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Last class | class #6, spring 2017

when you reach meWhen You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Changing friendships, New York City, time travel. Mysterious notes and everyday sixth grade life. How does Rebecca Stead weave all these strands into a coherent whole? Which catch you as a reader?

In addition to your comments on our final text, please share any other thoughts as we come to the end of our exploration of adolescent literature together. What has resonated for you most, and what do you want to know more about going forward?

Lauren Adams About Lauren Adams

Lauren Adams teaches English and ELL at Natick High School and adolescent literature at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Formerly a Senior Editor for The Horn Book Magazine, she regularly contributes book reviews.

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  1. What a fun read. I had to reread this book to catch a lot of the small details, but I am very proud that I figured out the time travel twist early on!
    There are many things I loved about this book, so this comment might be a mishmash of things I adored.
    1) The mysteries!! Yes, I did love that there was a big sci-fi mystery, but I loved the smaller mysteries that tied into the bigger one, the mystery of the stolen cash, and so on. I also enjoyed how the question of Sal’s friendship was actually a very normal, everyday reason — he put the brakes on their friendship because he realized they had no other friends. This is deviating from the mysteries now, but I also think it’s helpful for young people to see this example of how new friendships don’t necessarily erase older friendships, even if it seems that way in the beginning. (Julia/Annemarie, Miranda/Sal, etc.) In some ways, new friendships can actually strengthen old ones.
    2) Miranda’s racism (?) or meanness towards Julia. I felt uncomfortable with Miranda’s interactions with Julia right from the start, when she described how picky and bratty Julia was for asking for specific brown paper for her skin and eyes, and how she described her own skin as peach. I worried that the author was just going to leave this, and never address it, but Miranda is confronted with her actions and words later on in the book. She is held accountable. The “Swiss Miss” part was chilling — but I’m glad it made it in there. It’s also a great jumping point for a discussion with young folk about how “non-racist” people like Miranda contribute to racism.

    Anyway, I loved it.

  2. Catherine says:

    I also really enjoyed When You Reach Me. As a New Yorker, the setting felt so familiar. I was amused by the very recognizable “rules for life in New York City” and found the Laughing Man to be a truly great character—the person you notice and don’t notice simultaneously, but who ends up being so important. As someone who does not gravitate naturally towards sci-fi or fantasy, I found the book to be the perfect blend of the realistic and the fantastical.

    I think this is one of those rare books that may merit a reread now that I know the ending. I think there were so many details that worked together so seamlessly that I worry I did not even notice them on a first read (like the fact that “Mr. Perfect” wears platform shoes becomes key to recognizing his shoe later on). There’s the importance of A Wrinkle of Time, of course, but the concept of time is everywhere. Sal gets an old-fashioned watch with Roman numerals for Christmas, Julia has a watch that she is “always shoving in people’s faces” until it breaks. Miranda and Marcus don’t have watches, but Marcus can see an “invisible clock” by determining when the sun is going behind a certain building, and Miranda’s strategy when she feels unsafe is to ask the time. The small details just build and build, and as a result the ending is reached so fluidly and seamlessly (like how Shaina points out that the small mysteries feed into the bigger one). Overall I think this was very skillfully done, and results in a very enjoyable read!

  3. One of the most impressive things to me about middle grade literature is how much power their books can punch with so little pages. It still astounds me. As older people I guess we tend to over explain and over analyze. Thank goodness there are authors that can still capture the feel of being a kid growing up and how simultaneously painful and wonderful it can be.
    The story’s timeline (at least for me) was confusing at first. I didn’t grow up in 1978 or in New York but I felt the atmosphere and the tone of the relationships so well that I got caught up in Miranda’s plight easily.
    What makes the story so great is the little things. Seeing Miranda help her mom prepare for the game show, the description of Sal playing basketball every day, Miranda talking about time travel with Marcus, the boys who taunt people across the street, the weird shapes on Miranda’s bathroom floor, Colin hiding the bread and I could go on and on. It reflects real life right? A lot of times the little things add up to be something big and meaningful.

