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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.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
So Mom got the postcard today. It says Congratulations in big curly letters, and at the very top is the address of Studio TV-15 on West 58th Street. After three years of trying, she has actually made it. She's going to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid, which is hosted by Dick Clark.
On the postcard there's a list of things to bring. She needs some extra clothes in case she wins and makes it to another show, where they pretend it's the next day even though they really tape five in one afternoon. Barrettes are optional, but she should definitely bring some with her. Unlike me, Mom has glossy red hair that bounces around and might obstruct America's view of her small freckled face.
And then there's the date she's supposed to show up, scrawled in blue pen on a line at the bottom of the card: April 27, 1979. Just like you said.
I check the box under my bed, which is where I've kept your notes these past few months. There it is, in your tiny handwriting: April 27th: Studio TV-15, the words all jerky-looking, like you wrote them on the subway. Your last "proof."
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.
Things That Go Missing
Mom has swiped a big paper calendar from work and Scotch-taped the month of April to the kitchen wall. She used a fat green marker, also swiped from work, to draw a pyramid on April 27, with dollar signs and exclamation points all around it.
She went out and bought a fancy egg timer that can accurately measure a half minute. They don't have fancy egg timers in the supply closet at her office.
April twenty-seventh is also Richard's birthday. Mom wonders if that's a good omen. Richard is Mom's boyfriend. He and I are going to help Mom practice every single night, which is why I'm sitting at my desk instead of watching after-school TV, which is a birthright of every latchkey child. "Latchkey child" is a name for a kid with keys who hangs out alone after school until a grown-up gets home to make dinner. Mom hates that expression. She says it reminds her of dungeons, and must have been invented by someone strict and awful with an unlimited child-care budget. "Probably someone German," she says, glaring at Richard, who is German but not strict or awful.
It's possible. In Germany, Richard says, I would be one of the Schlusselkinder, which means "key children."
"You're lucky," he tells me. "Keys are power. Some of us have to come knocking." It's true that he doesn't have a key. Well, he has a key to his apartment, but not to ours.
Richard looks the way I picture guys on sailboats--tall, blond, and very tucked-in, even on weekends. Or maybe I picture guys on sailboats that way because Richard loves to sail. His legs are very long, and they don't really fit under our kitchen table, so he has to sit kind of sideways, with his knees pointing out toward the hall. He looks especially big next to Mom, who's short and so tiny she has to buy her belts in the kids' department and make an extra hole in her watchband so it won't fall off her arm.
Mom calls Richard Mr. Perfect because of how he looks and how he knows everything. And every time she calls him Mr. Perfect, Richard taps his right knee. He does that because his right leg is shorter than his left one. All his right-foot shoes have little platforms nailed to the bottom so that his legs match. In bare feet, he limps a little.
"You should be grateful for that leg," Mom tells him. "It's the only reason we let you come around." Richard has been "coming around" for almost two years now.
We have exactly twenty-one days to get Mom ready for the game show. So instead of watching television, I'm copying words for her practice session tonight. I write each word on one of the white index cards Mom swiped from work. When I have seven words, I bind the cards together with a rubber band she also swiped from work.
I hear Mom's key in the door and flip over my word piles so she can't peek.
"Miranda?" She clomps down the hall--she's on a clog kick lately--and sticks her head in my room. "Are you starving? I thought we'd hold dinner for Richard."
"I can wait." The truth is I've just eaten an entire bag of Cheez Doodles. After-school junk food is another fundamental right of the latchkey child. I'm sure this is true in Germany, too.
"You're sure you're not hungry? Want me to cut up an apple for you?"
"What's a kind of German junk food?" I ask her. "Wiener crispies?"
She stares at me. "I have no idea. Why do you ask?"
"Do you want the apple or not?"
"No, and get out of here--I'm doing the words for later."
"Great." She smiles and reaches into her coat pocket. "Catch." She lobs something toward me, and I grab what turns out to be a bundle of brand-new markers in rainbow colors, held together with a fat rubber band. She clomps back toward the kitchen.
Richard and I figured out a while ago that the more stuff Mom swipes from the office supply closet, the more she's hating work. I look at the markers for a second and then get back to my word piles.
Mom has to win this money.
