Review: Children's Fiction · Review: Mystery · Review: Science Fiction

Book Review: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me is a snapshot of a sixth grader’s life. It’s sort of science fiction and sort of mystery, but mostly it’s just that: a snapshot. I frequently end up categorizing books as character-driven or plot-driven or both, but this felt like none of the above. It didn’t even feel language-driven. I find that the best way to describe my impression is to call it voice-driven. It’s the voice that kept me invested, kept me turning the page, had me falling further and further into this girl’s life.

I can’t think of a way to describe it that would do it justice, but I’ll try anyway.

The mystery that drives the plot is present from the start, most noticibly in the rarely-adopted second person perspective of the book. The oddness inherent in that unusual choice does not take over as the protagonist describes her life, and the vivid details supersede the question behind the identity of the undefined “you” or the purpose of the key mentioned at the start.

The protagonist simply goes through her life, helping her mother prepare to be on a game show on television, making new friends and losing old ones. Meanwhile, amid cryptic ponderings addressed to the mysterious “you,” we watch this would-be plot beginning to unfold in chronological order.

I refer to the mystery plot as the would-be plot not because it is not compelling, but because it is not the driving force of the story. Compelling though this mystery is, it is never the focus of the writing. It is always overshadowed by the colorfully described characters that surround the protagonist and the ups and downs of their lives and relationships. As one might expect of any story about a sixth grader, the book follows her relationship with her family as well as with people at school that she likes and dislikes. Masterfully, none of these characters are written as “the bully” or “the mean girl.” Though events transpire that might make characters initially appear to fall into those expected niches, they never do. Instead, we simply get to know these characters better over time, coming to see them as people rather than as “bad guys” defined by regrettable choices or misconceptions.

The protagonist is reading A Wrinkle in Time, and this opens up discussions of time travel among the characters. The protagonist has a particularly difficult time grasping certain aspects of time travel. Over the course of the book, the concept is explained a few times in different ways using different analogy, to no avail where the protagonist is concerned. This could so easily have become tedious, but the does not because of the energy in the dialogue. The focus of the dialogue becomes the frustration of the protagonist as she gets caught up in the details of the analogies and fails to see the forest for the trees, and the frustration of her classmates as their attempts to explain a concept that seems simple to them fall flat.

In the end, comprehension comes to the protagonist in her own time. As with the rest of the book, the plot is sidelined as the characters and their relationships take the stage, taking all the time they need to reach their destinations. This makes their arrivals at their destinations all the more satisfying.

When You Reach Me is short, but it’s a masterpiece and well worth the read.

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