  4. Stone Dawson says:

    When You Reach Me was a great book to end the class with in my opinion. As others have said, I think the book did an exceptional job of balancing its realism with the science-fiction of time travel. At the same time, there seemed to me to be a great balance between the easy, enjoyable reading that younger adolescents want and the important and difficult messages about growing up and the passage of time that can be painful at this age.
    I also loved how elegantly A Wrinkle in Time was woven into the story. Many readers may not even realize that the book Mira talks about so often is a real book until the title is finally revealed well into the story (although anyone who has read A Wrinkle in Time will notice it instantly). I think it’s wonderful when modern writers find clever ways like this to encourage kids to go out and read new and old books alike.
    Finally, I think that books like When You Reach Me are so appealing to young readers because they are more direct in their acknowledgment that something will be revealed if you just keep reading. As older readers, I think we tend to forget that many children and adolescents haven’t yet stumbled on that book that made them just have to know what would happen next. When You Reach Me could easily be that book for many such readers.

  5. Jenni P says:

    I really enjoyed When You Reach Me! Like many others, I was a little confused at the the beginning, but feel that the mysteries throughout the story pushed me as a reader to continue on to find out what was happening. Before diving into the book, I knew there was some sort of time travel involved and I found myself trying to think deeply about that concept. I continuously thought about Harry Potter and Hermione and how they went back in time. I wondered if the characters in this story were traveling back in time right before my eyes similar to Harry. I also found myself looking to the cover and looking at the small symbols. This visual helped me think about each clue and stressed the importance of each one, such as Richards shoe or the small etched blue mailbox. Last year in Austin, I was fortunate to meet Rebecca Stead at the Austin Book Festival. She signed my copy of this book by saying, “Wishing you mystery and wonder”—very fitting now that I have completely read her clever book, When You Reach Me.

  6. Andrea M. says:

    I enjoyed reading When You Reach Me very much, and as many of you have mentioned, I agree it deserves a reread, I hadn’t thought about the platform shoes, Catherine!

    Something that caught my attention as a reader because of how real it felt was relationships. Even through very short chapters, the description of Mira’s day to day interactions with her mother, Richard, Belle, Sal, Annemarie, Colin, Marcus and Julia, and even the laughing man, made the story solid. The way friendships are portrayed definitely took me back in time to being twelve years old and how you realize you can find a friend in someone you thought was very different from you, being jealous about your friends being friends with someone else, and how suddenly someone is no longer your friend without an apparent reason. Stead also addresses crucial issues for teenagers, such as bullying and being a bystander: “I wasn’t one of the girls who tortured her (Alice) on purpose, but I had never lifted a finger to help her before, or even spent one minute being nice to her.”

  7. Nell K. says:

    I read When You Reach Me a few years ago when I worked at a test prep company and proctored tests on the weekends. I forgot to bring a book one Saturday and this one was lying around the classroom, so I read it–and TORE through it. In a lot of ways it felt like it was returning me to the kind of breakneck, all-in reading experience I treasured as an adolescent, and so I was very glad to get to revisit it for the end of this class. In fact, I also included this book in my bibliography (on NYC)–I think the way it deals with class and race is so well-balanced for young readers, neither preachy nor glossing-over, and the Upper West Side it depicts is just like the one I remember from growing up, even though it was a few decades earlier.
    I agree with Stone’s point that Stead makes it clear to the reader throughout that they are in good hands; Miranda’s narration lets us know that there is a mystery and that it will be resolved without dwelling on this too much. And like Shaina, I think one of my favorite parts of the book is that the realistic, small mysteries of adolescence–friends who are growing distant, food allergies and friend fights, boys who do nice things and kiss you without it being an earthshattering love story–are given weight and time along with the big mystery of time travel.
    In terms of the bigger questions, it was wonderful to be exposed to so much recent adolescent literature and think carefully about the variety of subgenres; as I found to my chagrin writing the paper, many of the books I loved as an adolescent were written either for adults or children before YA was its own classification. I’m curious, going forward, if it looks like the classification is here to stay? Is it being threatened by authors or publishing authorities who want to publish adult books that teens can also read?

