On the surface, Rebecca Stead’s middle-grade novel When You Reach Me seems like an ordinary friendship story. Miranda’s best friend forever, Sal, is ignoring her, shooting baskets with other boys outside their New York City apartment building. In school, girls are mean, then they aren’t. Her single mom despises her job and is indecisive about Richard, her perfect boyfriend.
All normal for many 12-year-olds. But soon similarities to ordinary life break apart and something truly special starts to happen.
Maybe it began with the break-in. Miranda and her mom are certain someone found their hidden key and entered their apartment, stealing Richard’s work shoes. But truly, she suspects the mystery started that day after school when Sal got punched, the moment their friendship changed.
The real puzzle involves the unexplained notes telling Miranda what she must do. Specific instructions make it clear that she’s to write a letter, retelling exactly what happened. “It’s all still there,” Miranda reflects, “like a movie I can watch when I want to. Which is never.”
Surrounding this mystery is a clever running subplot involving “The $20,000 Pyramid.” This game show theme is echoed in chapter headings – The Winner’s Circle, Things You Don’t Forget, Things You Give Away – and provides a humorous return to reality that moves the action along.
Is “When You Reach Me” science fiction? Time travel? A highly imaginative girl’s completely conceived experience? Maybe it’s historical fiction. After all, it is set in 1979.
In the end, however, it doesn’t really matter – although a lot happens in 208 pages. Scenes jump from a dentist’s office to the school, the corner grocery to the Upper West Side apartment. And there are at least 14 characters with more than walk-on parts.
The beauty of Stead’s writing is found in the way she weaves subplots and settings together seamlessly. Richard’s stolen shoe drops into place. A reference to forbidden grapes is tied up sweetly. Stolen $2 bills? Another part of the enigma explained by the end.
A clue to working out a solution lies in the novel Miranda carries with her, preferring it to the exploits of spunky heroines that her teacher recommends. As she tells the story to a friend, chapter by chapter, bright young readers will recognize “A Wrinkle in Time.” It’s another piece of the puzzle.
Although it may take more than a first pass to get your bearings, this book has tremendous appeal. Boys and girls, parents, teachers, and probably the grown-ups who hand out awards won’t want to miss Rebecca Stead’s completely original, fascinating, and well-crafted novel.