Monday, June 29, 2009

Review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. Wendy Lamb Books, 2009.

Perhaps because it takes place in the late 1970s in New York City, maybe because it references A Wrinkle in Time to such great effect, maybe because it has a slightly quirky yet timeless writing style – but somehow this book reminds me of those unique books of the 1970s. Harriet the Spy, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Westing Game, and any other book featuring smart kids who live in high-rise apartments (whether with swanky doormen or simple buzzers) and make their way through the gritty city streets – these came to mind while I read this delicious book.

Like 12-year-old Miranda and the enigmatic Marcus, I’ve had many conversations about time travel, the most recent being occasioned by the new Star Trek movie. Can you travel back to your own past? What happens when there are two versions of yourself occupying the same place and time? Can you go back to the past and change the future – or is it impossible, because whatever is to be has already happened? The possibilities for mind-warping debate are endless and some of the issues are explored, in an appropriately kidlike way, in this story, but mostly the plot speaks for itself, letting the reader figure out the mechanics of this time-travel mystery.

Miranda finds several strange notes that seem to prove that the writer has some knowledge of the future, but it isn’t until a tragedy and a narrowly averted tragedy happen almost simultaneously that Miranda is able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and figures out who must have traveled back in time to the late 1970s – and why. The answer is bittersweet and will shock thoughtful readers with its import and meaning. What starts out as a much better than average friendship story turns into both a first-rate mystery and a fascinating look at some weighty issues, including but not limited to theoretical physics and personal responsibility.

And by the way, there are some really fun and quirky bits of writing in this book. Here’s one that struck me as wonderful. Miranda is making an unscheduled visit to the apartment of a friend with whom she has been on the outs. Here she is in the elevator:
“On the way up, it hit me that it was truly strange to come over here without talking to Annemarie first. But at the exact same time I got nervous about that, I also got this other feeling, which I can only describe as love for Annemarie’s elevator.”
She goes on to briefly describe the coziness of this elevator, remarks that “the whole thing was beyond weird” and then goes on with her visit to Annemarie. Meanwhile, I was filled with love for Rebecca Stead’s writing.

Highly recommended for kids in grades 5 and up.


  1. You're right; Miranda is a kind of cousin to Harriet and the other book characters living in NYC in the 1970s. I had trouble following all of the technical issues relating to time travel, but I finally just surrendered and enjoyed this book tremendously.

  2. Argh! It isn't in the system yet so I can't reserve it! Rats. We've got some big Harriet fans at our branch.