Genres can be misleading. Their sole purpose in life is to categorize stories into particular little slots, so that their labels can glisten from a utilitarian shelf. Of course, that’s not to say that they are useless, but most people tend to take them far more seriously than they should, especially writers. More often than not, recent books read like they were written simply to be organized. Every once in a while, though, you can still find the story that is such a hodgepodge of genres that you remember just how pointless the labeling exercise can sometimes be.
Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me could be considered a story like that. Most of its plotline is very similar to the typical children’s novel genre as it follows twelve Miranda in her day-to-day life. It is so similar, in fact, that it could be easily compared to other books of that genre, like Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, which is even set in the same time period as When You Reach Me, the mid 1970’s.
What sets When You Reach Me apart, though, is that as Miranda tells the story in her own words, she’s unsure if there’s anything to actually tell. Writing this book was not her idea in the least. Rather, she was ordered to write it by a mysterious correspondent.
Miranda is what is commonly known as a “latch-key kid”; one morning she forgot the key to her apartment and was locked out until her mother came home from work. As a result, her mother came up with a back-up plan by having a third key made and hiding it in the apartment building’s old, broken fire hose. Shortly after, Miranda came home to find the key gone and the apartment unlocked, everything inside untouched except for a note left for her. The writer of the note refused to identify his/herself, but requested that Miranda write a letter; this letter must contain a story, and the story must be about what happened to her from the fall of 1978 to the late spring of 1979. Stranger still, she must also make sure to mention where she keeps the spare key.
What When you Reach Me turns out to be is a playful draft of a letter addressed to the mystery correspondent that Miranda never intends to send. It’s in this draft that Miranda slowly goes over the months that she’s been asked to remember and tries to figure out what it is that the unknown writer needs to know, why they need to know it, who this writer really is, and if she should even be giving them this information. Here is where the fun for the reader comes in, because as Miranda sorts things out in her own mind, she is also giving the reader all the details they need to figure out the answer on their own. To the readers determined to solve the book-long riddle before Miranda, I wish them luck, because despite all the circumstantial evidence that Miranda gives, the story offers only one substantial clue: The first note for Miranda ends with the line, “I will not be myself when I reach you.”
Usually, I’m not a big fan of present tense writing; it is my personal opinion that it takes away from the reading experience and, in a way, sterilizes an author’s overall writing style. Here, however, Stead uses present tense to her advantage by using it sparingly and with a purpose; the only time Miranda uses it is to let you, the reader, know that you are no longer reading her memories. Otherwise, the rest of the book is told in regular past tense, resulting in a sort of literary version of hop-scotch as the story jumps between the two tenses.
Most of the idiosyncrasies of the story lie in the fact that it is all told by Miranda, and yet, ironically, that’s probably the book’s biggest downfall. Writing supposedly done by a twelve year old can only have so much quality before it becomes unbelievable, and Stead certainly works hard here to make sure you believe that Miranda wrote it, with dubious results.
At this point I would like to bring back the comparison I made earlier to Bridge to Terabithia, because there is one part of When You Reach Me that struck me as odd, or at least interesting. In Bridge to Terabithia, there is one situation where an adult behaves with questionable adult morality and, although the adult leaves the story without another mention, a child who was also in the situation is left with a lingering feeling that something was wrong. Unfortunately, when a tragedy results from this adult’s choice, the child ends up blaming himself for it and suffering from a severe guilt complex up until the very last pages of the book. While I’ll be the first to admit that that is definitely not the most appropriate method to address an issue like that in a children’s novel, it at least makes an attempt to point out that the action and situation was wrong.
Stead does no such thing with When You Reach Me, which, as I mentioned before, is actually set in the same time period as Terabithia. In this case, the issue is cohabitation, and instead of one scene, it’s part of the backbone of the story. There are some who wouldn’t consider cohabitation to be “questionable adult morality” in the least now, but during the 1970’s it would have been without a doubt immoral; and yet, When You Reach Me not only glazes over it, but even up holds it as a happy ending.
What When You Reach Me really comes down to is quite a mixed bag, but a good one if you’re willing to forgive the writing for its faults. As a story, it has its particularly frustrating moments, but as puzzle-novel it’s worth the frustration for a light brainteaser have fun with.
Rebekah is a senior in high school who loves reading, writing, or anything that contains a story and a puzzle. She runs the review blog “And a Sweet Sound it Made” – http://www.andasweetsound.blogspot.com/