Sunday, April 23, 2017

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

A law school classmate of mine recently assigned one of his kids the task of reading all of the Newbery Award winners - that’s nearly 100 books. And those are just the winners, not the honorable mentions. I have read 20 of them - and a good number of the runner ups - but nowhere near the whole list. Over the last three years, we have added several of them to our audiobook queue, including this one. 

First of all, before you read this book, I strongly recommend you read the winner from 1963: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. (Conveniently reviewed by me in this post.)  The reason why is that the book features prominently - and in important ways - in When You Reach Me. It is possible to follow the story without the background, but things make more sense and the story is richer if you know the subtext.

When You Reach Me is, by analogy to Magical Realism, “SciFi Realism.” The book is mostly realistic, and mostly about relationships. Parent to child, friend to friend, antagonistic relationships and friendly ones.

The story is set in New York City in the late 1970s. The author, Rebecca Stead, based much of the setting on her own childhood. The themes too are related to her experiences at that age, particularly her own love for A Wrinkle in Time, and her realization that she was acting mean for no reason. Thus, the main character, Miranda, learns to seek to build relationships rather than compete for attention in much the same way that the author did. Stead also noted that she wanted to portray the way that children back then enjoyed significantly more freedom at younger ages than they do now - despite the fact that the world is actually an objectively far safer place than it was back then. (Look at statistics on muggings and sexual assault in NYC in the 70s versus now…)

Miranda is trying to navigate 6th grade when things start to go sideways. Her best (and really only) friend Sal is punched randomly by a guy named Marcus, who is a math whiz, but socially awkward. Sal stops speaking to Miranda, who can’t figure it out. She clashes with her mom over typical adolescent stuff, and finds herself both making new friends and clashing with others. And then this weird old homeless guy shows up and starts sleeping with his head under the apartment complex mailbox, and she gets weird cryptic notes that appear to be able to foretell the future.

The mystery itself slowly unfolds - my wife and I figured out the solution just after halfway through the book - sooner than Miranda - but we had the advantage of age and suspension of disbelief. I’m not sure when the kids each got it, because I was driving and couldn’t exchange meaningful glances with the back seats. It’s a good mystery, though. The story itself is imaginative, and different. It doesn’t feel like a predictable twist on a usual story, which is nice.

I also liked that it had a host of nuanced characters. There aren’t any villains, even though it is easy to think so. (The rich, snobby girl, Julia, is a villain because of how she is perceived, as much as anything, and as Miranda changes, so does how she perceives Julia.) The various parents are believable and a bit eccentric. Miranda’s mother, the single mom who dresses a bit off, but who treats Miranda “like a person,” as Annmarie says. Annmarie’s dad, who works from home, and is a bit obsessive about the special diet she needs, but who is a kind and decent person. Julia’s mom, who absolutely must not be disturbed ever when she is in the closet meditating. And a few others, like the Soup Nazi-like school supplies administrator, or the hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop owner, Jerry, who is crusty, a bit odd, a bit racist, and hoards $2.00 bills, Richard, the German-American boyfriend of Miranda’s mom, who defies the “evil stepparent” stereotype while helping keep Miranda and her mom from being too serious about the small things. They are people you care about, and recognize as being more than a little like someone you know.

It also bears mentioning that this book treats its themes lightly. There are some good jokes and funny scenes that kept even the most jaded of my kids laughing. It really was an enjoyable book.

I am hoping we can add a few more of these winning books to our list over the next few years. Great stories are timeless, and there are many outstanding writers telling new tales for new times, inspiring the imagination, and cultivating empathy and nuanced thinking.

The audiobook was read by Cynthia Holloway, who did a decent job. I don’t have any complaints - it was good - but it didn’t stand out in any particular way. Sometimes that is the best compliment: the reader didn’t get in the way of the story.

Anyway, this Newbery winner for 2010 is worth a read - just be sure to read the 1963 winner too.

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