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When You Reach Me Hardcover – July 14, 2009
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Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Rebecca Stead
We had the opportunity to chat with Rebecca Stead over e-mail about her second novel, When You Reach Me. Here’s what Rebecca had to say about growing up in New York City, meeting Madeleine L’Engle, and how writing a novel is a lot like solving a puzzle.
Amazon.com: When You Reach Me captures Manhattan in the late 70s perfectly. Why did you choose to set a book for young readers today in the not-too-distant (but very different) past?
Rebecca Stead: I grew up in New York in the seventies and eighties. When I was in elementary school, I became acquainted with a mysterious sort of character, who I wanted to use for this story. When I began to write about him, I was suddenly remembering all kinds of details and moments and places from my own childhood and happily writing them into the book. And in this way the book’s setting sort of rose up around the plot.
There’s another reason I set the story in the past, which is that I wanted to show a world of kids with a great deal of autonomy, and I wasn’t sure that it would ring true in a modern New York setting. For better or for worse, life is different now.
Amazon.com: Madeleine L'Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time plays an important role in When You Reach Me. Why did you choose pay homage to this particular classic in your own book?
Rebecca Stead: I loved A Wrinkle in Time as a child. I didn’t know why I loved it, and I didn’t want to know why. I remember meeting Madeleine L’Engle once at a bookstore and just staring at her as if she were a magical person. What I love about L’Engle’s book now is how it deals with so much fragile inner-human stuff at the same time that it takes on life’s big questions. There’s something fearless about this book.
It started out as a small detail in Miranda’s story, a sort of talisman, and one I thought I would eventually jettison, because you can’t just toss A Wrinkle in Time in there casually. But as my story went deeper, I saw that I didn’t want to let the book go. I talked about it with my editor, Wendy Lamb, and to others close to the story. And what we decided was that if we were going to bring L’Engle’s story in, we needed to make the book’s relationship to Miranda’s story stronger. So I went back to A Wrinkle in Time and read it again and again, trying to see it as different characters in my own story might (sounds crazy, but it’s possible!). And those readings led to new connections.
Amazon.com: I love the way you incorporate hints of science fiction into the ordinary events of Miranda’s life. What scientific possibilities (or realities) did you find most interesting growing up?
Rebecca Stead: I thought about time a lot when I was a kid. Not in a mystical way--it was just the passing of time, the idea of time stretching out forever, that interested me. I used to wonder, "What will my room look like on my thirtieth birthday? What will be the first words I say in the year 2000? When I’m forty, will I remember the ‘me’ I am now? Will I remember this moment?" I guess part of it was thinking about how we leave ourselves behind in a way, which I think we do, throughout our lives.
I was also really interested in what is "knowable." There’s a certain number of people alive on this planet right now, and it’s a simple number that anyone could write down or say aloud, and so in some sense that number exists as a truth, yet we can’t know it. That’s the kind of thing I thought about when I was Miranda’s age.
Amazon.com: Each of the book’s chapters is just a few pages in length, but each scene is fully drawn. Why did you decide to write the story in this way? And why do most of the chapters begin with the words "Things That..." or "Things On..."?
Rebecca Stead: A lot of my writing is fragmented for some reason. It must be something about the way my brain works. I used to write short stories, and this was the form they frequently took. When I started writing my first novel, First Light, a lot of the raw material was also fragmented, and I had to sort of develop them into traditional chapters, which was what worked best for that story. But When You Reach Me is a little like a puzzle, and I loved the challenge of smoothing these small pieces until the whole thing fit together just right.
The chapter names are (mostly) the names of categories inspired by a game show called The $20,000 Pyramid. As she tells her story, Miranda is helping her mother get ready to be a contestant on the show. They practice every night, and the game sort of seeps into her general thinking. The book is about all sorts of assumptions and categories we carry in our heads, so it felt right on that level, too.
Amazon.com: At the very beginning of the novel, we learn that Miranda’s mom is going to be a contestant on the 1970’s TV game show The $20,000 Pyramid. Without giving away the ending, why is this opportunity so important for them as a family?
Rebecca Stead: They need the money! Part of what’s happening for Miranda during this year is that she gets pushed outside of her formerly tiny world. Not far, but enough for her to start thinking about class, and the way other people live. She starts to see the way she lives in a new way, and has to deal with that. It’s the beginning of that kind of awareness for her, and so the money they hope to win has a lot of meaning for her, but it’s a meaning that changes.
Amazon.com: Is there some significance to the way that Miranda, her mom, and her mom’s boyfriend Richard all prepare for the big event?
Rebecca Stead: They have a pretty nice system, which starts with their neighbor, Louisa, who scribbles down each day’s Pyramid clues at her nursing job because she’s the only one with access to a television at lunchtime. After her shift, she leaves the clues with Miranda, who copies them down on cards. Miranda and Richard take turns feeding clues to Miranda’s mom while the other one keeps time. They operate as one kind of New York City family, which is probably the important thing.
