Friday, February 19, 2010

Review: When You Reach Me

When I was younger I used to try to read my way through the list of Newbery Award winning books, and I've probably read about half of the winners. In recent years, though, I've fallen off — the last I read was Kate DiCamillo's 2004 The Tale of Desperaux. But the buzz about Rebecca Stead's 2010 Newbery winning book, When You Reach Me, encouraged me to pick up the title, which has parallels and references to another Newbery winner, Madeleine L'Engle's 1963 winner, A Wrinkle in Time.

Set in 1979 Manhattan, When You Reach Me is about Miranda, a sixth grader who lives in a dodgy neighborhood with her single mom. One day Miranda finds a strange note that seems to come from the future, and the letter writer asks Miranda to tell him about her life so she can help prevent a tragedy. Suddenly unusual events start happening: Miranda's best friend stops talking to her after he gets punched on the street, Miranda's mother earns a spot on $20,000 Pyramid, the spare apartment key disappears, Miranda makes some new friends (and gains a crush), and an eccentric "laughing man" takes up residence on her corner. Any one of these events would be monumental to a 12-year-old, but combine them, and Miranda is on one heck of a ride.

So are readers — the more I think about it, the more I like this novel. Miranda's voice and narrative style remind me of an older version of Opal from Because of Winn-Dixie: inquisitive and friendly, she's very likable.

When You Reach Me jumps around temporally at the beginning, mirroring the theme of time travel that runs throughout the book, which means that the plot is revealed slowly at first and you feel nearly as disoriented as Miranda. But as the book goes on you realize that past, present and future are all happening at once and that Stead's work is that expertly plotted.

Stead sets When You Reach Me within a few blocks — the action takes place in Miranda's apartment building, at school, and at Miranda's part-time job — a small world, but a world large and full of possibility for a 12-year-old. It's also set 30 years in the past; it feels like of retro, like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Harriet the Spy, which were actually written decades ago. So it's also part-historical novel, and kids can see what it was like to grow up without the Internet and those little gadgets adults carry around constantly.

All these aspects make When You Reach Me a great novel for kids, but it is just as enjoyable for adults. And you can read it in an afternoon — how many great books geared towards adults can you say that about?

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