  8. Bobby Dorigo Jones says:

    I really enjoyed this book, for its thoughtfully written characters (Miranda is a wonderful protagonist), approach to the whims and whimsy of early adolescence (I laughed at the depiction of their “city block” project, which reminded me so much of a “mini society” class project I did way back when in school), and it’s treatment of class, gender, race that’s grounded in reality. I ripped through this one in an evening. And I’ll take this book as further confirmation that I need to read “A Wrinkle in Time” – it seems like all semester, different people (lookin at you, Stone) have been telling me to read the book. Well, darnit, now I’m gonna.

    Not until right before the semester began did I think about taking this class, but it’s in many ways turned out to be a highlight of my semester: I’ve gotten to read some great young adult books every week. My reaction was somewhat similar to Nell’s – all of the fiction I read around that time of my life (especially in school) was pretty old – The Hobbit or *really* old sports novels that I can’t find on the shelves anymore – and my, how the adolescent lit canon has grown, matured, and become a really strong medium for great literature. I’m look forward to following award winners in the future and continuing to grow in my appreciation for books like these. I guess, going forward, I’ll be most interested in seeing how nonfiction for adolescents develops especially, as well.

  9. Gardenia Xiaoyuan Ye says:

    It was a fun read. I had guessed from the beginning that Miranda was the one who did the time travel. Not a Ding (haha). I agree with what people have been saying about the various teenager issues addressed in this book and how the magnitude of the book just fits its goal. I was actually paying attention to details like Catherine did. There are definitely a lot of details from the very beginning. Things mom “swipe from work,” the little tap-the-right-knee habit and the platform shoes of Mr. Perfect… It gives the book a sense of reality, and also as a reader I always like to keep track of the details when the frequency of it hints on its relationship with the later plot.

    I appreciate the way time travel is nicely woven into the whole story. It is not merely a way to unravel the mystery, not a one-time thing. You can feel the twist of time throughout the novel. It starts from the family preparing for the contest, and goes back and forth in the letter, with the main characters discussing the possibility of time travel from time to time. In this realistic and mysterious novel (as pointed out by many), young readers may see themselves as Miranda, Sal, or Marcus. It is really the point that small things are not small at all for teenagers. I think it is a good YA novel and a gentle entry to other mysterious novels, and A Wrinkle in Time, of course.

  10. Sarah Mintz says:

    I loved this book! As a current 6th grade teacher, I thought Rebecca Stead did a great job of addressing the shifting social landscape of middle school friendships in a way that felt nuanced and authentic. As others have mentioned, she is able to pack A LOT into a relatively short novel, beautifully interweaving commentary about friendships, the passage of time, growing up, sacrifice, class difference, racism, and city life, all from the simple and honest perspective of a 6th grade girl. Like Shaina, I was also struck by Miranda’s treatment of Julia, but I appreciated that it came full circle with the “Swiss Miss” scene and agree that this could be a great entry point for conversation with young people about racism. In general, I liked that all these substantive issues are present without being the sole focus of the novel, so that readers can really draw out what feels relevant to them.

    Although I don’t think having read A Wrinkle in Time is necessary to accessing the book’s content, it definitely enhanced my reading experience. I’m wondering about Stead’s choice to dedicate such a significant portion of her book to another author’s work. I think it says a lot about how YA books can inspire new ideas and even new books entirely in readers.

    More generally, this module has really gotten me thinking about the diversity and scope of YA literature. It is much more expansive than I realized, and I feel like I am only on the tip of the iceberg as far as finding quality books for young readers. Moving forward, I’m excited to continue to explore more in YA genres I was less familiar with before the start of class – especially nonfiction and graphic novels that are geared toward adolescent readers.

  11. Analiese Reigstad says:

    After working on the annotated bibliography, I find myself thinking in keywords whenever I identify a theme or issue in a book. In reading When You Reach Me, so many keywords came to mind: bullying, racism, social class, etc. The book is full of rich topics and issues to deconstruct in classroom discussions. As many have mentioned, it was also a fast, engaging read which would definitely help young readers commit to the story.

