It is 1978 and Miranda is a sixth grader in New York City who lives with her single mom, an independent woman who never got the chance to finish law school. Miranda is surrounded by a unique cast of characters, including her ex-best-friend Sal, her mother’s kind-hearted boyfriend Richard, Sal’s mother Louisa, shop owners Belle and Jimmy, and classmates Annemarie, Colin, Julia, and Marcus. Each person plays a very important role, some large and some small, in the lives of each other.
The crux of the story is that Sal is randomly punched by another kid one day while walking home from school. He stops talking to Miranda from that day forward. Miranda is unsure if being attacked or perhaps something else spurred Sal’s behavior, and she is left feeling lonely and confused. A mystery is woven into the story in the form of strange letters that Miranda finds in places that no one but herself or her mother should be able to access. The letters prompt Miranda to tell her story from the beginning and that “they” are asking her to do this so that they can save a friend’s life. The letter Miranda writes is the actual novel, When You Reach Me. References to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time hint at science fiction elements at work, but never overwhelm the building of characters. “Stead’s novel is as much about character as story. Miranda’s voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation” (Augusta 2009).
When You Reach Me is a novel about a girl who comes of age during a stage of life when she and those around her are stuck in neutral. “Spaghetti again. We were kind of stuck, I realized. In a lot of ways” (Stead 2009). Miranda is a smart girl, but she is only able to move forward with her life by paying closer to attention to those around her. It does help, of course, that someone is sending her letters from the future.
Stead’s novel won the 2010 Newbery Medal, a 2009 Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book, and a 2009 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Readers under the age of 12 may be a bit confused by some of the time travel references and conversations, but young fans of Madeline L’Engle will be delighted by the parallels in the two stories. The only moment in When You Reach Me that I did not like was when Stead reveals the ending of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Other than that spoiler, this is a fantastic coming of age novel. After reading it, ask young readers to write letters to an adult in their lives but specify that they must write the letter to the young version of that adult. Young readers may also enjoy writing letters to themselves that can be read at the end of the year or even further in the future.
Augusta, Caitlin. July 2009. School Library Journal. http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2125/DetailedView.aspx?hreciid=|25425359|23387850&mc=USA#. Accessed November 15, 2013.