or even horror).) Page 157 and “The Last Note” contains the event, the climax; and the list I preferred, over the poorly taken photographs.
I watch those films, the ones that require the patient ingestion of scenes until they might culminate in some semblance of an overarching sense. I wasn’t prepared to have to do the same with When You Reach Me. In the better films, the sheer beauty of the scene is enough to satisfy me; I do not need a ready explanation in that moment to continue from one sequence to the next. The sheer beauty is missing from the writing. No, the book does not promise lyricism; nor should it, I suppose. It’s just the lack bores me.
Stead’s 12-year-old is not Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief’s Liesel; a book I had to take time to get into, but I could at least savor sentences here and there along the way. But of course, the narrator was Death in The Book Thief, wasn’t it. Would Jacqueline Woodson capability to write delicious imagery be the better comparison? How about L’Engle’s abilities?
Perhaps the prejudice is mine against the average seeming average instead of hiding something extraordinary. Miranda is an average girl, recording the adventure she’d found herself in, as best she could.
She was passable, but for some exceptions (not the more-than-passable-sort). “Things You Keep Secret” returns to the boy who punched Sal; we get to meet him. It has been a few pages, but how could we forget the odd incident. The first sentence of the chapter would tantalize: “It was a while before I realized that the boy who punched Sal went to our school” (43). She backs up in the next sentence to set up the scene for when she realizes Marcus goes to their school. Another reminder the narrator is 12? It feels rough, awkward; as does the placement of the mid-section of the chapter titled “Things You Hold On To.” “Things You Hide” third chapter in, we start with her name, it dribbles off on another glimpse of her life, leaps back the conversation about her name. I am unwilling to make a creative format/Time argument here. As it is, it is going to take a few reads (or other’s comments) to explain some of the sentence and paragraph placements, even if the mid-sections or any other sections fit under a category/chapter heading (that is, if it even does that).
My literary mind must be rusty, or should just not be used. Just enjoy the story, Leslie, good grief! Obviously there are people who got it! Plenty who were both on and off awards committees.
I guess “sheer idea” of a story doesn’t do it for me.
When You Reach Me is a published award-winning book, not a early draft plot proposal, nor is it an exploratory essay on how would this plot work—isn’t it?
I can play along. And if it would, curiosity demands an interrogation of the story’s logic base. And if I limit myself to that, not questioning voice, or style, or format, pace, etc, just the “idea(s)” presented in the book, how does it hold?
I think I wrote plenty on the idea of time travel being less a notion of fantasy, but absolute possibility is there.
Tidying up the clues. I was stuck on the two dollar bills. Question: Why did Miranda write about Jimmy’s $2 dollar bills? Sure, Jimmy is odd, and the Flintstone jar is odd. I suppose this is enough to warrant a mention. Otherwise: wouldn’t that be something you would think about only until after the two dollar bills were stolen. Recording significance only after it becomes significant, rather than recording things that would be useful. And choosing what to record, “I’ve decided I won’t say much” (197). So, what did she say?–and when?
And looking back at note #1: it was placed in Miranda’s knapsack, in her home; after the house has been found to be unlocked. This note includes the request to “please remember to mention the location of your house key” (60) in the letter she is to write/is writing. Miranda’s mother changes the locks. Later it is noted that the hidden key has been removed, as is the belated notation of a missing pair of boots. Mystery man didn’t use a key before to leave note #1 in the library book, but would now? The key we find in this man’s possession is the second key, having read the letter to know where to find it—the letter written after the events have already taken place and she knew to leave the information… (188). The layers and iterations… with a narrator that cannot make things make sense to herself (“It makes no sense!” (188)), let alone the reader for whom she is performing falling back on the quote: “Common sense is just a name for the way we’re used to thinking.” –Einstein. Just because we may not be able to figure it all out doesn’t keep everything from working out, let alone existing. May be that is where I will leave this book.
The book appears to be good for most people, the likelihood you would like it is good.
My difficulties with the book, besides boredom, is that it is merely good (many aspects of the writing & editing are questionable) and it still won the Newbery.
The book is 197 pages and if you can read that many in one sitting it will not waste your time. The exercise in considering the intricacies and possibilities of time travel is fun, and the book wants to play.
For all the brouhaha, if you don’t get around to reading Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me you’ll be alright, even if it did win the 2010 Newbery.
a few links:
Book Nut blog
Roger @ Horn Book’s interview with Stead