On a lark, I picked up When You Reach Me from the Newberry Award shelf at the public library while the little pug was searching for a new Garfield book. I knew nothing about the book, which is a fairly unusual reading experience for me. Once I started it, I found it hard to put it down, and I probably could have read the whole thing in a sitting had my “real” life not interfered. There were some obvious giveaways to the “surprise” ending of the novel, but the story was still engaging and smart.
Rebecca Stead sets her novel in New York City in 1979. The date is important because the narrator’s mother has won a chance to appear on the gameshow $25,000 Pyramid, which was in its heyday in ’79. While Miranda helps her overworked mom try to practice for the gameshow, she also struggles through the problems inherent in being a pre-teen girl. Her mom is overly cautious and keeps putting off marriage to her nearly-perfect boyfriend, Richard, and Miranda’s best friend, Sal, whom she’s known practically forever, has suddenly stopped wanting to be friends. Miranda traces his change in attitude to a day when they were walking home from school together and Sal was suddenly punched by an older boy for seemingly no reason. Without Sal, Miranda has to look elsewhere for friendship, and she finds it with Annamarie, who has recently had a falling-out with her own best friend, Julia, whom Miranda hates. Both Miranda and Annamarie seem to have a crush on the same boy, and he starts hanging out with them as the three get a sort-of part-time job working during lunch at a sandwich shop near their school. She also meets the boy who punched Sal, Marcus, who is surprisingly nice to her and talks to her about the dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle in Time that Miranda carries around almost like a security blanket. Miranda narrates the book, and she tells these events to a mystery character, a stranger who left her a note saying he was trying to save her friend and possibly himself and giving her a list of things to do to help him achieve his goal. At first, Miranda is scared by the stranger’s notes, but she is intrigued when she realizes he knows things that no one should know about her, including things that haven’t happened yet. One of his instructions to her is to write him a letter, and the book seems to become the letter she is still debating whether or not to write.
As I said, the story is engaging, and I like a sci-fi story whose non-sci-fi elements seem real. We can all relate to Miranda’s struggles with her family and friends, even though the gameshow seems a bit of a stretch. There were a lot of elements to the story, though, for such a short book, and some seemed extraneous. For example, there’s a moment when Miranda and her friends confront racism, which is admirable but feels out of place in the novel. I also thought the mystery of who was leaving the notes was pretty easy to figure out, but there were a few surprises, and the book kept my interest.