When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb, July 2009)
In Rebecca Stead’s first novel, First Light (2008), readers were introduced to a hidden world buried deep under the ice in Greenland when the lives of two kids collide. Like First Light, Stead’s latest work brings together classic elements of a coming-of-age friendship story with a sci-fi twist.
Sixth-grader Miranda is a bonafide city kid. A latchkey child who lives in Manhattan with her mom in a slighty run down apartment, in a neighborhood where bullies rule the sidewalks and a crazy guy sleeps under her mailbox. Miranda and her best friend Sal know the rules of city living- when to switch sidewalks if they see a strange person; always having their apartment keys in hand before they get to the door; which pizza place has the best lunch deals. Things seem pretty ordinary until the day Sal gets punched by a new kid. This sets off a chain of events that involves a series of mysterious letters, the $20,000 Pyramid, Madeline L’Engle, and the prevention of a tragic death.
Yes, it sounds complicated. And yes, there is a lot packed into When You Reach Me. But it works. The characters are so realistically grounded and believable that the sci-fi aspect seems almost secondary. Stead understands and respects what it’s like to be a sixth grader and does a brilliant job of communicating the subtle shifts that mark those paths from childhood into adulthood.
Here’s a great example: (n.b., this excerpt is from the advance reader’s copy):
Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to. (pg 144)
I read this book almost a week ago, and I still find myself thinking about it during my daily commute, or while waiting in line at the grocery store. It kinda gets under your skin and sticks with you. I’d definitely recommend When You Reach Me to kids who aren’t into aliens and flying cars, but are longing for a little something extra in their realistic fiction. It would also work well in a book group- it’s ripe for good discussion.