Top 100 Children's Novels #11: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
#11 When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (2009)
I sell this to kids in the library by saying it’s a cross between Beverly Clearly and Lost. And I always say “the ending will BLOW YOUR MIND.” Because it does. – Sharon Ozimy
This is a book you can give to any kind of kid with any kind of interest and they will probably like it. Adults too. It’s such a strange but expertly written sci-fi meets mystery meets… something else. It’ll also make you scratch your brain a whole lot thinking about destiny and free-will. – Nicole Johnston
Sometimes, not very often, you pick up a book and read it, and when you finish, you think, This book was whole and complete and beautifully, wonderfully crafted. That’s the experience I had reading When You Reach Me. Not a cliché in sight, just clean, pure prose and a story that takes you by the hand and doesn’t let go till the last word. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to thank the author personally for writing it. – Kate Coombs
Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written. – Sam Eddington
Why helloooo, little miss I-almost-made-it-to-the-top-ten-children’s-novels-of-all-time! The last time this book appeared on the Top 100 list I wrote, “There is no way of knowing if When You Reach Me would be this high on the list if it hadn’t just won itself a shiny gold Newbery Medal. When I redo this poll in ten years, there is a fairly good chance that the book will either disappear entirelly from this list, or crawl even higher in the estimation of folks as more and more people read it.” Well, it hasn’t been ten years yet, but judging how quickly this book climbed from its original position at #39, things are looking up, don’t you think?
The summary from my original review reads, “It’s the late 70s and the unthinkable has occurred. While walking home, Miranda’s best friend Sal is punched in the stomach for no good reason. After that, he refuses to hang out with Miranda anymore. Forced to make other friends, Miranda befriends the class yukster and a girl who has also recently broken up with her best friend too. But strange things are afoot in the midst of all this. Miranda has started receiving tiny notes with mysterious messages. They say things like ‘I am coming to save your friend’s life and my own’ and ‘You will want proof. 3 p.m. today: Colin’s knapsack.’ Miranda doesn’t know who is writing these things or where they are coming from but it is infinitely clear that the notes know things that no one could know. Small personal things that seem to know what she’s thinking. Now Miranda’s helping her mom study for the $20,000 Pyramid show all the while being driven closer and closer to the moment when it all comes together. When you eliminate the possible all that remains, no matter how extraordinary, is the impossible.”
Originally titled You Are Here (which may explain the image on the cover a bit better), author Rebecca Stead had only previously written the science fiction middle grade novel First Light, before penning this newest book. In May of 2009 I, being no fool, interviewed Rebecca right quick so as to talk to her about the book. I asked her where the ideas for the book came from. She answered, “The ‘big idea’ behind the book was sparked by a newspaper article about a man who walked up to a policeman and said that he had no idea who he was or why he was there. All he could remember was that his wife, Penny, and their two daughters had been in a terrible accident and needed help. But the police could find no evidence of any kind of accident. They circulated his photo around the country and eventually he was claimed by Penny, who did exist, who was in perfect health, but who was his fiancée, not his wife. No kids, no accident. I thought to myself, what if he knows something we don’t? That’s the kind of thing that gives me chills.
When I asked her if the continuity in the book caused havoc, she had a fascinating answer:
“My editor, Wendy Lamb, and I were trying to find new readers for every draft of the book because, having read a couple of drafts, and, of course, knowing the ending, we felt as if we couldn’t accurately measure its impact anymore.
And so these questions were trickling in: How could Miranda have known X? But if that’s what happened, then wouldn’t Z logically follow? Why did Q? What happened to F?
And one day I just lost my sense of the book’s internal logic. I had this sudden horrible certainty that the whole thing could never stand up. I remember being in my bedroom and experiencing a wave of nausea. And I called my dad, who is the person who introduced me to science fiction when I was a kid, and watched lots of Star Trek with me, and who has this great way of enjoying speculative fiction and taking it very seriously at the same time.
I asked him to meet me. In an hour, if possible. I hadn’t told him anything at all about the book yet, so we sat in a restaurant and ordered breakfast and I laid out the whole story, all the pieces. And when I got to the end he was making this very weird scrunched-up face. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘Nothing’s wrong. I’m trying not to cry.’
When he said that, I thought, okay, I have to make this story hold together somehow. So we just sat there and talked until I had a handle on it again. And when I got that back, I knew immediately which parts of the book didn’t fit, and how to answer all the questions I’d gotten from our readers. And continuity was never a problem after that.”
Clearly. After all, the book won itself a pretty little Newbery Medal in 2010, beating out Honor books Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin and The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick.
- In the New York Times, Monica Edinger called it a “smart and mesmerizing book.”
- Speaking of Monica, check out the awesome mural her kids made for this book.
- Love the storyboards this guy made for the book.
A starred review in Kirkus said, “[W]hen all the sidewalk characters from Miranda’s Manhattan world converge amid mind-blowing revelations and cunning details, teen readers will circle back to the beginning and say,’Wow … cool.’”
A starred review in Booklist said, “[T]he mental gymnastics required of readers are invigorating; and the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest.”
A starred review, in The Horn Book Magazine said, “Closing revelations are startling and satisfying but quietly made, their reverberations giving plenty of impetus for the reader to go back to the beginning and catch what was missed.”
A starred review in School Library Journal said, “This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers.”
And a starred review in Publishers Weekly said, “It’s easy to imagine readers studying Miranda’s story as many times as she’s read L’Engle’s, and spending hours pondering the provocative questions it raises.”
The original American cover was created by artist Sophie Blackall. On her blog, Ms. Blackall showed some alternate ideas she played with when creating this jacket. Here are two of her sketches:
The British and Australian editions are particularly interesting when you consider the minor changes they made to the jacket.
And when I was in Bologna I saw my very first foreign edition for the book. I present to you . . . Italy!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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