Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Review: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When I was picking out my reading list for the Award Winning Reads challenge hosted by Books from Bleh to Basically Amazing, I pretty much just went for a random list of six: one Newbery Award winner, two Honors, and the same for the Printz Award, based on what I had or could get hold of from the library. One such book was When You Reach Me, which won the Newbery Award in 2010.The award is given for ‘the most distinguished contribution to American literature’ in any one year, and was the first children’s book award in the world.
When You Reach Me tells the story of Miranda, a young girl around whom a series of weird events start to happen. First, her friend Sal is inexplicably punched by an older boy while they are walking home from school one day,  then he cuts Miranda out of his life completely, despite the fact that they live in the same building, have known each other from birth, and do everything together. Then, the spare key to her house that they keep for emergencies is stolen, and on the same day, Miranda receives the first in a series of strange notes, telling her that someone is coming to ‘save her friend’s life’ and his own, asking her to write down exactly what has happened, to tell the writer exactly where the key that has been stolen was located, and assuming that she knows who is writing to her. As the novel progresses, Miranda receives more notes, finds out that the boy who punched Sal is actually a nice kid who also goes to her school, makes some new friends, and has some odd experiences involving the ‘laughing guy’ – an old homeless man she has to pass on her way to and from school. These all tie together to form that lightbulb moment where she goes (metaphorically, not literally) ‘OH! I know who’s been writing me those letters!’.
I really enjoyed When You Reach Me, which was nice, considering that going in, I had no expectations of it at all. Miranda and her mother were both great characters, and their relationship was really well drawn. The book begins with Miranda telling about how her Mom (I feel bad spelling it the English way when the author has spelt it the American way...) is going on the TV show The $20,000 Pyramid, which incidentally is also mentioned in an episode of Friends, for those of us who are not American and may have no idea what the show is. Anyway, to this end, Miranda and Richard, her mother’s boyfriend, are helping her to practice via a convoluted system where Sal’s mother, Louisa (also Miranda’s mother’s best friend) will make notes on each lunch time show, bring them to Miranda’s house, where Miranda will copy words and categories onto flashcards before her mother gets home, in order that they can practice with her when she does. I found it very sweet. It seemed to me that slightly less than half the time, Miranda was the grown up, taking care of her mother, but then her mother would always pull through for her, such as the time when her new friend Annmarie stays the night, and instead of Miranda making them breakfast in the morning, as she usually does for herself, her mother has got out of bed at 7.30 (unheard of) to make them a bacon omelette.
The novel was made up of little moments which pulled the story together, leading up to the big, dramatic event at its’ climax. The little events balanced out very well with the big, dramatic event at the end. While I was reading, I felt like the story was building up to something. Stead creates a feeling of expectation very well, and has you on the edge of your seat wondering how everything is going to come together, while at the same time still letting the novel be a comfortable read.
When You Reach Me is also what I would call a ‘coming of age’ novel, although I hate putting labels on things. The novel is a metaphor for growing up – throughout it, Miranda struggles to understand things, but then once the big dramatic event takes place there are many things she understands which she didn’t before. The breaking of her friendship with Sal also forces her to get out of her comfort zone, and make some new friends, with whom she has new experiences, and discovers things about the world that she wouldn’t have if she had continued on with Sal, doing what they always did, going where they always went.
I loved the novel because it was intelligent. I don’t read a lot of non- adult fiction, because I find that a lot of it tends to be very angsty, but this wasn’t at all. Rebecca Stead allows her characters to be confused and turbulent, while at the same time remaining clear and level headed. The book is based around science, which means that Stead has moved time–travel, which always seems to me (and I say this as a big fan of Donnie Darko) to be completely incomprehensible, out of the realm of the impossible, and into the possible, and indeed the real. Miranda herself is a very scientific character – she gets upset about things, yes, but instead of going off in a hormonal rage, she thinks them through, wonders about them, and tries to work them out, and it was the desire to work things out which made the book so enjoyable for me. Because Miranda was trying to work things out, so was I.
I would like to say thankyou to When You Reach Me, for making me look forward to reading more non- adult fiction, and hoping that I will find other books which are as much of a joy to read as this one was!

Rating: ****


  1. I am so glad that you read this and enjoyed it. I found out about it from a fellow blogger last year and picked up the audio to listen to while driving to and from work. Adored it. It is a really good story in and of itself but there was an added dimension of enjoyment with it, as there was with the film Super 8, because I was a child of similar age to the protagonists in the late 70's where these stories are set. The references all ring very true with me and make this a nostalgic read as well.

    There is indeed a lot of angst filled YA fiction out there, but I would contend that there are many coming-of-age stories like this which are not filled with angst at all but are instead very enjoyable. I hope you find more.

    Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and Brian Selznik's The Invention of Hugo Cabret are two award winners that come to mind, as is recent award winner Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

  2. I've read The Graveyard Book actually, as I'm a big Gaiman fan! I think (or I know) that I'm guilty of stereotyping, and also of being a HUGE snob, and not classing anything I read which is great as YA, so that I can keep saying that I don't like YA. Maybe I do, maybe I should just accept that I do and stop fighting it.

    That entire comment was totally ridiculous, and just makes me think that I need to stop subscribing to categories that I 'like' or 'don't like' and just read books as individual books. I'll check out your other recommendations, thanks!

  3. also, 'that comment' =my comment, not yours! Yours is great! :-p

  4. I don't think it is necessarily ridiculous. There are a number of things that I claim not to like.

    Then of course inevitably I end up reading a book in that genre/subgenre and liking it and I think the natural reaction is to try to explain that away as an anomaly.

    As one who doesn't often read YA fiction but occasionally finds brilliant YA work, I am glad to hear that you do dip into it occasionally. Especially glad to hear that you like Graveyard Book.

  5. What I'm learning from the whole 'trying to read outside my own little bubble' experience, is I think that saying 'I don't like such and such a genre' is a bit of a timewaste really. As a rule, I don't read a lot of horror or thrillers, but when forced (literally) to read The Shining for a book group, I absolutely loved it. And yet I continue to limit my reading. *sigh* will I never learn? :-p

  6. I think we are all like that, so at least you are in good company. Or at least we will say you are in good company, and who is there to argue with us? :)