Friday, April 16, 2010

When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me is a book about surprises, but not necessarily the kind of suprises you'd expect, or even feel very comfortable with. Twelve-year-old Miranda lives in New York City with her single mom, she has a best-friend-since-babyhood in Sal, she likes her mom's boyfriend, she's content. And then, things start to fall apart.

First, there's a traumatic incident where Sal is hurt. After that, he refuses to see her. Their friendship, he tells her, is over. She has to explore new territory by navigating the world of girl friendships, something she's never bothered to do before. It's tricky. Then Miranda's apartment is broken into but nothing seems to have been stolen. Unsettling, weird. But not as weird as finding the notes.

The notes are unsigned and they tell her things that haven't happened yet. Are they from the future? Who is sending them? This mystery plays out against the backdrop of Miranda's normal, 'average' life -- the minefield of middle-school relationships, girl-rivalry, and tentative steps toward maturity. Somehow it's all linked together, but Miranda can't quite see how until a moment of utter clarity that comes to her at a taping of the $20,000 Pyramid.

Oh, I liked this book. I didn't realize it was the 2009 Newbery winner until I sat down to write this post, but having read it, I can see why it won. It resonated for me on so many levels, not least of which was the fact that the story takes place in 1979, when I myself was 13, so all Miranda's issues occur in a context that felt very familiar, right down to t-shirts with rainbows and Dick Clark hosting the Pyramid.

But beyond the middle-school stuff, it's got some elements of science fiction too: it's kind of like The Time Traveler's Wife Jr. -- there's some mind-blowing plot stuff that follows the same it-will-happen-because-it-already-has-happened logic. There are many references to Miranda's favorite book, the sci-fi children's classic A Wrinkle in Time, which adds more layers to the mystery. And when the mystery does become clear, it's one of those "ah-ha!" moments, closely followed by an "oh!" moment when you realize all the implications of what you've just realized.


There's some mild swearing, a hell, a G-d, but nothing else, and although Miranda's mom has a boyfriend and there is prolonged discussion about whether he should be given a key to their apartment, things don't get more explicit than that and he never seems to sleep over. There's a little scene where Miranda imagines the evolution of man (which I remember still being taught in conjunction with creationism in 1979), but she's using it to try to gain some perspective on her troubles, not to hammer home any belief system.

It's middle school lit, it's sci-fi, it's tragedy, and yet it defies being placed in a narrow little category. Miranda's voice is compelling and the book ended up being a very fast read. It's good, people. Really good.

For 5th grade and up, maybe 4th grade although I think the subject matter might be a little over their heads. Seriously, don't miss this one.

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