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When You Reach Me Hardcover – July 14, 2009
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Amazon Best of the Month, July 2009: Shortly after sixth-grader Miranda and her best friend Sal part ways, for some inexplicable reason her once familiar world turns upside down. Maybe it's because she's caught up in reading A Wrinkle in Time and trying to understand time travel, or perhaps it's because she's been receiving mysterious notes which accurately predict the future. Rebecca Stead's poignant novel, When You Reach Me, captures the interior monologue and observations of kids who are starting to recognize and negotiate the complexities of friendship and family, class and identity. Set in New York City in 1979, the story takes its cue from beloved Manhattan tales for middle graders like E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, and Norma Klein's Mom the Wolfman and Me. Like those earlier novels, When You Reach Me will stir the imaginations of young readers curious about day-to-day life in a big city. --Lauren Nemroff
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
Starred Review. Grade 5-8–Sixth-grader Miranda lives in 1978 New York City with her mother, and her life compass is Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. When she receives a series of enigmatic notes that claim to want to save her life, she comes to believe that they are from someone who knows the future. Miranda spends considerable time observing a raving vagrant who her mother calls the laughing man and trying to find the connection between the notes and her everyday life. Discerning readers will realize the ties between Miranda's mystery and L'Engle's plot, but will enjoy hints of fantasy and descriptions of middle school dynamics. Stead's novel is as much about character as story. Miranda's voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation. The story builds slowly, emerging naturally from a sturdy premise. As Miranda reminisces, the time sequencing is somewhat challenging, but in an intriguing way. The setting is consistently strong. The stores and even the streets–in Miranda's neighborhood act as physical entities and impact the plot in tangible ways. This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers.–Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Top customer reviews
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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.
Rebecca Stead, if you're reading this, I wrote a fan letter to Madeleine L'Engle in 1985. She answered--and her signature was just the way you describe.
I'll definitely be looking for more of Rebecca Stead's books at the library!
""It's simple to love someone,' she said. 'But it's hard to know when you need to say it.'" (page 149)
"Einstein says common sense is just habit of thought. It's how we're used to thinking about things, but a lot of the time it just gets in the way." (page 51)
However, for a story that relies so heavily on a science fiction twist, I found it rather dull. I almost felt as if I were suffocating inside of the bland, colorless apartment that the characters spend so much time within. And although there are definitely some clever clues inserted throughout the body of the text, toward the very end of the book, there is a suspicious amount of what I believe to be "retconning"- when characters verbally describe things that supposedly happened off the page, thereby justifying the plotline and tying up loose ends, as if inserting rationale at the final hour. This is not to say that "Until You Reach Me" is a bad story- it isn't, and it certainly has some worthwhile moments. It just failed to draw me in like the best of stories can do.