Rebecca Stead’s intelligent children’s novel When You Reach Me is full of your typical tween fair: hush-hush middle school crushes, teenage insecurities and tiffs with Mom about not checking in when you’re going to be home late from school. But what separates this 199-page genre-bending novel from its kiddy fiction counterparts is its ability to weave together mystery, suspense, humor and fantasy into one thought provoking story.
Reach Me tells the story of Miranda, a 12-year-old, 6th grade latchkey kid who narrates her life experiences living in upper Manhattan in the late 1970’s. Her mom, a single mother who works as a typist in a law firm and dates one of the lawyers at her firm is obsessed with her upcoming stint as a contestant on the $20,000 Pyramid. It’s their chance at a brighter future and they’ve already begun to make plans for the money (a new rug, an exotic vacation). When Miranda isn’t doing practice rounds with her Mom, she’s trying to figure out who is writing cryptic, mysterious notes to her, predicting her very-near future.
It’s these notes that propels the drama and provides the tension in the book and forces a frightened, yet, intrigued Miranda to put together the clues to find out who’s writing her these notes – and why. Along the way, she loses a longtime friend, develops a crush on the boy she works with at the local sandwich shop and makes friends with a well-to-do classmate who lives in a posh NYC apartment that puts her rundown tenement to shame.
Reach Me is an easy read and the chapters are super short. On the flip side, it does lull a bit midstream as Stead spends a lot of unnecessary time giving expository information about secondary characters. The explanation that was lacking was that of Miranda’s absentee father. But her unspoken feelings about her father’s absence leap off the page in the chapter where she visit’s her new BFF’s apartment for the first time and instantly realizes how involved her father is in her life.
The novel picks up steam in two explosive chapters towards the end when Miranda goes to watch her mother compete on the $20,000 Pyramid and discovers who (or what) has been leaving her those obscure notes. You’re forced to play back every detail of the story to pick up the clues you (and Miranda) both missed that were there all along.
When You Reach Me is a great read for children between the ages of 9 and 14 who love thought provoking fiction and who are curious about the inner workings of class, race and personal relationships.