Phoebe's Reviews > When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
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Mar 05, 12

bookshelves: intergalactic-academy-reviews, sci-fi, childrens, middle-grade, loved-it
Read on February 23, 2012

Full review at the Intergalactic Academy.

I’m late to the party with Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, winner of a Newbery in 2010 and recipient of widespread acclaim. It certainly deserves its praise; this is an engaging, fascinating middle grade novel, which takes stylistic risks all while celebrating a work of classic children’s science fiction, namely Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

A Wrinkle in Time is twelve-year-old Miranda’s favorite book. She retreats into its pages when her best friend, Sal, decides he doesn’t want to be her friend anymore. So Miranda branches out, befriending a small gaggle of interesting classmates.

There’s the time-traveling obsessed nerd. The secret epileptic. The snooty rich girl. The cute thief. All of these characters are rendered vividly, with realism and with nuance.

When You Reach Me‘s realism is probably its greatest asset. This is a sci-fi novel, sure, but it’s an incredibly grounded sci-fi novel. The little details here make Miranda’s New York City as nuanced as any science fictional landscape. One description, of her mother’s response to their ratty apartment when they first moved in, struck me as particularly true and touching.

This is a novel very much of its time–the time in which it’s set, not the time in which it was written. Miranda’s New York isn’t the New York of today but rather New York in the ’70s. In some ways this is a necessity; the plot very much hinges on Miranda’s identity as a latch-key kid. The wide latitude she and her friends are given (they go out for lunch, and even work in a local deli) would not be believable in modern children, even tough inner city kids like Miranda and Sal.

But the setting also works on another level, self-consciously evoking nostalgia for ’70s children’s literature–not only L’Engle’s works, but also the works of realist children’s writers like Judy Blume, Emily Cheney Neville, and Louise Fitzhugh, among others. If you know anything about the history of children’s fiction, you might know that this was an era with a strong emphasis on emotional honesty. Writers had moved passed the cheerful, “safe” renditions of childhood presented by ’50s writers such as Carolyn Haywood, and instead endeavored to speak to children with a trademarked earnestness and honesty.

Stead’s Miranda successfully recalls the heroes of these books, though her ending was a bit more pat than what you typically find in ’70s kid-lit. It seemed to reflect a feeling of resolution and finality more in keeping with the sensibilities of modern kid readers. Still, it was true to its premises, expanding along fascinating and unexpected SFnal lines.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this is strongest as a nostalgia piece, invoking A Wrinkle in Time while not quite transcending it. Perhaps that’s a tall order, but one of the trademarks of L’Engle’s Kairos books was their timelessness. While, like other authors of her generation, L’Engle’s children (though precocious) were emotionally true, they also seemed to exist in a universe unfettered by linear time. As Miranda says, “The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven” (8). Meg’s world was one without generational markers, which is, in part, what gave it such long legs.

Will When You Reach Me have the same staying power, the same potential to speak to middle schoolers fifty years from now? I’m not entirely sure. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great middle grade novel, a fun beginner’s exploration of certain physical concepts, a stirring mystery, and a strangely beautiful commentary on the power of friendship. But it dates itself, quite self-consciously, by embracing a story of yesterday’s children . While I don’t doubt that this will be a comforting book, familiar but still fresh, for many adult readers, I do feel that L’Engle’s mantle still remains unclaimed.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Kirsten (new) - added it

Kirsten Hubbard love.


Phoebe Kirsten wrote: "love."

Such love!


Flannery This is a wonderful review, Phoebe. I read nearer to its release date and only wrote a paragraph or two about it so I wouldn't forget it. But you did something great--brought the experience right back to me in a way that made me remember exactly what I loved about it.


Phoebe Flannery wrote: "This is a wonderful review, Phoebe. I read nearer to its release date and only wrote a paragraph or two about it so I wouldn't forget it. But you did something great--brought the experience right b..."

Aw, thank you, Flannery.


Lisa Vegan Wonderful review, Phoebe.

I do think the book might last. It'll be historical fiction in the future, just as it is historical fiction now. A Wrinkle in Time has been a favorite book of mine since I was nine years old, and I'd have loved this one then too. I agree with you that this book's realism is one of it's strengths.


Phoebe Lisa wrote: "Wonderful review, Phoebe.

I do think the book might last. It'll be historical fiction in the future, just as it is historical fiction now. A Wrinkle in Time has been a favorite book..."


Thanks, Lisa.

Perhaps it will! My instinct is that historical fiction needs to work a little bit harder to achieve the same classic status as something more timeless. But I suppose we'll see. :)


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