Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
“The trip is a difficult one, I will not be myself when I reach you.”
In When You Reach Me, Miranda is the daughter of a single mom who got an invitation to be on the $20,000 Dollar Pyramid. She’s dealing with the strain of helping her mom train, as well as the fact that her best friend Sal is ignoring her, when she gets a mysterious letter asking her for two favours. The first is to write this mysterious person a letter, and the second is including in the letter where they keep their house key. It’s an odd request but she does it anyway, writing about what’s happening so far in the 6th grade.
I went looking for books other than the kind of stories that I would normally read. I tend to cover a lot of fantasy and SF books. My daughter, who was 11 when I started writing reviews for Reads 4 Tweens, is now 15 and I wanted to cover books that she likes, and would have liked. I was very surprised to find that When You Reach Me is actually a science fiction story, but it’s so very tucked away and revealed only in little bits and pieces. It’s ostensibly a story about Miranda, and her friendships and relationships, so I was very surprised that this ended up being a science fiction book.
It doesn’t feel like a science fiction book. It feels like a middle school story, filled with characters who are trying to figure out how life works. They all have their problems, but they’re doing the best they can with what they know. They tease each other, they get into verbal fights, and Miranda puts all of these events and all of her feelings down into her letter. The one that, from the beginning, she says she’s not going to write.
Because Miranda is the one writing the story, the chapters are easily digestible for younger tweens who feel that finishing a chapter shows progress. The language is light and fun, like Miranda is talking to you directly like a good letter should. It makes the story really personal, and incredibly easy to relate to. It might be a little too easy for your heavy reader—they’ll go through it quickly—but the story and the characters will make them stay. I’ll go into more detail about the story below the spoiler alert, because you can’t do it justice without spoiling the big reveal.
The only thing that feels a little forced is the discussion about time travel and the science behind it that Marcus and Julie have with Miranda. Both Miranda and Julie love A Wrinkle in Time and the book plays a part in understanding a little bit how things could work. However, it’s the only time when the characters feel older than they should. It’s a small detail, because there’s a good chance that your tween might want to talk about the discussion around time travel. You might want to refresh yourself on the subject—I know I had to and I just read the book to myself.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
This is a story about how Miranda and Sal aren’t friends anymore. It’s also a story about how Julie and Annemarie aren’t friends anymore. It’s a story where Marcus is trying to understand what his older brother wants, and punches Sal in the stomach to see what would happen. It’s Sal pushing Miranda away so hard because he feels that they only have each other and that they need to branch out and survive. It’s Miranda not understanding that until it’s been a month of silence and she feels like she’s lost a part of herself. It’s about Miranda becoming great friends with Annemarie, and hating Julie for being mean to Annemarie. It’s about Miranda coming to an understanding about Julie, when she sees the look on her face and realizes it’s her own when she looks at Sal.
It doesn’t start out with a mess of relationships. It starts out with Sal not talking to Miranda without saying why, and Miranda being hurt and trying to get her friend back. It builds from there, and it never gets to an inappropriate level. I don’t mean that there isn’t some small bits of romance, because Miranda and Colin kind of have a kiss near the end, but that it feels like it’s people exploring their friendships and their feelings rather than some sixth graders who act with the emotional maturity of thirty year olds.
When it’s revealed what’s going on, when Miranda figures out who is sending the notes and how they must have arrived, it all goes back to these relationships that were built in 1979.
Quackers the homeless man who sleeps underneath the mailbox gets hit by a huge commercial truck. He gets hit because he was trying to save Sal from being hit. Quackers kicks him out of the way and Sal only gets his arm broken. It isn’t gory because other people try to shield Miranda from the body, and since the story is the letter that she’s writing, she doesn’t get a chance to describe anything. The whole death scene is kind of intense however, and it will probably bring up some discussion. Particularly when it’s revealed who Quackers really is.
Parents and Parenting
Miranda is a latchkey kid, and while she loves her mom she will lie to her about what she’s eaten and where she is going. Miranda talks about after-school junk food as the right of a latchkey kid. There’s a scene where she gives her mom a scare when she leaves the house without a note to visit Annmarie’s family after Christmas.
Richard, her mom’s boyfriend of two years, still doesn’t have a key to their place. Miranda knows that it’s weird that this is the case, and it leads to a nice moment at the end where they give Richard a present of his own set of keys.
This is one of those books that you’re going to want to get a hold of and read out loud, or with your tween. It’s got such a lovely cadence that it’s easy to read, and the chapters are short enough that there will be shouts of one more chapter that you’ll want to oblige. You should read it with your tween and laugh and cry and enjoy a wonderful book.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Published in 2009 by Random House
Read as an eBook