    Stone, I had never thought about the fact that books like When You Reach Me are especially appealing to young readers because they explicitly indicate that a mystery will be solved by the end of the book, so a reader doesn’t have to rely on a sort of blind trust in the author. This makes me think of something we talked about in H870: Reading to Learn last week. Readers are more successful if they have a high “standard for coherence” (Perfetti, Landi, & Oakhill, 2005, p. 233), which basically refers to their commitment to making the text sensical as they read. If a reader knows that they will be given clues that lead to a clear resolution, as in the case of When You Reach Me, they would have a high standard for coherence and thus, hopefully, a deeper comprehension of the text.

  12. Stone, I was thinking the same thing about Stead engaging young readers in older classics by weaving A Wrinkle in Time throughout the book! There’s something about how she incorporated older literature into a modern publication that ties nicely with the themes of time throughout When You Reach Me. It was also a great way for Stead to honor a book that inspired to her as a young reader.

    As many of have stated, the ideas of time travel and time itself are presented throughout the book, but I also want to quickly note the theme about one’s purpose in life. It was not until Marcus reached adulthood that he traveled back in time to save Sal from the bus. Miranda found herself faced with the notes hinting at some significant purpose that she had needed to realize. Even Miranda’s mom was focused on a purpose, even if it was just to win the game show, since she believed it would give her life a new direction.

    As a final note, the short chapters make this compelling read even more fast-paced. I found myself referring back to the chapter titles after completing each chapter to understand how it related to the overall narrative. It was interesting to see how my expectations changed based on the events of the chapter. Through this prediction-making, I can imagine how the short chapters with their title hints could be used in a classroom. The text also lends itself to meeting many of the Common Core standards such as determining themes or how the point of view impacts the plot. It could be interesting to have students write from the perspective of the Laughing Man after learning his true identity.

  13. Bonnie Tynes says:

    “When You Reach Me” was such an enjoyable book to read as we close out this brief journey through adolescent literature. Like Katie, I actually didn’t notice the chapter titles until I was about 7/8 of the way through the book. Once i noticed that every title included the word “thing” in some variation, I began to flip back through the chapters to examine the titles more closely. “Thing” is an incredibly ambiguous word, but it was just right for framing my thinking in this specific text. It allowed space for prediction and inference, and it pushed me, as a reader, to think in more simple and straightforward terms. Elaborate chapter titles would have been out of place in Miranda’s world. She would have wanted us as readers to be on the same page as her.

    I loved this book for many reasons, but one of my favorite elements was the commentary on socio-economic status and the first time you realize that you might be different from your friends. I remember comparing myself in a similar way in middle school, and it’s a confusing and surprising phenomenon. What used to just be home all of the sudden becomes inadequate (or seemingly) because you’ve seen another’s home. My parents have almost every wall in our house covered in early 1990s wallpaper–stripes, flowers, and more. This is stylistically out-dated now, and in my early high school years I used to ask my mom why she didn’t just paint the walls and get rid of the wallpaper. This was strictly a product of comparison, as I perused the grand, modern rooms of some of my friends’ houses. When I go home today, I am thankful for that old wallpaper. It’s in the background of the pictures when I was crawling and teething, and it’s in the background of the pictures from my high school graduation.

  14. Caryn Howell says:

    Like Nell, I read this book a while back when my best friend, a fifth grade teacher recommended it to me. I remember that I couldn’t put it down and had to read it in one sitting. I felt similarly this time, and I had forgotten much of the detail and plot that makes this story so rich. Something I noticed when I read a few books for my bibliography is that well-written characters and honest explorations of themes of everyday life can make elements of fantasy/sci fi seem really believable and natural. I thought Miranda’s typical adolescent struggles and the description of her family life was well done, and made me more invested in figuring out the elements of fantasy that were going on. Like others, I can see how some of the choices in this book, the mystery, the short chapters, the interesting titles, would compel a reluctant reader to be really engaged in this book.

