Monday, January 18, 2010

133 (2010 #8). When You Reach Me

by Rebecca Stead

This book won the 2010 John Newbery Medal today, awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

It's a quick read - at 197 pages, I read it in less than two hours while working out on my elliptical trainer. It's not going to be easy to review, as it's part mystery, part realistic fiction, part science fiction, and part historical fiction (it's set in 1978-79 Upper West Side New York City). It's funny, but it's also very meaningful.

Newbery aficianados will get a kick out of the book right off. Miranda, the 12-year-old main character, reads her favorite book, the 1963 winner, over and over. I'm glad I recently read that book (although I have not reviewed it here yet - soon, I promise!). There are a number of parallels between that book (its title is not revealed until page 135) and this one. It inspires a discussion between Miranda and two other characters, Marcus and Julia, about time travel. I'm not sure if this 2010 winner will resonate as well with people who haven't read the 1963 winner.

Another plot device is Miranda's mother being selected to be a contestant on the TV game show $20,000 Pyramid. Variations of this show (with different dollar amounts) were on from 1973 though 1988, and a basic familiarity with the show is helpful. Kids today can find clips of it on YouTube and elsewhere, and the game is explained pretty well in the book. Most of the book's short chapters have titles that reflect the second "Winner's Circle" round of the game show, when contestants have to guess categories ("things that...") that a group of words fit.

I really liked this book. The interesting characters and their development (and the way the book started out) reminded me of Criss Cross. Like that book (set around 1970), in many ways it could be a contemporary story--although I doubt that sixth-graders in New York City today are allowed to leave campus and eat lunch at the nearby delis and pizza places. The story has a lot to say about friendships and family relationships in children of this age.

The science fiction part of the plot was carefully constructed, as it was in The Time Traveller's Wife (okay, not a Newbery, or even a kid's book, but another book I love and am reminded of by When You Reach Me). The mystery kept me guessing, although I had my suspicions.

The cover and title (which appears in the text on page 189) may not inspire kids to pick up the book. Its short chapters and intriguing plot make it great for reading aloud to a class or your own children - and that will probably be all it takes to hook them in to finishing it or re-reading it on their own. A New York Times reviewer found that her fourth-grade students loved the book.

This is only the second novel for author Rebecca Stead. There are some good interviews with her on Amazon, the Fuse #8 blog, School Library Journal, and Time Out New York Kids, all probably best read after reading the book. I've tried not to spoil it in this review, either. Just go read it. Highly recommended - five out of five stars.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was borrowed from the local public library and goes back there tomorrow.]

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