I cannot remember why I ordered Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me this winter. Some chain of events led me to own this slim young adult volume and the start of spring semester gave me time to finally read it. The mystery of chance and the connection between free will and fate as well as our ability to perceive reality provide the backdrop for Stead’s plot.
A cast of sixth-grade students inhabit the world of books and latch-key kids and frustrated adults that populate Stead’s novel. Miranda, named after our Miranda rights by her law student cum paralegal mother, has read A Wrinkle In Time so many times that she considers it her book and is jealous to see it in others’ possession. Despite having read it many times, she has not mastered all of its secrets, as she discovers when a classmate draws her into a discussion about mistakes and time travel. Miranda’s interests in the book seem to have a different focus. She muses on Meg’s search for her father, when she herself is ok without a father, she says, because she never knew what it was like to have one. Despite this reflection, she does not consider that her mother’s long-term boyfriend, Richard, has become her father. Miranda sees books more clearly than real life. Parent issues are not the center of the story, however. What is the center is unclear to the reader as it is to Miranda as she tries to figure out when things changed, when things started to unravel, and what she will do about a series of cryptic notes she has received. Bullies, mean girls, racism, adolescent sexuality, chronic illness, class inequities, mental illness and homelessness all swirl around Miranda and her small group of classmates, but it’s the search for the meaning of the notes that occupies the center. Why do things change? How do our small actions end up with big consequences? These are the big questions of Stead’s short novel and of young adult and older adult lives. The mystery of the notes keeps us from looking too hard at them until she is ready to pull back the veil as well as pulls us eagerly from one page to the next.