If you haven’t heard of this book before, you might believe that it’s a teen romance from the title. Do not let the title fool you. It has a very small romance in it, but it is mostly peripheral, and this story is about something entirely different.
There is so much involved in this 197-page book that it’s hard to know what to mention in this review and what to leave out. Miranda lives in New York City with her mom. It’s 1979, Miranda is twelve years old, and she’s been receiving mysterious notes from a stranger that discuss things that will happen in Miranda’s future. And then those things come to pass, like the fact that Miranda’s mom becomes a contestant on the game show $20,000 Pyramid. Within this time-travel mystery, the book also touches upon class, race, friendship, bullying, homelessness, and so many other issues. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time is a recurrent theme, and any kid who loves that book (as so many did in 1979 and so many do now) will also love the many references to it here.
When You Reach Me starts a bit slow. Miranda doesn’t receive the first note until page 60, and before that happens, I wasn’t sure where the book was heading. Once the first note hit, however, I was hooked.
The book benefits from short, snappy chapters (2-3 pages each) with interesting titles deliberately mimicking the game show (Things That Go Missing; Things That Sneak Up on You; Things That Turn Pink). (For those of us who haven’t ever watched the $20,000 Pyramid, the second round involves one contestant trying to get her partner to guess the category of the words she recites. For example, she might say “Lever, Handle, Hair,” and the answer would be “Things you pull.”)
I think young fans of genre fiction, particularly mysteries and science fiction, will find a lot to like in this book. It has those mystery and sci-fi elements, but it really is something unique that makes it stand out from these genres. At times Miranda’s voice seems a bit too mature, but for the most part she is engaging and seems like a twelve year old. If a young reader makes it to page 60, he or she will not be able to stop until reaching the end. The end is really spectacular, perhaps not as surprising to an adult as it might be to a child, but beautifully written and just challenging enough to require some thought after the last page is turned but also be understandable for its intended audience.
The biggest thing that will prevent this book from moving off the shelves, or at least the copy that I read, is the cover. Not the front cover, which isn’t too bad, but the back. There is no book blurb. Instead, it’s a litany of praise for Stead’s earlier book, First Light. That isn’t terribly unusual, but the book doesn’t have an inside flap. There’s no way for a tween browsing the shelves to find out what this book is about. Something like that is vital, and I’m sad that it’s missing from this copy, because I really think this book could have a fairly large audience. I can think of a half-dozen ways to pitch it: how Miranda’s friend Sal gets punched in the face for no apparent reason on the street one day, the time travel enigma, the mysterious notes…the blurb could easily grab someone.
Despite that (or because of that, really), I encourage you to give this one a try. It’s refreshing and interesting, and you could read it in an afternoon.