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In 2006, when Jersey Boys won the Tony Award, I was greatly annoyed. I was glad it beat The Wedding Singer– my kids singing nursery rhymes could have beat The Wedding Singer– but did not understand how it possibly had more theatrical merit than The Color Purple or The Drowsy Chaperone.
What does this have to do with Newbery Winner When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead? My 12-year-old reading over my shoulder just asked the same thing.
The problem here is that I read The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, which was a Newbery runner-up, first, and I can’t quite understand how it lost to When You Reach Me. But it occurs to me that this sort of back-seat judging goes on whenever awards are being given, whether it be the Newbery, the Tonys, the Grammys, the Oscars, or any other competition where opinions are running fast and free.
This book was unexpected. I grabbed it at Borders because I saw the flashy little medal on the cover and figured it was a good a place as any to begin my journey of reading all the Newbery winners. The cover wasn’t all that interesting. It reminded me a little of a Monopoly board, with its street layout and various items strewn across the grid. The back cover summary made me expect a coming-of-age novel, probably filled with 12-year-old angst. I get a lot of that at home in my real life, but figured girl angst would be a welcome change from the brand my 12-year-old son typically delivers.
As I read the story, it was clear there was more to this tale than meets the eye. It was a bit of a coming-of-age story, but there was more to it. It was science fiction and a mystery as well.
I will say that Ms. Stead does the mystery part very well. One of my pet peeves are s0-called mysteries that don’t carefully hide the clues throughout the book, mysteries where the author pulls a rabbit out of the hat at the last possible moment. She lays the foundation for the denouement very well. In other words, she didn’t cheat. The science fiction part felt a little more forced, but it still made for a good story.
When reading books, I do find myself looking at the characters’ moral universe. I was rather unimpressed with the morality laid out in When You Reach Me. Miranda’s mother steals office supplies. This is just a matter of course in the book, and it’s not remarked upon, good or bad. When Miranda’s mom gets upset, she pilfers office supplies. This bothered me. There was also a fair bit of pre-adolescent cattiness and backbiting, sneaking and lying. Nothing that would make me keep the book from my own children, but still maybe worth having a chat about.
There were two things I really did like about this book. I loved how the author pulled in another Newbery winner, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I got a warm feeling when I realized exactly what book Miranda was carting all over New York City.
I also enjoyed the freedom of Miranda and her friends. It was the ’70s, it was New York, and the kids in this book had the freedom of the city. Imagine that! It reminded me a bit of my own childhood, except I was in Lancaster and riding city buses instead of the subway. Still, it’s hard to imagine kids having that sort of freedom today, more the pity.
All in all, I did enjoy it. It was a quick read, and it required some thinking and interaction on my part. And who can resist a book with a line like
I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.
I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Michael’s Rating: 4/5 stars
Reading Level: 4.9
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Links of Note:
A Classroom Mural of When You Reach Me
Philosophy for Children: When You Reach Me
Video of Rebecca Stead reading from When You Reach Me
Interview with Rebecca Stead
The Official When You Reach Me webpage