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.

June 23, 2007

Beach Books for Ages 7 and Up

Reconsidering three popular series — The Baby-sitters Club/Little Sister, The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley and The Time Warp Trio

By Janice Harayda

After finishing all those worthy titles on school reading lists, many children need their own equivalent of beach books, or light summer fare that reminds them that reading is fun. That’s especially true of 7-to-9-year-olds, who may still require a lot of help finding books they can read and enjoy on their own. Here are a few alternatives to the popular series about Junie B. Jones, a heroine some people might define as a bully — loud, rude, full of herself and, in at least one book, physically violent.

The Baby-sitters Club/Little Sister series is a spin-off of Ann M. Martin’s juggernaut, “The Baby-sitters Club,” which dominated the preteen market for much of the 1990s. In its day “The Baby-sitters Club” was, as John Lennon might have said, “bigger than Jesus” among girls roughly ages 9–11. The “Little Sister” novels are aimed at a younger group and involve Karen Brewer, a 7-year-old second grader and the sibling of club founder Kristy. Karen is the anti-Junie. As sweet as a box of S’mores, she loves her teacher, her stepfather, her pen pal and, apparently, just about everybody else. Nobody pretends that these or other Baby-sitters books are art. But they have the virtue – getting rarer every day in children’s books – of grabbing girls’ attention while dealing with characters who are actually nice to each other. Some children might even learn a few things the one I read, Baby-Sitters Little Sister #89, Karen’s Unicorn (Scholastic, 1997), illustrated by Susan Tang. In this book Karen develops a fascination with unicorns that allows Martin to introduce a bit of lore about the mythical creatures. Did you know that if you want to drink from a stream in the books “and a unicorn comes along and puts its horn into the stream, then the water will be safe to drink”? I didn’t. www.scholastic.com/annmartin/bsc/

The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley is an easy detective series in which the famous sisters solve cases, styling themselves as the “Trenchcoat Twins.” I watched only a few episodes of the Olsens’ old sitcom, Two of Kind. But on the shows I saw, Mary-Kate and Ashley were often as rude or mean as Junie. So I wouldn’t have picked up this series if a children’s librarian hadn’t suggested it as an alternative to the “Little Sister” books. I read The New Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley: The Case of the Sundae Surprise (Harper Entertainment, 2003), by Melinda Metz, and found that here the girls mostly avoided the bickering they did on their TV show. Mary-Kate and Ashley work cheerfully together to find the thief who stole their secret recipe for Creamy Orange Choco Chunk ice cream, which they had planned to enter in an invent-a-new-flavor contest. And the thief turns out to be harmless, so the twins never face real danger. The book has ten pages of ads at the back for Mary-Kate and Ashley products, including dolls and videogames. www.mary-kateandashley.com

The Time Warp Trio involves three time-traveling preteen boys who quickly became so popular after their introduction in the 1990s that they earned their own show on the Discovery Channel. I’ve read only the earliest pre-TV novels, which have a witty text by Jon Scieszka and whimsical black-and-white illustrations and Lane Smith. These books included The Not-So-Jolly Roger (Viking, 1991), in which the boys join the ship of the pirate Blackbeard, and Your Mother Was a Neanderthal (Viking, 1993) in which they travel to the Stone Age. And they were terrific and far above the Baby-sitters and Mary-Kate and Ashley books. (The newer, post-TV books have a different design and may involve other changes.) These novels also appeal to many children beyond the second or third grade. www.timewarptrio.com

Some of these series may be hard to find in stores, but libraries and online sources usually have at least a few titles in each. And because they’re available in inexpensive paperback editions, there’s no need to worry about sunscreen streaks on the pages.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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