    Overall, what resonated with me most this semester is the power of stories. As a history teacher, I spent too much time over the past five years reading and using really dry textbooks. This class was a beautiful reminder that so much thinking and exploration can be prompted by a really good story. So can empathy and understanding. Going forward, I *really* want to think about how I can use historical fiction and more, better nonfiction in my classroom. I absolutely loved putting together a bibliography based on an era in history, and so many of the books were such compelling reads, that I really want to figure out how to use this next year in a traditional history classroom setting.

  15. To add a bit more about the characters, I really liked how Stead made the main characters very multi-layered. Particularly with Sal, Annemarie, Colin, Marcus, and Julia, I enjoyed seeing how each of them changed through Miranda’s eyes. (Maybe Jimmy, too, but not so much in a positive way). I thought the story was so well-knit, of how each friend was contributing to the story development. Stead’s portrayal of her characters worked well with the complexity of time/time travel, of the ambiguity and nuance that undergird “When You Reach Me.” I also liked how the point of the time travel wasn’t to save the world, or some sort of grand scheme that I often see in time-travel stories. The fact that Marcus time-travelled to save his friend’s life is deep, yet makes the story somewhat simple and realistic (despite the whole time-traveling part).

  16. So fantastic! It is a must-have for my bibliography on mysteries. I want to ditto EVERYTHING said above, while adding some other scattered thoughts (sorry, my last post is a long one):

    I used to be a Game Show Network (and classic TV) junkie, so I’ve watched many episodes of Pyramid (you really do need a good celebrity partner!). That is why I feel so stupid for not catching on to the titles until near the end of the book. The titles are all CATEGORIES, exactly phrased how they would appear in the Winner’s Circle. Such an a-ha moment for me.

    The mystery: it ended up being the most obvious candidates (Marcus, Sal, laughing man), but you get invested in so many characters, my mind kept jumping around. Like Gardenia, I was convinced for a while that it was future Miranda, but that she wouldn’t recognize herself (so Mrs. Bindocker was Miranda all along!). But now the food-for-thought questions: why did Marcus say he needed to save himself, too? And why did he choose Miranda to help him?

    The minutiae of everyday life: like people have commented, Rebecca Stead is a master at describing the small things that go on in someone’s head. Food-but-not-food smells, how Annemarie is “extremely nonjudgmental that way,” how you might start to cry when you’re caught off guard by a criticism, and that looking at floor tile patterns is “the sort of thing a person would never try to explain to anyone else.”

    This book reminded me of others. Far Far Away: you’re told there’s a mystery from the start; it’s about everyday events; and there’s an important game show. Holes: how everything connects intricately, with a mysterious time element. The Westing Game: tight mystery with a diverse cast of characters, which allows for commentary on race, class, and disability. And I guess I have to give a Wrinkle in Time a re-read, because I remember not liking the book growing up! It also reminds me of the Bruce Willis Disney movie, The Kid, if anyone has watched that…and Terminator 1!

    This book is full of laughs (Alice Evans doing the hula) and emotional reveals (Mom coming to the rescue, and she dressed for success; laughing man looking every day at his drawing of Julia, but “she’s gone now”).

    Lastly: book, bag, pocket, shoe!!! It’s all there on the cover!

  17. Ana Roche- Freeman says:

    I enjoyed “When you Reach Me”, and agree with what has been said. I really enjoyed the characters and how simple their relationships appeared and yet they are so much more complex and deal with a variety of adolescent issues. The short paragraphs contributed to the pace and development of the story as I kept looking for clues. I must admit that I felt a little distracted trying to figure out the mystery as I was reading, and I actually look forward to rereading it and noticing more of the smaller details next time around. I’m not sure if this is directly an age issue, but I can value now much a younger reader would enjoy the simplicity of the day to day with the less realistic idea of time travel.

  18. MG Prezioso says:

    I agree with everything that has been said so far about When You Reach Me, especially the fact that I was so wrapped up in the mystery portion of the text that I didn’t notice the specific details, chapter titles or otherwise, until I was more than halfway through. I admittedly didn’t have time to re-read, but I really want to!

