When I reach you, the note says, I will not be myself.
When 12-year-old Miranda starts finding notes in her belongings—notes that predict the future—it turns her world upside down. The notes want her to write a letter that tells the story of an event that has yet to happen. One of the notes says, I am coming to save your friend's life. This one scares Miranda the most.
“When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead, which won the 2010 Newbery Medal, is a story of friendship and time travel. Before the notes began to arrive, Miranda was a normal sixth grader in 1970s New York. She lives in a small apartment with her single mother and walks to and from school every day with her best friend, Sal, who lives in the same building. Her mother works at a law firm as a legal aide, so Miranda is a latchkey kid, and she has learned how to take care of herself on the streets of New York.
But then one day while Miranda and Sal are walking home from school, Sal gets punched for no reason by one of the boys who hang out near their apartment building. Sal and Miranda reach the safety of home, but Sal shuts Miranda out of his life from that day on, leaving her to walk to school alone, past the pack of boys and the crazy homeless man on the corner. Then the spare key to her apartment goes missing. Shortly after, the notes begin to arrive.
Miranda's favorite book, which she carries with her everywhere she goes, is “A Wrinkle in Time.” This leads to several conversations with her classmates about the nature of time travel, which Miranda's practical mind has trouble grasping. But throughout the course of the story, as events unfold and Miranda puts the pieces together, she grows to understand how time travel works—and what its consequences are.
It is also a coming-of-age tale, as Miranda matures in her understanding of friendship after Sal shuts her out and she is forced to reach out to other classmates. She befriends Annemarie, which sparks a rivalry with Annemarie's former best friend, Julia. There is also a boy, Colin, who gives Miranda a funny feeling in her stomach. Miranda also gets to know Marcus, who is incredibly smart but often in his own world. The other major players in her life are her mother, her mother's boyfriend Richard, and Belle, who runs the nearby grocery.
This book is well-constructed and well-written. Miranda's first-person voice is authentic and engaging, and makes reading her story a true pleasure. Despite the rather fantastic element of time travel at the base of the plot, the story is really about Miranda's relationships. The question of time travel and the mysterious notes are just part of the circumstances that cause Miranda to grow up.
The book's setting also plays an important role. Miranda’s mother is training to be a contestant on “The $20,000 Pyramid,” a fun 1970s pop culture element threaded throughout the book. And almost the entire story takes place in the few blocks between Miranda's apartment and her school. The details and honest observations make Miranda's gritty but beloved Upper West Side neighborhood come alive.
As the book is written for nine- to 12-year-olds, there are few concerns regarding content. There are two swear words from the mild end of the spectrum, and one or two instances of taking the Lord's name in vain. Evolution is mentioned once, as is God. Miranda's mother is unmarried and it is implied that she has never been married; she refers to many "mistakes" in her past in one scene. Her boyfriend Richard—a kind, upstanding sort—is often at their home and keeps a spare set of work shoes in the closet. At the end of the book, Miranda gives him a key to the apartment for his birthday. She also witnesses a violent death toward the end of the book.
The narrative switches between past tense and present tense, as Miranda moves back and forth through time to tell her story. However, the story flows and builds with natural grace, so it shouldn't be a cause for confusion.
“When You Reach Me” is a smartly crafted, deceptively simple story about friendship, growing up, and—surprisingly naturally—time travel. Stead's talent and imagination make it easy to understand why it won the prestigious Newbery.
Image copyright Yearling.
Jessica Barnes edits inspirational fiction at a small publishing company. She can also be found at storydriveneditorial.com.