MAY 14, 2013
IN 1979, A SHY 11-YEAR-OLD brought her well-worn copy of A Wrinkle in Time to a Manhattan bookstore for Madeline L’Engle to sign. “For Rebecca,” the Newbery award-winning author wrote, “Tesser Well.” In 2010, that same ardent fan — author Rebecca Stead — would find herself standing at a podium in a Washington, DC, ballroom accepting her own Newbery for When You Reach Me, her elegantly crafted, evocative middle-grade novel that doubles as a tribute to A Wrinkle in Time.
Stead unlocked the secret to L’Engle’s advice: “tessering” — taking shortcuts through time and space — isn’t just a fantastical concept that exists between the pages of A Wrinkle in Time. It’s also a description of what takes place whenever we read and write. And in When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead proves herself to be a virtuoso time traveler. She “tessers” to the 1970s Manhattan of her youth, tapping into her childhood emotions and experiences to create a page-turning blend of mystery and science fiction. Like A Wrinkle in Time before it, When You Reach Me never condescends to its audience. It’s a story that takes on big ideas about the nature of time, friendship, compassion, and sacrifice, while still — at its heart — giving kids access to the wonder, doubts, and worries of someone their age.
The heroine of When You Reach Me is Miranda, a 12-year-old self-proclaimed “latchkey kid” who leads a relatively uncomplicated life with her divorced mother in a rundown apartment on the Upper West Side. She gets along with her mother’s boyfriend. She has the run of the neighborhood with her best friend, Sal. Her mom is hoping to win big when she goes on Dick Clark’s The $20,000 Pyramid game show in a few months. But everything changes when Sal gets punched at school and mysteriously ends his friendship with Miranda. That same day, she receives the first in a series of unsettling notes with instructions and dire proclamations from someone who seems to live in the future. “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own,” the first note reads in tiny script. “I will not be myself when I reach you.” Without Sal by her side, Miranda must figure out what story the mysterious time traveler needs her to tell — all while trying to navigate a new set of middle school friendships.
At its simplest level, When You Reach Me offers kids the pure fun of figuring out a puzzle. Precocious young readers who piece together the clues will feel clever. The ones who don’t will have just as much fun flipping back through the book to find the hints they missed. But, like Miranda’s (and Stead’s) favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time, the story also conveys a sense that life is full of unseen mysteries. “It’s crazy the things a person can pretend not to notice,” Miranda says in the first pages, foreshadowing the many overlooked clues to follow. Later, she returns to the theme, explaining her mom’s theory that our experience of life is always mediated and incomplete. “We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces,” Miranda paraphrases, “But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind that blew it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is.” It’s not hard to imagine young When You Reach Me fans — long after they’ve finished the book — trying to “lift their veils” in everyday life to notice the unexplainable realities adults conveniently ignore. Like so many great children’s books, When You Reach Me doesn’t shy away from exploring big questions.
When You Reach Me also offers kids an emotional connection to a girl struggling to make sense of her world. Stead balances the larger time travel narrative with Miranda’s daily experience, recognizing that — from a sixth-grade perspective — life-or-death stakes and the loss of a friendship might not feel that far apart. Miranda’s narrative voice is startlingly authentic, in part because Stead so skillfully conveys the self-doubt of the age. It’s not just life’s bigger mysteries she’s unsure of. Trivial ones are equally perplexing: “I snorted,” she says after she’s said something mean to her mother. “I tried to snort, anyway. I’m not exactly sure how, though people in books are always doing it.” Not only does Stead create an endearing and vulnerable voice for Miranda, she also give us access to her internal landscape through well-chosen sensory details: the “food-not-food smell” of dry cleaner exhaust, the way her hexagonal bathroom tile shifts into different patterns when she stares at it, the mesmerizing quality of light reflected in the oily water of a saucepan.
But When You Reach Me is not just a book for kids. It is a meditation on storytelling itself — on the difficulty and risks inherent in trying to make oneself understood, and the necessity of doing so anyway. Miranda and her mystery correspondent from the future are both writers struggling to tell a story and readers who must interpret one. Lives — and possibly the future of the planet — depend on their successfully communicating. Could the stakes for a reader and writer’s relationship be any higher? This is not Miranda’s mother’s $20,000 Pyramid clue-guessing game, even if the interpretive process looks alike. “This is the story I need you to tell,” the time traveler pleads. You can almost hear Stead demanding the same of her former self as she reaches back to her own childhood and tries to tell us a story that will make a difference. “The trip is a difficult one,” Miranda’s correspondent adds. “I might not be myself when I reach you.” If the act of writing is its own form of time travel, the implication for Stead is clear: telling a story changes a writer, too.
If Stead ever had any doubt that it was possible to live up to Madeline L’Engle’s advice and “tesser well,” When You Reach Me must have put it to rest. While precocious kids will enjoy the mystery and connection the novel offers, it also reminds us that stories have urgency, that telling them (or understanding them fully) can be a struggle, and — perhaps most of all — that they hold the power to transform writers and readers alike.