    I am looking forward to discussing the author’s background and process for writing this book. I read online that her inspiration came from reading an article about a person in Denver suffering from amnesia after an accident, and I think that how she connected his story to her personal life and wove both of those elements together to create this novel is really fascinating.

    I think this class has made me think about inspiration a lot, particularly finding inspiration in the most seemingly common of life stories, and I think this book is no exception. Sometimes the most elaborate of stories stem from the simplest of circumstances, and I really appreciate/value that.
    Thanks for including this book!!

  19. Sophia Pompilus says:

    I thought Rebecca Stead did a great job of infusing fantasy and every-day life for a 6th grader living in the city. As a latchkey kid myself, who grew up in a large city, I was very easily able to place myself in Miranda’s shoes when she’s walking up and down Amsterdam or Broadway afterschool with her friends. Prior to Richard purchasing the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time for her, I was beginning to sense similarities in fantasy elements in L’Engle’s work and in Stead’s. The conversation around time travel, the use of the word tesser, the character Meg, etc. all pointed me back to A Wrinkle in Time, which so happens to be one of my favorite childhood books. I was a little disappointed, however, because I initially believed the mere mention of time travel and mystery in finding out who is writing the letters to Miranda meant there would be a higher level of fantasy in the plot. However, I also think if Stead’s goal was to maintain the plot such that readers would be able to envision themselves as characters of the novel as well, the hints of fantasy were perfect. She did a phenomenal job in capturing the common themes in middle school in dealing with changing friendships, a focus on social ranking, independence, etc.

    I would love to read about why Stead chose to intertwine L’Engle’s work into her own and how much of the story was based on personal experience as well.

  20. Rebecca Hawk says:

    I really appreciate what has already been said about Stead’s When You Reach Me. I loved this quick paced, short chaptered book and the way that it depicted real issues while also including time travel! I think that it would be a great class text because it would open up to lots of conversations regarding big social issues that are coming to the surface in early adolescence (racism, socio-economic status, changing friendships, etc.). It also seems like a text that would hold a whole class’ attention because of the mysteries in it!

    In terms of this class, I most appreciated learning about books are evaluated books in different genres and really just being exposed to a broad range of books. I now know have many more books on my reading list (loved the book talks for this) and I have some books to draw on when students ask me for recommendations. Collecting books for my bibliography exposed me to the many people and resources that I can rely on to find books. I would love to think more about evaluating books and finding books for reluctant or struggling readers (other than graphic novels) that would encourage them to practice reading.

  21. Uttara Pant says:

    Like so many of you, I’ll just ditto everything already said. I didn’t know what to expect from this book- I didn’t read the back cover and just went for it. I loved it at the first Wrinkle in Time reference and didn’t stop. And because I have read Wrinkle, I felt like I should be looking for some sort of time travel clue and so guessed a bit early on who it was, but this didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. And of course I could have been wrong!

    And as closing thoughts: I loved taking this class. I only seriously started reading YA books this winter with a friend of mine and I am so so glad this class exists and I got to talk about YA books with so many amazing people who know the space so much better than I do. I remember reading books like this in elementary and middle school but by the time I got to highschool we had all these “adult” books to read for things like the IB and YA books just sort of fell by the wayside. So glad I get to obsess over them now. And the fact that you bring in so much additional literature is perfect. I feel like I have an endless supply of books to keep me safe now.

  22. Nana Seiwaa Sekyere says:

    I’m about halfway through the book but I’ve read enough to resonate with most of the comments posted above. I had similar thoughts to Shaina’s about Miranda’s relationship with Julia. I guess I’ll have to keep reading to see how everything unfolds. I have enjoyed what I’ve read so far and I’m waiting to discover who has been leaving all the notes.
    Comments about the class: It was a great opportunity for me to learn more about genres I was not very familiar with such as graphic novels. I liked that in addition to books we read for class, there were additional books brought to class so we could get to know some other titles in specific genres.

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