When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

  • Title: When You Reach Me
  • Author: Rebecca Stead
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • Year Published: 2009
  • ISBN:0375850864
  • List Price: $17.20
  • Page Count: 208
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: mystery/speculative fiction
  • Award(s): Newbery Award winner; more here.

Author information: Rebecca Stead has written three books for young readers. Her website is clearly geared towards this young audience and features a huge visual component. Her website has links to information about all of her books, a biography, a link to her blog which includes information about upcoming appearances and what Stead is currently reading and doing, and a link to resources for teachers. Amazon has an interview with Stead in which she discusses her creative choices for When You Reach Me, such as setting the book in the 1970s, writing in short chapters, and the use of A Wrinkle in Time in the novel. One of her reasons for setting the book in the not-so-distant past is that she wanted her characters to have a level of autonomy that probably would no longer seem authentic in modern day New York City.

Reviews: This title received starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Horn Book. The consensus among these reviews is that the plot is suspenseful and Stead does a fantastic job of keeping a high level of suspense while wrapping everything up in a satisfactory way at the end. Both PW and Horn Book suggest that this is the type of book a reader will want to start reading again immediately after finishing it, so that they can pick up on all the clues they may have missed. Booklist also compliments the rich characters Stead presents, saying, “the characters, children, and adults are honest bits of humanity no matter in what place or time their souls rest”.

Readers annotation: Miranda is receiving unusual notes from a mysterious stranger. But who are they from and what do they mean?

Summary: Miranda is a sixth grader who lives with her mother. Her best friend Sal gets punched in the face by Marcus, another boy, for seemingly no reason, and then Sal stops talking to Miranda. Miranda makes other friends, and even gets a job during her lunchtimes with them serving sandwiches. Although these seem like the ordinary occurrences of a middle schooler’s life, Miranda’s life is anything but normal. There is a strange laughing man who hangs out on the corner of her street and she keeps getting strange letters from somebody who seems to know a lot about her life. This all begins to make sense when Marcus, while trying to apologize to Sal for punching him, scares him into the street in oncoming traffic. The laughing man sacrifices his life to save Sal, and Miranda discovers that the laughing man is really a time-traveling Marcus who has come back to make things right.

Evaluation: The strength of this book lies in the subtle clues that are interwoven in the narrative that lead the reader to the surprise reveal at the end. Throughout the story, the reader knows that something strange is going on, but the conclusion will still be surprising to most readers. Miranda is a likable character, and even though she is dealing with some extraordinary situations, such as receiving mysterious notes and being at the center of a time travel rescue mission, she still has typical middle school problems. Her struggles to make friends and make sense of her collapsing friendship with Sal will resonate with young readers dealing with similar trials as they grow up and navigate school. The time travel twist at the end is set up expertly and supported throughout the story, making the ending reasonable and satisfying to readers. However, though I found this title to be enjoyable, I also found it to be one of the least memorable books I’ve read this semester. I think that it excels in being an entertaining and quick read that will engage readers, but it lacks enough substance to warrant re-reading (at least for me) and the details of the story are easily forgotten.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality:  3/5  An engaging and light read, with plenty of twists and a satisfying ending that readers will enjoy. Although it touches on more serious topics, like friendship, family relationships, race, responsibility, and fitting in, this title still seems to be more of a fluffy read.
  • Popularity: 4/5 Because of the mysterious plotline and the clues that are peppered throughout the narrative, readers will love trying to solve this mystery before the book ends. The characters are likable and the conclusion fits perfectly with the rest of the novel.
  • Appeal factors: time travel, friendships, mystery, speculative fiction.


  1. Readers who enjoyed this novel may also like Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This title is mentioned throughout Stead’s book, and takes a similarly scientific approach to time and dimension travel.
  2. Wonder by R. J. Palacio might be a good fit for readers who liked reading about Miranda’s struggles to make friends after being ignored by Sal. Palacio’s protagonist, Auggie, is physically deformed and has to deal with the difficulty of building relationships and being “normal” in spite of his looks.

Book talk ideas: I think the premise of this novel will really grab potential readers. Explain that Miranda is a typical middle school girl growing up in the 1970s in New York City, but she suddenly starts receiving urgent and mysterious notes from a stranger that seems to know a lot about her life. Talk about how this is a great book for those who like solving mysteries and that little clues are scattered throughout the book, leading to a surprising but satisfying conclusion that wraps everything up nicely.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. What does this book suggest about relationships and making friends? Do you think Miranda’s relationships are stronger by the end of the book?
  2. In what ways does the author’s use of A Wrinkle in Time enhance the storyline? If you haven’t read it, what do you think this book might have to do with Stead’s story?
  3. Do you believe in time travel? If so, where are all the time travelers?
  4. What did you think of the ending? Were you satisfied?

Reason for reading: This title kept popping up on a variety of lists. Whenever I searched for “best Newbery winners” lists, I consistently found this book, so I decided I should read it. The descriptions of the plot were very vague, so I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into other than that a lot of people seemed to love this book.


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