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
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.