25 January 2011

Book of the Week (86): "When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me landed on my reading pile with proven credentials. This short novel won numerous awards in the US, including the Newbery, and now the brand new UK edition is shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize. Naturally, my expectations were high, and I am relieved to report that the book lived up to its reputation.

If I were to describe Stead’s novel in one word, it would be ‘lovely’. This is not an ‘in your face’ sort of book, it gently and quietly ropes you in and suddenly you realise that you can’t put it down. Most of all it reminded me of Louis Sachar’s Holes with its host of quirky yet completely believable characters and the wonderful depiction of a reality which is just touching on the fantastic.

The story, set in 1979, is told by Miranda, a twelve-year-old girl, and addressed to an elusive ‘you’ whose identity is the one of the many mysteries at the heart of the novel. Another one is who is the kid who punched Sal, Miranda’s best friend, in the face in broad daylight, and why Sal started avoiding Miranda afterwards, and of course the weird notes addressed to Miranda which pop up in the strangest of places. These mysteries intertwine beautifully as the novel progresses and are certainly a factor in its appeal, but this not a mere thriller. Stead introduces us to the people surrounding Miranda – from her single mum training for a TV game-show, to her classmates, among them the stuck-up Julia and her long-suffering friend Annemarie, and the locals she sees on her way home every day – Belle the shopkeeper, the boys hanging outside the garage and the homeless guy who sleeps with his head under a mailbox. These characters, each with his or her little quirks, play a role in the unfolding story like human puzzle pieces, and make it a joy to read. Another important presence is Miranda’s favourite book – A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (also a winner of the Newbery medal) and When You Reach Me is both a love song and homage to this classic children’s fantasy. Quite unexpected, completely human, and simply, well, lovely.

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

No comments: