Back in 1992 my college professor Dr. Sheldon Brivic told our class that one of the greatest first lines in all of literature was from Hamlet: "Who's there?" What greater way to start and develop a story: Who's there? It makes the audience wonder right from the beginning--who the hell is there? And then you're hooked.
Rebecca Stead's Newberry winning When You Reach Me also had me asking throughout her novel, Who's there? Through efficient and short chapters and a plot which unravels and comes together simultaneously, the pacing of this book is upbeat and fun.
Raised by a single mother in New York City in the late 1970s, the narrator, twelve year old Miranda, is receiving curious and creepy notes. This latch-key kid doesn't know who they are from or how they are appearing...and it is a little creepy. The message contained in these notes from this mysterious person is that he/she is coming back to save Miranda's friend.
Which friend? Who are you? Where? When?
Stead hooked me.
Fortunately for the reader, Miranda discovers who, where, when...and why. Her journey is clever and entertaining...and fresh. It reads and feels like a fresh story; it isn't preachy or trying to teach a morality lesson. Nothing feels forced or out of place. Each character and event fits...makes sense...and is necessary. The architecture of the characters and their relationships is as impressive as anything in this novel.
In terms of style so much about this YA novel is sharp and on point. The characters speak to reveal information or develop character and plot; there are no wasted words or empty conversations. While the narrator is your protagonist and guide through her journey, the most appealing characters in the novel When You Reach Me turn out to be Marcus and the laughing man. It will be difficult to tell from my blog, but the Marcus and laughing man story is really sweet.
In addition to Miranda, Marcus and the laughing man each also have a journey central to the novel. Miranda herself even refers to each as the hero of the story. Stead so cleverly ties characters and circumstances together that you learn to pay attention to every page as you read. Not that you'd miss something, but in hopes that you would remember something which you'd need in an upcoming chapter. The characters are all active and the growth of each comes through discovery and decision. Without revealing anything critical in the novel I want to add that at least 7 characters (Miranda, her mother, Marcus, the laughing man, Jimmy, Annemarie, Julia) all make discoveries in this novel which causes each to make a decision which then determines the direction of the story.
Stead is a polished storyteller with a great command of the skills of this art. I will introduce this novel at start of my classes on Monday or Tuesday and welcome any young reader to borrow it and experience this brilliant work. This is a must-have for your classroom bookcase.