Opening line to When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.
Have you read A Wrinkle in Time? Miranda, the sixth grade narrator of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, has been reading it over and over since she she turned 10. Miranda points out that the book never says exactly how old the main character, Meg, is. So, when she was 10, Miranda thought Meg was also 10. Now that she's 11, she thinks Meg is 11. This is an important to remember if you ever decide to write books for younger young adults. A Wrinkle in Time is also a very important clue, a masterful piece of foreshadowing. I'll not say more so I don't give anything away.
In fact, if you intend to read When You Reach Me, my advice is to stop reading this review and all other reviews of it. The more opportunity the book has to surprise you the better.
A few months ago, I saw John Irving interviewed for a radio program, West Coast Live, over in Berkeley. Mr. Irving said that he always begins his novels with the last line of the book. Then he works out the plot backwards, going from the finish to the opening. Afterwards, he begins writing the actual novel, knowing from the moment he begins, exactly how it all will end. I suspect Ms. Stead has a similar process. When You Reach Me is a masterpiece of plotting. Everything fits together naturally even the possibility of supernatural elements. It's the sort of plot one doesn't find very often anymore, certainly not in adult books. We've come to expect messiness in novels; we think messiness is natural, realistic. It's nice to find a novel that revels in plot the way When You Reach Me does.
So the plot....
When You Reach Me is about Miranda, a sixth grader who lives with her single mother in New York City in 1979. Her mother has been selected to appear on The 20,000 Dollar Pyramid, a television game show some readers here may remember. When not studying for the game show, she is dating a nearly perfect man who wants to move in and working as a para-legal. She named Miranda after the decision that gave defendants the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Miranda is not as happy about this as her mother would like her to be.
1979 is a difficult year for Miranda. He long time best friend, a boy, has suddenly stopped speaking to her. She has become friends with one of the more popular girls in school much to the consternation of the popular girl's former best friend. And this unusual new boy has arrived on the scene. One day, Miranda gets a note asking her to write it all down, to tell the complete story. The note writer seems to know all about Miranda's situation, but she has no idea who he is or how he is connected to her or even how she is supposed to deliver the story once she has written it down. More notes follow, each one leaving more questions than answers, up until a dramatic, near death experience that brings it all together in a way that made me want to immediately re-read the book so I could figure out just exactly how all the pieces fit once again.
I wish there had been some way for Ms. Stead to avoid naming the grade Miranda is in. I know some seventh graders who would love this book, even a few eighth graders. But there is a chance that I'll end up teaching sixth grade English next year. If I do I'll be first in line to order a class set of When You Reach Me.