So! Tara Lazar (children’s writer, blogger, nonstop fount of kidlit information and all-around good egg) invited me to join her in reviewing some books that we like. Not being a complete nincompoop, I said yes. Today we bring you one of the most widely reviewed and beloved books of 2009, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. Yes, yes, I know – A LOT OF PEOPLE HAVE REVIEWED THIS BOOK ALREADY. I didn’t say we were on the cutting edge with any of this stuff, you know.
MIKE, A.K.A. EBERT: Hey Tara, so this book is like a radiation-breathing, Tokyo-destroying Godzilla of critical praise – massive Newbery buzz, whomping big store displays, readers swooning left and right. Did it live up to the hype?
TARA, A.K.A. ROEPER: There’s been such a tremendous buzz about the book, my ears have been ringing for weeks. The more time passed, the guiltier I felt for NOT reading it. I felt like I was the only kidlit aficianado who hadn’t picked it up. When I finally opened it, I couldn’t stop. Two and a half hours straight through. It was 2am, then 3am, but I couldn’t put it down. The clues were spaced somewhat far apart and yet, evenly sprinkled, just enough to keep you motivated. I would read until I reached a clue, have a moment of satisfaction, and then my curiosity deepened. Who is sending Miranda these notes? Why are they so cryptic? What do they mean? When you read the phrase, “I’m coming to save your friend’s life, and my own,” how could you possibly stop until you reach the answer? Each page kept me wanting more. I’m done reading and I still want more. So that’s my complicated way of saying it lived up to all hype, unlike 99.9% of other books. I’m wondering why we’re even reviewing it. It certainly doesn’t need the Ebert and Roeper of children’s books!
MIKE, WHO LOOKS MORE LIKE ROEPER: I suppose not, especially when nobody knows who’s Ebert and who’s Roeper…I agree, it lived up to the hype. It may even have exceeded the hype, which is no mean feat considering just how many reviews and blurbs I read before I got to the book itself. I was babbling about When You Reach Me on one of the 17,449 online communities that I frequent, and somebody said something about it being a “high-concept” book due to the time travel aspect. And in her SLJ review, Elizabeth Bird talks about how this book will appeal to kids who only read science fiction AND kids who only read realistic fiction. It’s a nifty thought – whaddaya think? Is it such a rare bird? Is it a flawlessly executed sci-fi/realism mashup?
TARA, WHO DOESN’T LOOK LIKE EBERT AT ALL: I’d be Ebert, but I think he’s the older of the two. *Cough, cough.* Is who such a rare bird? Elizabeth Bird or When You Reach Me? Because I think both are… (Mike’s note: communications breakdown, I know, leave me alone…)
Yeah, sci-fi fans (or should that be sy-fy?) will take a shine to this story as much as the realism lovers. But I think adults should be reading this book, too. And not just us geeky kidlit folk, but adults who love thrillers. This book thrives on suspense.
Plus, almost everyone my age (remember, younger than Mike) has read A Wrinkle in Time, which Miranda only refers to as “my book”…and what 1970’s kid didn’t watch $20,000 Pyramid when they were at home on a sick day from school? The nostalgia aspects kept the book warm and fuzzy for me, despite the cryptic notes and their inherent creepiness.
This could be the first time I’ve used the word creepy in a positive manner.
Before I read the book, I expected it to be focused on the notes, with Miranda as a young detective, trying to puzzle it all together. But that’s not how the mystery unfolds, which is part of its genius. Miranda goes about her normal 10-year-old life, concerned more with navigating friendships than discovering the messenger. She receives a note, thinks about it a bit, then goes on with her daily routine. You’re never left to wonder why Miranda isn’t obsessing over the notes because she’s got too much other stuff to obsess over.
MIKE, WHO…OH, FORGET IT: OH GOOD GRIEF NO, NOT SY-FY. PLEASE NO… I remember watching $20,000 Pyramid as a kid too! You gotta love a book that recalls the wastrel days of youth like that. And yes, even broken-down old coots like me remember reading A Wrinkle in Time way back when, and I agree that its presence in When You Reach Me is both subtle and affecting. Ms. Stead does not beat the reader over the head with a dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle in Time – she has a light touch – but she uses the book to shine a light deep into the souls of her characters. I also agree about the wonderfully delicate way the mystery unravels – I have nothing against kid detectives, sniffing around for clues and waving their metaphorical magnifying glasses around. I don’t even mind if they have actual magnifying glasses. But a mystery that isn’t even remotely structured like a traditional mystery? Nifty work, and indicative of the many layers that this story possesses.
In the end, Roger–err, I mean Tara, if a reader asked why they should consider reading this book, what would you say?
TARA – JUST TARA: “Shine a light deep into the soul?” “Metaphorical magnifying glasses?” Mike, your review is indicative of the many layers that you possess. If Kirkus hadn’t already folded, I would have sworn you put them out of business. My answer to your question is simple: read this book because it’s surprising. It’s like opening a gift on your birthday, thinking you’re going to get what you asked for, but finding out it’s something you never anticipated–something far awesomer than your wish list. I once heard a literary agent (Jill Corcoran) say that endings should be both expected and surprising. I can’t say that When You Reach Me filled both criteria because it went beyond my expectations. Yes, the ending was fitting and it made perfect sense, but I can’t claim that I saw it coming. When Miranda finally figures it out, you’re caught in her shock because it comes at a moment when she should be focusing on another important thread in the story. The layers work beautifully here, diverting the reader’s attention so Miranda can hit you with the whopper.
MIKE: There you have it, folks. Two bookmarks up from the Ebert and Roeper of children’s books, although I’m tempted to say that we’re really much more like Statler and Waldorf.
WHO IS THE INTERNATIONAL WOMAN OF MYSTERY KNOWN AS TARA LAZAR?
Tara Lazar is an aspiring kidlit author and mother of two young girls. You can help push her stroller along the path to publication at Writing for Kids (While Raising Them). That’s her treasure box of sparkly writing doo-dads and publishing trinkets.
WHO IS THE HUNKA HUNKA BURNING LOVE KNOWN AS MIKE JUNG?
Dude, I am hurt that you even have to ask.