Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead

Title:  When You Reach Me
Author:  Rebecca Stead
Publisher:  Wendy Lamb Books
Year: 2009
Pages:  199
Genre:  Realistic Science Fiction (?)
Themes:  Friendship, Family, Space Travel
Age Range:  4th-8th Grade

Summary: from Goodreads
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.

When You Reach Me is a hard book to describe.  It's genre defying, since for most of the book you think it is a realistic fiction story, only to discover that in Miranda's world, time travel is a thing.  I enjoyed the book, but it is written in such a way that you feel a bit unsettled while you are reading it.  Of course, this tone is entirely appropriate for the major plot point, which is these scary notes that Miranda keeps finding.   But that sense of menace is so tightly wrapped up with the day-to-day issues that Miranda is dealing with that it gives even her most benign interactions with people a weight that might not be there otherwise.  After all, who knows which "friend" it is whose life needs to be saved?

Aside from the mystery of the notes, this is mostly a story about friendships.  Miranda and her best friend are drifting apart, and Miranda attributes it to her witnessing Sal getting punched on the way home from school.  She tries to give him some space, but as usually happens in books and movies, if she had just talked to him she would have figured out a lot sooner that all was not as it appeared.  Her new friendships bring her her first girl friend, and her first crush.  Miranda tries to negotiate the choppy waters of pre-adolescence with as much grace as she can muster, but how can she concentrate on her friends when this threat is hanging over their heads?

Understanding this book is a lot easier if you have read A Wrinkle in Time, the classic children's science fiction novel by Madeleine L'Engel.  It is Miranda's favorite book, and she references it in an off-hand way that would make it hard for someone who hasn't read it to fully appreciate the parallels be tween this story and that one.  And the book reads sort of brainy...I don't know a better way to describe it, but it feels cerebral.  Not in an offputting, impersonal way, but the bits about time travel definitely stretch a person's thinking.  Overall I think this is a solid choice for a classroom library, and I could see it used in guided reading with the right group of kids, maybe as a companion to A Wrinkle in Time.

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