Top Customer Reviews
Miranda gains and loses friends, and grapples with normal sixth-grade angst, but her worries take on a new twist when she discovers mysterious notes from someone who tries to convince her that he or she can see things that have not happened yet, adding fantasy and sci-fi into this realistic setting where you'd least expect it. Once the mystery has been solved, many readers will want to go back and read the story a second time to see how the pieces fit together in a new light.
In a thematic parallel, Miranda's experiences reflect her own shifting ability to see situations through other people's eyes. She also learns that giving or withholding small acts of kindness or meanness can have big consequences. What I love though is that the story is told in a way that does not feel at all preachy.
This is a great book for anyone ages 10 and up. It would be okay for younger kids, but those readers have so many choices that I would save "When You Reach Me" for age 10, because in my experience it's harder to find good books for that age. Also, the point of view of the story is a bit tricky (skillful, but unconventional), as Miranda writes to her mystery correspondent, which could be confusing for younger readers but an interesting challenge for older kids.Read more ›
A Wrinkle in Time is also the favorite novel of 12-year-old Miranda, a sixth grader living in Manhattan in 1978. Miranda is rehearsing a story in her head. She needs to tell the story to a somewhat scary unknown person who's been leaving her hidden notes and appears to know the future. The first note says, "I am coming to save your friend's life and my own." It asks Miranda to write a letter relating the story of the events of the novel, and it asks that she deliver the letter by hand.
This is a bizarre and meaningless request when Miranda first reads it. But as the story unfolds, slowly, slowly, everything becomes clear. By the time you get to the end, you will understand everything that Miranda did.
Nancy Pearl and her librarian friends are predicting that When You Reach Me will win the Newberry Medal for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Let's see... The writing is excellent. The character's breathe life. The plotting is superlative. And one more thing--by the time I reached the end, I was truly moved. I don't know if it was the story's poignancy or if I was just feeling nostalgic or if it was something in between, but for a few hours this 41-year-old was 12 again. And if that's not time travel, I don't know what is.
I'll never forget the day I learned the wonders of the Mobiüs strip...mathematics wasn't my thing - I am a word nerd. So I was caught off guard when I was handed a thin blue strip of paper. "Now put a small twist in it like this," he explained. "Next, bring the ends together and tape them, like so." Then, I took my pencil, as instructed, and drew a thin carbon line, starting on the outside. I was stunned when I eventually connected it back and had one continuous strand, looping around on itself. I hung up that paper in my room and would stare at it, trying to figure out how it all worked. Not really understanding the physics behind it all, but loving the impossible rightness of it all.
That's the way I felt about WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. It is just SO perfect, so impossible, so right...so perfectly impossibly right. I was stunned when I finished it, too. I propped it on the arm of the chair and just stared at the cover. "What in the world are you doing?" my husband asked. I was taking it in...turning the story over in my mind...reflecting on the perfect circle I had traveled. I could only say, "Wow." This book is an original, showing me logical ideas that seemed almost enchanted. Oh. My.
Here's the official summary: "As her mother prepares to be a contestant on the 1970's television game show, "The $20,000 Pyramid," a twelve-year-old New York City girl tries to make sense of mysterious notes received from an anonymous source that seems to defy the laws of time and space."
What the official summary for WHEN YOU REACH ME does not tell you is that this mid-grade novel will make you laugh...and then cry.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
I loved this book its so awesome. I would recommend this book to any one in the end you are like WOW!!! This book is now probably one of my favorites I hope you like it. Read morePublished 1 day ago by chapell miller
Upon finishing this novel and contemplating the ridiculous plot holes, jumbled storylines, and abundance of pointless drivel, I can decidedly say that it is by-far one the worst... Read morePublished 2 days ago by R.D.
Excellent and inventive style of writing. Perfect blend of reflection and mystery. Reminds me of a YA Time Traveler's Wife.Published 4 days ago by Sara R-S
If u don't think u understand, wait until the end then it finally comes together. Also great book ! !Published 17 days ago by Amazon Customer
First, I should say I'm 36, and barely remember middle school. That being said, I found this to be a very interesting, but weird read. Read morePublished 18 days ago by synergy
Was a great book and very well written. It was confusing at times but if you think about it it makes sense. I love how deep it was.Published 22 days ago by Amanda L.
I would have liked more action in this book but over all I really liked the mystery and I recommend this book for people who are into that.Published 27 days ago by Amazon Customer