Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. New York: Wendy Lamb Books - Random House Children's Books, 2009.
[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/6802401]
Amazon's Best Books of the Month (July, 2009)
Amazon's Best Books of the Year (2009)
Andre Norton Award Finalist (2009)
School Library Journal Best Book of the Year (2009)
ALA Best Books for Young Adults (2010)
ALA Notable Children's Book (2010)
and the grandaddy of middle grade awards:
Newbery Medal (2010)
It's 1979 in New York City. Miranda (named after the rights) is a sixth grade latch-key kid whose favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, whose best friend, Sal - also sixth grade and also latch-key, lives in the apartment downstairs, and whose mom is practicing to be on The $20,000 Pyramid, with the help of her (awesome) boyfriend Richard and Miranda herself.
And then Sal gets punched by a neighborhood kid and the letters start:
M,And then everything changes.
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.
This is a great light mystery (with a bit of sci-fi thrown in) that I think will appeal to a wide variety of readers, including those who would never think of picking up a sci-fi book or a mystery. For most of the book, the story is just a regular story, with a bit of intrigue. No aliens, no men with dark mustaches, just a story about Miranda and how she has to get on when her best friend stops speaking to her for no reason. The relationships that Miranda, who has only ever really been friends with Sal, ends up forming with her classmates are what keep the book light-hearted in spite of the weird notes she keeps receiving. They are what keep everything normal.
At the same time, these relationships also highlight what is different. At school they are all just kids and they, for the most part, make friends easily. Outside of school, though they are still friends, they are very different. Miranda, whose hair is just brown and who gets stuck with hot pink construction paper for self-portraits, is the daughter of a single mom (as is Sal) who sometimes struggles to make ends meet, but they do alright. Annemarie lives in a building with a doorman and has an elevator that opens right to her apartment; her dad is always making her special snacks and her mom is always as work. Marcus receives free dental care at school because his family cannot afford it otherwise (46). Alice Evans is always really close to peeing her pants (she’s not in the “group,” and this is why). Julia travels the world with her parents and describes herself as “café au lait” colored with eyes the color of “sixty-percent-cacao-chocolate” (34). We don’t get to learn much about Colin’s home situation because, well, he’s a boy and doesn’t invite Miranda over for a sleepover, nor is it blatantly evident from what happens at school. He’s just a goofy guy who gets along with everyone. Other than talking a lot about rushing rivers in front of Alice, the kids don’t care about any of this, except that Julia is a snob, having picked up her fancy names for light brown and brown (Miranda’s assessment of the situation) while learning about chocolate in Switzerland. Some of the adults, on the other hand, care a lot about this stuff. There is one big confrontation, caused by an adult, which starts out about Julia’s race and ends up being about Miranda’s lack of money. The way that the group handles it, without any intervention or input from the grown-ups, is possibly unrealistic, but it keeps things from getting too preachy. No one ever has to say, “Judging people based on their perceived race or financial status is wrong,” and yet the point is made very clearly.
And, of course, there are the letters and the mystery. I don’t want to say too much or give anything away. A large part of the fun while reading a mystery is trying to figure out whodunit, and When You Reach Me is no exception. There were definitely points when I thought I had something figured out and I was so frustrated with Miranda because she Just. Didn’t. Get. It., but when the end finally rolled around, there was so much more to it than I could have guessed.
Book source: Philly Free Library