One-Minute Book Reviews

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me': Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

7 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the link to my review, Jan! My gut feeling on why CLAUDETTE COLVIN did not win: it is a book about a person of color that was not written by a person of color.

    Comment by speedytexaslibrarian — February 2, 2010 @ 12:51 pm | Reply

    • Oh, how sad if true. CLAUDETTE COLVIN is such a good book.

      But I’ve seen issues like the one you mentioned come into play in awards many times, so your comment is plausible to me (along with a couple of other possible explanations, including that the judges have come to see the Newbery as a “fiction” award).

      Thanks for your comment. Of the books that you’ve read — winner and honor books — which do you think will still be important decades from now?
      Jan

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 3, 2010 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  2. There was an interesting editorial in the New York Times on Jan 23 regarding the line you identify as the best line (“. . .hate to think about other people reading my book. . . “) at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/24/weekinreview/24rich.html?scp=41&sq=book%20review%20jan%2024&st=cse.

    I appreciate your review on this book which I, too, thought was good but not necessarily Newbery quality.I think you are correct in your analysis that the Newbery is seen as a fiction award.

    Comment by Weekend Reader — February 5, 2010 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

  3. Hi, I just wanted to let you know that I have awarded you the ‘One Lovely Blog Award’ at http://2manybooks2littletime.wordpress.com. It’s well-deserved!

    Check it out and pass it on if you like.

    Comment by Weekend Reader — February 7, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

    • What a lovely surprise on a day when you can hear the cars NOT starting all over the New Jersey! We’re getting hammered by snow, and all I can handle today is Twitter, but I hope to tweet the news there soon. Thank you ever so much.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 10, 2010 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

  4. It sounds reminiscent of Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World” as well.

    Comment by Digital Dame — February 9, 2010 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for mentioning “Sophie’s World.” Always meant to get to that one but never did. Maybe your comment will inspire me …

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 10, 2010 @ 2:25 pm | Reply


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