Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me is the kind of book that wins the Newbery Award. Remember that next year, because I will be very surprised if this doesn't get at least a Newbery Honor, or even win.

It's the kind of book where various bits and pieces manage to seem symbolic even as they do a perfectly good job of carrying the story along. How can a story full of such ordinary details seem so intense and cosmic? Perhaps the greatest trick the author pulls off is to put in vats of significance without adding even one viscous drop of that goop, pomposity.

When You Reach Me is a book that weaves in another book, A Wrinkle in Time, for more than one reason.

It's a book that talks about friendship in a way few books have. Among them is Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, another book which is alluded to once here, albeit obliquely.

And even though When You Reach Me is a book about kids and friendship, I spent the whole thing in a near-breathless state of suspense. Because something bad is obviously going to happen—probably. So this book is also a mystery. Maybe it will win an Edgar award, too.

When You Reach Me reminds me a little of Markus Zusak's book for teens, I Am the Messenger, except that the ending of this one works better.

Is When You Reach Me science fiction? Fantasy? Magical realism? A coming of age story? Not so coincidentally, the same questions have been asked about A Wrinkle in Time. I was reshelving my own library by genre the other day and stood there for five minutes with L'Engle's book in my hand, trying to decide where it should go. I never really came up with a satisfactory answer. (Louis Sachar's Holes is a little like that, as well.)

There's something poetic about this book. Listen to sixth grader Miranda's voice, clear as the air on a mountaintop:

When we were too little for school, Sal and I went to day care together at a lady's apartment down the block. She had picked up some carpet samples at a store on Amsterdam Avenue and written the kids' names on the backs. After lunch, she'd pass out these carpet squares and we'd pick our spots on the living room floor for nap time. Sal and I always lined ours up to make a rectangle.

One time, when Sal had a fever and Louisa had called in sick to her job and kept him home, the day-care lady handed me my carpet square at nap time, and then, a second later, she gave me Sal's, too.

"I know how it is, baby," she said.

And then I lay on her floor not sleeping because Sal wasn't there to press his foot against mine.

So please, follow Miranda around and try to figure out why her best friend, Sal, is avoiding her. Check out the two-dollar bills, the V-cut, Alice's bathroom dance, and Julia's silver bracelet. Wonder for yourself why the homeless guy on the corner sleeps with his face under the mailbox, also whether Miranda's mom will win when she goes on Dick Clark's game show, The $20,000 Pyramid. It's 1978, sort of. And everything matters more than you think.

Note: Although When You Reach Me is listed on Amazon in one spot as being a YA book, it's listed elsewhere as being for ages 9-12. The publisher, Wendy Lamb (Random House), lists the book as suitable for readers ages 9-14. So I'll stick with my Newbery prediction rather than the Printz!


Charlotte said...

This one's on my list...

Angela said...

This is the second book review I've read of this book - and whenever I read more than one review I start to get really curious. I'm going to add this to my to-read list.

Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

One of the best reviews out of all the kids book reviews I've read.

Tanya said...

(Forgive me if this is a duplicate comment - having blog issues...)

Kate - Brilliant review of an amazing book! I just finished reading it and am bursting to talk about it! You did a fabulous job presenting all the wonderful plot aspects without giving anything away! Bravo! I hope your prediction it accurate.

PS - Thanks for confirming my suspicions that that was a copy of "Harriet the Spy" Mr Tompkin tried to get Miranda to read...

Kate Coombs said...

Thanks, Tanya! And I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one who caught the reference to Harriet the Spy--yes, that's what I meant. Isn't it something how the best books give you that "bursting to talk about it" feeling? What bliss!

Kate Coombs said...

And thank you, Berchta, Charlotte, and Angie! These days, not many books move me as much as this one did. That makes me appreciate it all the more.

MaureenHume said...

I can't wait to read this book! I just read Tanya's review and linked over to you. Between the two of you I'm completely intrigued. I'm heading to Amazon right now.
Maureen Hume.