When You Reach Me (Stead)

When You Reach Me
Rebecca Stead, 2009
Random House
208 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385737425

Four mysterious letters change Miranda's world forever.

By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know whom to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner.

But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a new kid for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then Miranda finds a mysterious note scrawled on a tiny slip of paper:

I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows all about her, including things that have not even happened yet. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—January 16, 1968
Where—New York City, New York, USA
Education—B.A., Vassar College
Awards—Newbery Medal
Currently—lives in New York City, New York

Rebecca Stead  is an American author who writes books for children and young adults. She won the 2010 Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to children's literature for her second novel, When You Reach Me.

Personal Life
Born and raised in New York City, Stead enjoyed her elementary school years and remembers fondly the way to make and enjoy tacos. She attended Vassar College and received her bachelor's degree in 1989.

Rebecca Stead is married to attorney Sean O'Brien and has two sons. She and her family live on the upper west side of Manhattan.

Writing Career

Stead enjoyed writing as a child, but as she grew older she felt it was 'impractical' and became a lawyer instead. After years as a public defender she returned to writing after the birth of her two children. On her website she credits her son with inspiring her to write a children's novel, but not in the way one would expect. For years she had collected story ideas and short stories on a laptop, which the child pushed off a table, destroying it and losing all her 'serious' writing. As a way to lighten her mood she began again with something light-hearted. The creation of First Light followed.
First Light

When You Reach Me
When You Reach Me takes place in 1978-1979 New York. The story follows Miranda, a sixth grader, as she recalls the events of the past few months, laying out clues and puzzles as she asks an unseen listener to figure it out. The setting is a tiny slice of Manhattan, filled with abundant details and vivid characters. It has been described as suspense with a bit of the supernatural. Miranda is a great fan of Madeleine L'Engle's classic, A Wrinkle in Time and references to that book help add to the mystery of the novel. Three plot lines run through this novel, seemingly unrelated as the tale begins: Miranda's mother prepares to be a guest on The $20,000 Pyramid; Miranda's lifelong friend Sal will no longer speak to her; and "the laughing man", a very strange homeless man catches Miranda's attention. Publishers Weekly applauds Stead's ability to 'make every detail count' as she creates a plausible conclusion with these divergent and improbable plot lines. A New York Times Book Review called it a "taut novel, every word, every sentence, has meaning and substance. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
In this era of supersize children's books, Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me looks positively svelte. But don't be deceived: In this taut novel, every word, every sentence, has meaning and substance. A hybrid of genres, it is a complex mystery, a work of historical fiction, a school story and one of friendship, with a leitmotif of time travel running through it. Most of all the novel is a thrilling puzzle. Stead piles up clues on the way to a moment of intense drama, after which it is pretty much impossible to stop reading until the last page.
Monica Edinger - New York Times

Like A Wrinkle in Time (Miranda's favorite book), When You Reach Me far surpasses the usual whodunit or sci-fi adventure to become an incandescent exploration of "life, death, and the beauty of it all." Look in vain for cheesy time-travel machines and rock-'em-sock-'em action. Instead, the believable characters and unexpected ending invite readers to ponder the extraordinary that underlies the ordinary in this fictional world and in their own.
Mary Quattlebaum - Washington Post

Readers ... are likely to find themselves chewing over the details of this superb and intricate tale long afterward.
Wall Street Journal

Twelve-year-old Miranda, a latchkey kid whose single mother is a law school dropout, narrates this complex novel, a work of science fiction grounded in the nitty-gritty of Manhattan life in the late 1970s. Miranda’s story is set in motion by the appearance of cryptic notes that suggest that someone is watching her and that they know things about her life that have not yet happened. She’s especially freaked out by one that reads: “I’m coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” Over the course of her sixth-grade year, Miranda details three distinct plot threads: her mother’s upcoming appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid; the sudden rupture of Miranda’s lifelong friendship with neighbor Sal; and the unsettling appearance of a deranged homeless person dubbed “the laughing man.” Eventually and improbably, these strands converge to form a thought-provoking whole. Stead (First Light) accomplishes this by making every detail count, including Miranda’s name, her hobby of knot tying and her favorite book, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. 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. Ages 9–14.
Publishers Weekly

(Gr 5-8) Sixth-grader Miranda lives in 1978 New York City with her mother, and her life compass is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. When she receives a series of enigmatic notes that claim to want to save her life, she comes to believe that they are from someone who knows the future. Miranda spends considerable time observing a raving vagrant who her mother calls “the laughing man” and trying to find the connection between the notes and her everyday life. Discerning readers will realize the ties between Miranda’s mystery and L’Engle’s plot, but will enjoy hints of fantasy and descriptions of middle school dynamics. Stead’s novel is as much about character as story. Miranda’s voice rings true with its faltering attempts at maturity and observation. The story builds slowly, emerging naturally from a sturdy premise. As Miranda reminisces, the time sequencing is somewhat challenging, but in an intriguing way. The setting is consistently strong. The stores and even the streets–in Miranda’s neighborhood act as physical entities and impact the plot in tangible ways. This unusual, thought-provoking mystery will appeal to several types of readers. —Caitlin Augusta, The Darien Library, CT
Library Journal

The 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.

When Miranda's best friend Sal gets punched by a strange kid, he abruptly stops speaking to her; then oddly prescient letters start arriving. They ask for her help, saying, "I'm coming to save your friend's life, and my own." Readers will immediately connect with Miranda's fluid first-person narration, a mix of Manhattan street smarts and pre-teen innocence. She addresses the letter writer and recounts the weird events of her sixth-grade year, hoping to make sense of the crumpled notes. Miranda's crystalline picture of her urban landscape will resonate with city teens and intrigue suburban kids. As the letters keep coming, Miranda clings to her favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, and discusses time travel with Marcus, the nice, nerdy boy who punched Sal. Keen readers will notice Stead toying with time from the start, as Miranda writes in the present about past events that will determine her future. Some might guess at the baffling, heart-pounding conclusion, but when 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." (12 & up
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for When You Reach Me:

1. Consider how Madeleine L'Engle's book, A Wrinkle in Time, sets the stage for When You Reach Me—especially Marcus's comment to Miranda that "those ladies lied in the beginning." How does Marcus's concern about time prefigure the events of this book? Can you explain, in your own words, Marcus's observations about leaving and returning to the garden in A Wrinkle?

2. Can you also explain—can you even grasp—Marcus's comment that time "isn’t a line stretching out in front of us, going in one direction. It’s—well, time is just a construct, actually." What does he mean by "construct"? Consider his concept that time occurs simultaneously. How does that work?

3. When did you realize that is Miranda, as she narrates this story, isn't talking to us, the readers? Were you able to figure out whom she was addressing before the end?

4. Talk about the way in which the author makes New York City feel like a neighborhood in a small town. How are/were Miranda's day-to-day experiences living in the city different from your own...leaving school for lunch, for instance?

5. Were you confused by the way the book skips back and forth between past tense and present tense? Do the different time frames ultimately make sense?

6. How are the chapter titles related to the $20,000 Pyramid game show...and how do those titles fit into the plot?

7. Talk about how friendships form and fall apart in this book— Sal who stops speaking to Miranda, Annemarie, Colin and Julia. How does the author interject racism into the story and how does it affect the friendships?

8. Talk about they way in which all the clues come together like a puzzle at the end. Does it all make sense?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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