Miranda–the protagonist of the 2010 Newbery Medal winner When You Reach Me –is a twelve-year-old latchkey kid living with her single mom in New York City in the 1970s. She’s smart, she’s funny, and she reads only one book: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Her mother–a would-be lawyer with a keen sense of justice–was forced to drop out of law school when she had Miranda. Now she works unhappily as a paralegal and dreams of winning the game show The $20,000 Pyramid so she can quit her job.
Miranda has lost her best friend, Sal, who lives in her apartment building. One day, while the two of them were walking home from school, a neighborhood kid named Marcus punched Sal, and from that day on Sal just seemed to drift away: he no longer waits to walk with Miranda, and he refuses even to look at her when they bump into each other. In the confusing void left by Sal, Miranda strikes up new friendships with Annemarie–who was recently ditched by her sometimes-snotty best friend Julia–and Colin, “this short kid who seemed to end up in my class every year” (p. 54). The three of them get lunchtime jobs together at the local sandwich shop, Jimmy’s, and bond over cheese sandwiches with smelly pickles.
One day Miranda finds her apartment mysteriously unlocked after school, and the spare key missing from its hiding spot, unnerving both her and her mother. Shortly thereafter Miranda receives the following mysterious note:
“This is hard. Harder than I expected, even with your help. But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well. I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key. The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you” (p. 60).
Miranda continues to receive notes like this–four in all–each as eerie and enigmatic as the first. The notes set her a mystery to unravel: Who is sending the notes? What kind of trip is the sender planning to take? Which of Miranda’s friends will be saved? And from what? And what’s with that crazy homeless guy on the corner that sleeps with his head under the mailbox? These questions, along with the rift between Miranda and Sal, drive the story forward.
Many things make this book appealing. The first, of course, is the mystery: the reader is as intent on solving it as Miranda is. Stead gives the mystery depth beyond the mere content of the notes by lacing the book with the science fiction theme of time travel. The most obvious way this theme shows up is in conversations Miranda has with certain friends–in particular Marcus, a math and physics prodigy who thinks time travel is theoretically possible. However, time travel is also woven into the book via Miranda’s attachment to L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a book in which the protagonist, Meg, travels through time to save her family members. (Incidentally, Stead says in the acknowledgements that L’Engle’s books captivated her as a child.)
Despite the compelling mystery, though, When You Reach Me is most deeply about friendship. Specifically, the novel addresses the question of how to hold on to old friendships without stifling them, and it insightfully brings out the stabilizing effect that new friendships can have in the effort to preserve or reclaim old ones. Though I refrain from specifics here in order not to spoil the plot, the novel’s narrative reflections on friendship are extremely thoughtful and resonant. This theme of friendship will speak deeply to tweens navigating the frequently tumultuous social world of middle school.
The book is also just very clever. For example, as I already noted, Miranda’s mother wants to win on The $20,000 Pyramid. The final part of the game show is called the “Winner’s Circle”, in which a set of objects is described to the contestant and she is required to say what category the objects belong to. For example, if the objects were “a tube of toothpaste, someone’s hand” the contestant would say “things you squeeze” (p. 39). Stead cleverly titles most of the chapters in the book with categories like that, such as “Things You Keep in a Box,” “Things That Go Missing,” and “Things You Hide.” And sure enough, Stead puts objects in each chapter that fit into these titular categories. After a while, it became a fun extra game to find what the “things that smell” or “things that kick” were in the chapter I was reading!
In addition to these factors that give When You Reach Me subjective appeal, the book is developmentally valuable for young readers. In particular, the book communicates hopeful positive messages about some of life’s most important themes. Indeed, it seems to be part of Stead’s explicit purpose to lift, for a moment, the “veil” that generally hides from us “the world as it really is,” in all its “beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love” (p. 71). In other words, part of Stead’s aim is to inspire truthful but hopeful reflection on some of the things that matter most in life.
Stead’s elevation of the value of friendship is perhaps the most important and striking example of what makes this book good for tweens. Her focus on the deep importance of friendship is a welcome counter-weight to the catty, superficial social culture typical of middle school.
The possibility of redemption is another developmentally valuable theme that Stead explores in the novel. For example, the book builds toward second chances for Miranda’s mother–both vocationally, and relationally. Similarly, Miranda has a redemptive conversion in the way she views and treats her classmates Julia and Alice Evans. Whereas before she viewed Julia simply as a competitor for Annemarie’s affection, and Alice as the weird kid who waited too long to go to the bathroom, toward the end of the book Miranda’s veil is suddenly removed, revealing Julia as Annemarie’s faithful friend, and Alice as an insecure outsider. This insight gives Miranda new compassion and kindness toward both of them.
In sum, When You Reach Me is a fantastic book for children aged nine years and up. Not only does it engage interesting themes bundled into a compelling mystery, but it elevates friendship and redemption, and thereby encourages the right sort of values in tweens.