Book Review: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Wow, I really enjoyed this book. It’s hard to write about without spoilers, though. So here’s the short version—without spoilers. For spoilers, you’ll have to scroll down.

I picked up this novel because it was recommended by a literary agent at a writing conference I attended. When I noticed the low price and the Newberry status, I decided to give it a shot.

The novel follows a sixth-grader named Miranda. She grew up in New York City in the 1970s. (When I learned this, I was surprised to learn that this is a modern book—not written in the 1970s.) Miranda has a single mother with a boyfriend who isn’t quite allowed to have a key to the apartment. Her mother is so excited to receive an invitation to appear on a game show, on which she hopes to win lots of money.

There are strange things that happen in this novel: the apartment’s spare key goes missing, Miranda finds notes in her pockets and in other locations, and she keeps talking to an unknown “you” throughout the novel. As an adult reading this, I put the clues together before the end. There are lots of clue. If you think about Chekov’s Gun, the ending should be easy to predict, but I’m not sure if a sixth-grader would be able to figure it out as easily. If you’re reading this review, and your children have read this book, I would love for you to comment about how they enjoyed it.

When I first started reading, I wasn’t sure why this book won a Newberry. I had trouble getting through the first few chapters. I felt like the level of detail just didn’t feel right, but I excused it since it’s told through the POV of a sixth grader. But then the book picked up. For me, what made it all worthwhile is how it all came together at the end. A seemingly realistic novel turned out to have a quite fantastical ending—and yet, it was foreshadowed plenty, so as a reader, I didn’t feel tricked. Now, I like twisted, fantastical stories. If you want a story that stays in the realm of proven reality, the ending might put you off. But as for me, I loved it, and I am forcing two people I know to read it just so I can have someone to talk to about it :)

And now, for the spoiler. If you don’t want to learn the ending, stop reading here.

 

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Throughout the novel, Miranda keeps receiving notes that look like they have been wet. The notes suggest that the person writing them knows her future and has returned to save her friend and himself. Throughout the novel, she is asked (by these notes) to write down as many details as she can about the incidents she is currently experiencing. In the meantime, there are lots of “clues” that this is actually a sci-fi story: one of her friends is making a model spaceship. Another boy is interested in higher math. And her favorite story, A Wrinkle In Time, which is referenced over and over again, involves time travel, which she discusses many times with a friend.

In the end, we learn that this is indeed a time travel story. The person writing the notes is actually one of Miranda’s friends, and he learns of the premature death of a classmate. He returns to the past (the 1970s) as an old man to save the boy’s life. What I really liked about this twist has to do with my fascination with time travel: that if someone were to travel in time, they would always have traveled in time, so they are forever present in the “time” they traveled to, even if they didn’t leave yet. I love examining that paradox.

We learn that Miranda hasn’t yet written the story, which she will eventually give to her friend so that he can (as an old man) save her classmate. But as she learns, she eventually will have written the note, since the old man does arrive to save her friend. When looking for a larger theme that doesn’t necessarily relate to time travel, I like the idea that we are not stuck in our own situations: there is always a chance to make our futures better or make the world a better place. And that theme makes me smile.

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