When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me cover
Sixth grader Miranda walks home with her best friend every day, helps her mom study for her $20,000 Pyramid debut, and reads A Wrinkle in Time over and over again. But suddenly her life is full of odd characters: the crazy man under the mailbox on her street, and the kid who punches her best friend for no reason. And then she starts getting the notes…

Cybils 2009
I love almost everything about this wonderfully original book: the mom’s boyfriend who’s actually a nice guy and a good dad, the chapter titles structured as $20,000 Pyramid categories (it took me awhile to get that), the way the tone evokes A Wrinkle in Time. It’s one of those cozy books where everyone is good and forgiving and human without being saccharine, and it probably makes me a giant wuss, but I love that. The end is creepy and tragic and uplifting, and I bawled my eyes out.

As a side note, I have to quote this delicious (snerk) swipe at food-related racial shorthand:

My first memory of Julia is from second grade, when we made self-portraits in art. She complained there was no “cafe au lait”-colored construction paper for her skin, or “sixty-percent-cacao-chocolate” color for her eyes. I remember staring at her while these words came out of her mouth, and thinking, Your skin is light brown. Your eyes are dark brown. Why don’t you just use brown, you idiot? Jay Stringer didn’t complain about the paper, and neither did any of the other ten kids using brown.

What really makes this work is that while Julia is set up to be the snotty love-to-hate-her girl, she ends up being a friend. So we see how even though she’s privileged financially, she encounters so much racism that she needed to ennoble her brown skin as “cafe au lait” — and somehow Stead manages to make all of these points subtly, while staying within sixth-grade perspective.

Sadly what I don’t love about this book is the cover. I would have loved the hell out of this book when I was twelve, but no one could’ve convinced me to read it. I would have looked at the cover, gone “Meh, depressed kid with no friends and too much interior life,” and tossed it. (I didn’t like books that hit too close to home, apparently.)

We just got it, so I haven’t started foisting it on my kids yet, but I think they’ll love it. Highly recommended!

Also reviewed by: Abby (the) Librarian, Educating Alice (which has an annoying snowfall animation, but makes up for it with posts by her students about the book), and A Fuse #8 Production (who writes much longer reviews than I do, so she says all the things I wanted to say but didn’t).

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9 Responses to When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead

  1. kelsie says:

    i love this book im a 6th grader and this book is what im going through and if you are a 6th grader then read it!!!!!!

  2. Sam says:

    Diane, I’m a teacher — I’m not going to do your homework for you! But you can do this yourself if you read the book thoughtfully. A hint: think about some of the objects on the cover. Could any of them symbolize anything interesting?

  3. Diane says:

    i need some symbols from the book for a project…. around five.

  4. Pingback: When You Reach Me wins the Newbery! Squeeee!

  5. Sam says:

    Ms. Yingling:

    I think it’s really really great and worth owning. That said, I’m not sure how much press it’s getting among kids. I’ve had to hand-sell it, which will be much harder if you didn’t like it yourself!

    (Why do you think The Underneath is similar? I haven’t read it — it seems pitched younger than my students — but it doesn’t sound particularly comparable to me.)

  6. Ms. Yingling says:

    I’m going to have to buy this, aren’t I? It read like something that would have been published when I was 12, and I felt decidedly “meh” about it, but it’s gotten so much press. That said, no one has checked out The Underneath, so maybe I should pass!

  7. rebecca says:

    Oh hells yes, I definitely agree about the tiredness of “skin like chocolate,” “skin like coffee,” etc. I wish I heard the snarkiness here as being directed at that tradition rather than being directed at Julia personally. And I wish I saw Miranda eventually getting this clue later. But I’m glad to hear another way of reading it.

  8. Sam says:

    And I can completely see feeling that way about it. I wrestled a lot with whether it was ok for me to like it as much as I did. But ultimately, I saw it as an effectively memorable scene that’s part of Miranda’s growth. So much of the book is about her journey to understanding that people have their own brains and emotions and needs (which I don’t say to imply that she’s unusually selfish, just that she’s at an age where self-absorption is developmentally appropriate). This struck me as part of that — she snarks about this memory of Julia, but ends up closer to getting it by the end.

    (And, I’ll admit, I loved it because I’m so tired of the cliche of using food-themed descriptions to delicately indicate a character’s race.)

  9. rebecca says:

    Wow, I deeply wish I agreed about that scene. I am very uncomfortable with how the text handled that scene. In my opinion, the text (through Miranda’s eyes) mocks Julia for wanting a shade of brown that matches her own skin, mocking the idea that such a thing could possibly be important and that there’s any reason to get upset about it. It uses that particular complaint to show that Julia is spoiled. And even though later we learn to like Julia, and even though Miranda once later uses the term “cafe au lait” in positive way, I never recovered from the text’s original use of “wanting a shade of brown that matches her skin” as a a symbol of unreasonableness. It didn’t actively rescind that equation, and that’s not okay with me.

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