Amazon.com: Why do Miranda and her friends Annemarie and Colin like working in Jimmy’s sandwich shop during lunch hour? Especially since he doesn’t pay them. Why don’t they hang out at school instead?
Rebecca Stead: It doesn’t feel like work to them. They are twelve, and all they want to do is see what it’s like to be out in the world together. It’s the most exciting thing ever, except when it’s boring. Hanging out at school means sitting in the lunchroom, which is not fun. They couldn’t even sit together there, because Colin would always be sitting with the boys.
Amazon.com: Do you think latch-key kids like Miranda are any different today than they were back in the 70s? How about city kids versus suburban kids?
Rebecca Stead: I’m now raising two kids of my own in New York City, and I think a lot about the differences between today’s "preteen experience" and the one I had. Kids are generally less independent now, I think. My friends and I had a lot more freedom than I let my own kids have. The community just doesn’t support it anymore. Now we have 24-hour-a-day news and twenty-two different police dramas that make constant fear seem kind of reasonable. And the internet has changed everything, obviously. Kids socialize in cyberspace now. I’ve heard that the suburban experience has also changed a lot. My husband grew up in the suburbs and his parents hardly ever knew where he was at age twelve. Those days are gone, I think.
From School Library Journal
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Heartfelt, complex, smart and fantastical- it's a mystery in many parts, including the bizarre language of middle-school age friendship and time travel. Highly recommended (for adults, not just kids).
Revolving around an old Dick Clark hosted game show seems a little gimmicky on the surface, but Stead manages it deftly by setting it as a soft backdrop and a framing device. With Pyramid chapter titles, i.e., Things You Count, Things You Push Away, Salty Things, etc, you have a clever and grounding way to deliver these episodic moments from Miranda's life and hold onto that tie to the game show and her mother's appearance on it, coming up that spring.
The notes, and the missing items, provide a fantastic puzzle for the reader to unravel. The personal problems Miranda has to deal with are simple by definition but complex and tricky in life. Figuring out who you are and trying to understand the people around you is something at which everyone, at every age, struggles. Miranda is on the cusp of something extraordinary with the notes and the eventual discovery, but she's also on that cusp of heading into her teenage years, that apex which everyone must traverse as you leave childhood.
Not only do I adore this book, I would’ve absolutely loved it when I was in the target age range. I loved it so much, just because it's an entertaining book to read, that, after returning my borrowed copy to the library, I immediately ordered the hardcover for my sons to read.
The tie in with A Wrinkle In Time, scientific theories and the huge mystery that keeps you hanging until the end makes this one novel that I tell my classes that I would want with me on a desert island, no joke. It is that great and I highly recommend that ANY person read this very beautiful and amazing piece of work. I love this book!
This book left me underwhelmed. The explanations of the time travel were gibberish, honestly. It's like they said, "This happens... then this happens!" No, that doesn't explain anything. You need to explain HOW it happens, not what happens.
And why did Marcus hit Sal? This is held up as a key moment in the book, yet even by the end, it's never explained.
Yes, the middle-grade heroine is quite likeable, but a lot of the book delves into the boring survey of "oh this is a cute trait of this character, so unlike others" and "oh this is a cute occurrence that happens on this street, observe it carefully!". It's like a sketch of what one can "see" and note in others. But it doesn't make a story. I've noticed a lot of those books lately. They try to outbid each other as who can come up with the most remarkable traits in people, society, and environment and everyday life. But there's little story or conflict.
My almost 12yr old daughter asked me to buy this for her. She has not finished, but says she's enjoying it. She can be picky, too. I will have her review the story itself, or if I decide to read it, which I just might after all of these great reviews.
This book, although written for middle schoolers is completely engaging - I couldn't put our down! Well deserving of the Newberry that it received. I'd definitely recommend it!
Top international reviews
At any rate, I'd read it in under three hours, and enjoyed it very much. From an adult perspective, it's more of a novella, which is fine, but, to my mind, the length was just right. I quite like reading (nearly) YA books from time to time. The audience forces authors to stick fairly closely to the point, avoiding too many digressions.
The story takes place in 1979 (or does it? hehe). Miranda (12) lives in New York City with her mother in an apartment. The story begins as, for reasons she knows not, her male friend (Sal) who she's known all her life no longer wants to talk to her. She makes some new friends and starts to receive bizarre notes on small scraps of paper.
The story develops quickly and, bizarrely, for me, having just finished, as noted, a mammoth science fiction trilogy, morphs into neat little SciFi tale. I'm not quite sure why the author set the book in 1979 - perhaps to avoid the characters having mobile phones (which they would do these days) and to avoid having to put too much in the book about `stranger danger' and the (what would now be seen as) malevolent overtones to someone sending messages to a 12-year-old girl.
At any rate, this is a delightful, insightful, clever, well-written, poignant book. Highly recommended to all readers from 10 to 100!
This is a short, easy to read piece of fiction, that is funny, moving and sad with some very profound things to say about the nature of friendship, and utterly, utterly brilliant to boot!
Have told my 12 yr old niece to read it too!