Once upon a time, I earned a Master's Degree in Literature and was a Professor of Literature and Composition. I had a wonderful time writing my Master's Thesis about Children's and Young Adult Literature, and I considered earning a Ph.D. so that I could continue to pursue the written word, including British, American, Latin American and other Global Literatures, Children's and Young Adult Literature, all types of genres and occasionally even poetry. But life takes you in unexpected directions, and so now I am working for a non-profit agency (you can read about that on my other blog, A Little Bit of Wonder). Although my job keeps me too busy to post as many book reviews as I would like, Recommended Reading is a place where I can continue to share my literary discoveries and knowledge as time allows.

Please note that I post reviews for books that I recommend reading, just like the blog title says. This means that I typically won't post a review for a book that I completely dislike. This isn't because I shy away from making negative comments, but rather because I don't want to waste your time or mine (I won't even bother to finish a book if it's not any good). For more on this, see the explanation of my Rating System.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: When You Reach Me

Note: While I’m eagerly waiting for Amazon to deliver my copy of the 2011 Newbery award winner Moon Over Manifest, I thought it would be an appropriate time to review a few other Newbery winners, starting with last year’s recipient. Enjoy!

Career changes. Job interviews. Performance reviews. Tax Forms. Most of us would probably agree that every once in a while, it would be nice forget all of our grown-up concerns and be absorbed in the problems of a twelve year old again, even if just for a little while. If you’re an adult reading Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, the recipient of the 2010 Newbery Award for Children’s Literature, that is one of the many pleasures of the novel—it is a well-written account of pre/early teen life that reawakens your memories of misunderstandings between friends, subtle and confusing competition for a boy’s attention, unexpected and perplexing rejection, and a growing awareness of socio-economic differences.

If you are a young adult reading the novel, you cannot help but feel an affinity with the narrator Miranda, who looses her childhood best friend, dislikes a classmate without really understanding why, finds herself frustrated with her quirky single mom, and discovers that she has a crush on the same boy as her new best girlfriend. As Miranda struggles to understand these experiences, the reader is drawn into the complexity of her emotions, all the more poignant because she does not state her feelings in the overly-dramatic terms that some teen literature employs.

What makes this novel even more entertaining and powerful, though, is that it does not focus solely on the dramas of early adolescence. Rather, it weaves them into the story of a mysterious series of letters that an unknown person leaves for Miranda—a set of clues without any comprehensible explanation of where the clues will lead. These cryptic notes frighten Miranda because the author has broken into her home to leave her the letters, seeming to take nothing but still threatening her sense of safety. The intruder’s messages also tell her that someone’s life is in danger—but that she must tell no one, only follow his directions. Miranda’s narrative references to the letter-writer are a bit too vague at first and might confuse the reader, but as her adolescent turbulence and fairly normal sense of isolation are heightened by these strange and frightening letters, the reader is drawn into a mystery that grows more and more absorbing.

The novel is peppered with descriptions of Miranda’s favorite novel, the 1963 Newbery winner A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, which point early on in the story to Stead’s own upcoming fantastic conclusion. L’Engle’s novel is all about time travel, and as Miranda struggles to understand theories about time as a loop and time as a construct, the reader is given more and more clues as to how the mysterious notes have been delivered. It is not until Miranda actually witnesses an accident involving her friend, though, that she can truly understand the import of the notes and shake off her fear of their author. Through this process, she becomes a more compassionate person, learning to understand the value in the people around her—even the ones that seem strange or frightening.

Readers will enjoy Miranda’s perceptive and compelling descriptions of her home life and her many experiences through the fall of 1978 and spring of 1979. Though for short parts of the story, the time-travel plot does not appear to be moving forward in any discernable way, the narrator’s account of daily events are still significant in the life of a 6th grader, and readers are immersed enough in Miranda’s problems that they will not loose interest. Overall, the novel is an astute and sincere exploration of how adolescents must learn to “lift the veil” that is draped in front of their faces and discover the reality of the strange, complicated world around them. It is a novel worthy of comparison to its predecessor, L’Engle’s 1963 classic.

Note: this post participates in the Weekly Geek January 14, 2011 Challenge.

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