Congratulations to Rebecca Stead, this year’s winner of the Newbery Medal for her book When You Reach Me. I’d read WYRM (convenient acronym, yes?) back in October and kept meaning to tell you all about it, but now it’s official: it’s a great book.
Sixth-grader Miranda is a latchkey kid in New York City, and her life has been mostly fine. But then her best friend Sal gets punched by some kid on the way home and then withdraws from her life. About that time, her spare key vanishes and she finds this cryptic note:
I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I must ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.
As more notes come, it becomes clear that the writer knows a lot about her, and even about things that haven’t yet happened. All the little bits and pieces of the story fit together like an intricate puzzle, and even if you see the resolution coming before it arrives you still marvel at the way it’s crafted. I really don’t want to spoil it for you by telling you much more of the plot because that discovery is part of the joy of reading it.
One of the trickiest things about writing from a kid’s point of view is getting the language right; Stead does a good job telling a complex story without making it too grown-up. (Contrast this with Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief, which is a great story but I found it hard to believe that a sixth-grader would really talk like that.) Aside from the overarching mystery, Miranda is still learning to navigate middle school society. It’s not entirely a coming-of-age story, but it has hints of that.
I’m a sucker for books about books. I love when characters reference real books, and not just in passing. Miranda’s favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, and she has some conversations with another kid about the time travel in it that really make you stop and think a little. It’s obvious that the characters (and Stead) have actually read the book and aren’t just name-dropping.
Although it has a sort of sci-fi piece to it, the book really doesn’t read like science fiction or magical realism. It’s more like a normal, everyday world with this one odd mystery in it, and you’re not quite sure where it’s going to go right away. It’s stealth-geeky.
If you haven’t read When You Reach Me yet, you should definitely give it a go, particularly if you have any kids in the junior-reader age. The target age is probably round about Miranda’s age, sixth grade, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to high schoolers (or adults, for that matter). Readers younger than that might have a little trouble following the twists and turns of the plot.
So again, a hearty congrats to Rebecca Stead, especially for winning a Newbery on her second book! (How many books did Neil Gaiman write before he won for The Graveyard Book last year?)
Speaking of last year’s winner: Yes, Neil Gaiman, you are an incredible writer and we love your work on picture books and young adult fiction and adult fiction and graphic novels and TV series that turn into books that turn into comic books that turn into stage plays that turn into movies. Plus you’ve got that brilliant-sounding British accent and you can get several minutes’ worth of applause just by walking on a stage anywhere and doing nothing but just being Neil Gaiman. But at some point I think maybe we should just establish an annual Neil Gaiman Award, to be awarded to Neil Gaiman for General Awesomeness, so that the rest of the world has a chance at winning these other prizes.
Amazon has a handy list of the Newbery winners for the past decade so you can collect ’em all. (I’d also recommend Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, one of this year’s honorees.) For an excellent, engaging, thought-provoking, award-winning story, I hereby give When You Reach Me the GeekDad Seal of Approval.