When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books, 2009
When You Reach Me is a fantasy that doesn’t know it’s a fantasy, a typical coming-of-age novel made atypical–even brilliant–by its sci-fi undercurrent and ever-shifting web of connections and revelations.
Set in the late 1970s, the novel centers on Miranda, a sixth-grader who lives with her mother on Manhattan’s pre-gentrified Upper West Side.
Though the story shifts back and forth in time, it really all starts when Miranda’s best friend Sal falls victim to a random beating on the way home from school. He subsequently shuts her out of his life, refusing to interact with her at school or in the building where they both live.
Miranda finds new friends, but those relationships are fraught with an unexpected–and unfamiliar–blend of hormones and junior-high politics.
At home, she’s becoming increasingly aware of her mother’s idiosyncratic but persistent immaturity. Not to mention that Mom’s longtime boyfriend is pressing for marriage, and Miranda is puzzled by her mother’s apparent reluctance to commit.
And then there are the notes. They start appearing in strange places, like Miranda’s library book or coat pocket, and say strange things like “I am coming to save your friend’s life.”
The mystery of the notes’ origin is at the book’s core, and Stead weaves the solution through her tightly-written narrative with amazing precision.
Every event, every aside contributes to the conclusion. Even the chapter titles–a clever homage to Miranda’s mother’s favorite game show–are part of the puzzle.
In short, Stead’s craft makes When You Reach Me a pure joy to read. But it’s Miranda’s growth that makes the book inspiring.
When the story begins, Miranda is petulant, possessive, and judgmental.
She frets over Sal’s desertion–not because she’s worried about him, but because she’s disdainful (and secretly petrified) of people and experiences outside her life-with-Sal bubble.
She’s also incredibly insecure about her own place on the socioeconomic ladder. The latchkey child of an underpaid legal secretary, she envies the middle- and upper-middle-class trappings of her new friends’ lives.
As she teases out the mystery of the anonymous notes, however, something happens.
Forced to operate on her own, she uncovers hidden reserves of intelligence, strength, and independence.
And as she connects more deeply with her new friends, she realizes that no one’s life is perfect, that everyone has to juggle at least a few challenges with their blessings.
Perhaps more importantly, she also realizes that people aren’t perfect–nor should she expect them to be. And as a result, she begins to shift her interpersonal paradigm away from suspicion and contempt, toward empathy and compassion.
In other words, she makes a (largely self-directed) successful transition from the predictability and comfort of childhood to the ambiguity and stress of adolescence.
What’s particularly inspiring about this transition is the way it impacts other characters in the story.
Miranda’s own growth is like a spark of fire among kindling–it touches off growth, mostly in the form of new and better connections, in the people around her.
And isn’t that, after all, what’s most inspiring about inspiration? That it almost never stops with one person, but instead spreads encouragement and uplift to others.