Thursday, May 06, 2010

When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead

I picked this up while at the book store, in part because of the Newberry Award sticker on the cover. It was also cleverly promoted on a table of other YA fiction, under a sign reading "Recommended books with positively NO vampires, zombies or monsters!" Which tells you all you need to know about all the other books being promoted right now.

Don't get me started on What Hath Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Wrought.

When You Reach Me is a clever and generally angst-free story about a sixth grader named Miranda, who lives in 1979 New York with her single mother. Her best and only friend, Sal, lives in the apartment underneath with his single mother as well. Miranda's mother has been selected to compete on the $20,000 Pyramid, and she, her boyfriend Richard, and Miranda practice after work. When she forgets her apartment key, Miranda goes to the nearby market and tells the owner the story of A Wrinkle in Time.

There is something odd about this story, however. Miranda has found a cryptic note which says "I am here to save your friend's life and my own" and asks her to write a letter about what is going to happen and everything leading up to it. Miranda doesn't know whose life is in danger, and soon after finding the note discovers that the spare key is missing, and a pair of Richard's shoes are missing.

Other things happen as well: Sal gets punched by a boy they don't know and stops speaking to Miranda. Miranda makes friends with Annamarie, who is being "punished" by her usual best friend Julia. There is a homeless man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox at the corner by Miranda's apartment. Miranda, Annamarie, and a boy named Colin spend their lunch hours together doing prep work at a sandwich shop, and Miranda finds herself feeling jealous of his attraction to Annamarie. Periodically, kids are prevented from going outside the school building due to reports of a naked man running down the nearby streets.

As the school year progresses, Miranda finds a few more notes from this mysterious person who seems to be able to predict things that haven't happened. Meanwhile, she begins to grow up. In a deft and slightly surprising scene, Miranda steps out of her own self-centeredness, and reaches out to "the only girl in the sixth grade who has to keep extra clothes at school. " Alice Evans is too shy to ask to be excused to go to the bathroom, and one day Miranda simply pretends she needs to go as well, and offers to take Alice along as a "bathroom buddy." She also recognizes that she is standing in between Annamarie and Julia's friendship, and manages to step aside to be friends with both of them.

She also recognizes that Sal's rejection of her was unrelated to the punch he received--he'd been sending hints and signals that he wanted to have more than just Miranda as a friend, and she'd not seen them. That relationship gets rebalanced as well.

Then there is Marcus, the boy who punched Sal, apparently for no reason. It turns out that he is essentially a absent-minded genius who is usually thinking about physics, but was trying to be a more "normal" boy and expected Sal to hit him back. Marcus and Julia and Miranda have a conversation about time travel and A Wrinkle in Time, which turns out to be both Miranda's and Julia's favorite book. Julia understands, while Miranda can't wrap her brain around the idea. Marcus and Miranda have a growing acquaintanceship, which is totally missed by Sal, who continues to avoid his first friend.

On afternoon in spring, due to some misunderstandings, Marcus sees Sal running down the block, and tries to keep him from running into the street. However, Sal only fears Marcus means to punch him again, and runs faster. As Sal steps into the street in front of a large truck, the homeless man manages to kick him out of the way but gets killed by the truck instead. It's a horrible scene to watch, and Sal lives, although he has several broken bones.

All of this seems incomprehensible to Miranda, until she is sitting in the audience watching her mother compete on the $20,000 Pyramid. Nervous for her friend, Sal's mother keeps repeating "Dick Clark just never ages," and something clicks for Miranda.

Yup. Big spoilers ahoy.

The homeless man was Marcus. A much older Marcus, who grew up and invented time travel, and came back to save Sal's life. Much of what she thought was evidence of mental illness was Older Marcus trying to remember what he needed to do, after getting his brains pretty well scrambled by time travel. And his last cryptic comment to her makes sense as well: "She is gone, and I am an old man, so don't worry." His wife--Julia--died, and he's comfortable with his own death.

So it's a mystery, science fiction, and a gentle coming of age story which might also encourage readers to pick up A Wrinkle in Time. There is really no reason that this book couldn't be set in modern day Manhattan, except for the Dick Clark reference--which is clever, but probably going to go over the head of the intended audience for this book. After all, while he didn't seem to age for years and years, he's a very old and impaired man now. But maybe YA aged readers will just assume that both Dick Clark and the $20,000 Pyramid are also fictional.

It's a fast read--it took me about an hour and a half--and diverting. Grade: A

I had to come back and add this: the chapters are all titled. Many of them are direct references to how the game of $20,000 Pyramid is played--in the Winner's Round, one contestant is given a category and has to list items to get the other player to guess the category. So the chapter where the spare key is lost is titled "Things That Go Missing." Another layer of cleverness that I missed and had to be pointed to by other reviewers!


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