Monday, June 13, 2011

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead
Random House Audio, 2009
4 discs

It was a long time ago that I first read about this book on Abby (the) Librarian's blog. I've wanted to read it since, and I kept seeing it on the shelf. So when the opportunity arose to read it with my very tiny book club for older kids (generally 9 - 12 years old) I figured that would be an excellent opportunity.

At first, I'll be honest, I worried I'd made a wrong choice, and that if I was kind of meh about the book, the kids would be especially meh. But the further I got into it, the more I liked it; and by the time the end rolled around, I did that thing again where I debate sitting in the car and finishing it before heading into work (I didn't. There wasn't enough time.) I think part of my reluctance at first was the reader; she is good, but there were several times where I took issue with her interpretation, and I also found her adult voices to be pretty jarring. That said, I tend to start and then drop a lot of kids' audiobooks based on unlistenable (for me) narrators, and this one I kept listening to rather than giving up and reading the book instead.

The basic premise is this: Miranda is a 12-year-old girl growing up in the late 1970s in New York. Her best friend lives in the same apartment building; she and Sal have been friends for as long as she can remember. But one day, out of the blue, Sal gets punched by another boy, and shuts Miranda out of his life entirely. And other strange things start happening, like the random notes Miranda begins to find, notes that seem to know more about her and what her future holds than they should. Miranda tells us this story in a very confessional, almost diary-like format, and we watch the world from her eyes. She is telling this story to each person who hears it or reads it individually; but also to one specific person in her life, someone we don't recognize until the very last chapters.

What is most interesting to me about this book is that it's often classified as fantasy, but the bit I would classify as fantasy is so miniscule, so incidental until the very end that it doesn't quite fit in that genre for me. The vast majority of the book is about Miranda's life, her mother, her challenges with making new friends and dealing with the others in her class, her first crush, and growing up over a period of several months in New York City. It was these sections of the book I found most engaging (which is good, because they were 90% of where we spent our time) and though I expected more magic, I wasn't dismayed. As in my last review, I rather enjoy books where the magic is not the driver for the story. Here it could have been, and that's what makes the choices Stead made as far as focus so interesting.

I did particularly appreciate the ending of this book; it wasn't wrapped up in an unbelievable way, it took just the right amount of time once we realized what was happening, and it didn't distance itself from the reader. I enjoyed watching the pieces of the puzzle slotted neatly where they needed to be, as much as Miranda did.

I've noticed myself thinking about this book regularly since I finished it, which is always a good sign. I enjoyed it as an adult, but I think I would have loved it as a kid, and I'll be very interested to see what the kids in the book club think about it. It gives us lots of fodder to talk about, even if they didn't like it as much as I hope they do. Recommended.

13 comments:

Carl V. said...

I listened to this one on audio last year. Cannot recall right now what the narrator sounded like but I do remember enjoying her. This was a fun book and one I am glad folks blogged about as it is unlikely I would have known about it otherwise.

I was especially fond of the setting for the story as I grew up in the 70's and 80's and the time period felt like a trip down memory lane.

I think the author did a really nice job of weaving in the science fictional elements of the story without letting that be what the story was about, instead keeping it focused on the characters. I certainly think Stead is deserving of the accolades she has received for the book.

Glad you enjoyed it.

kiirstin said...

Hi Carl! Thanks for stopping by.

The problem I usually have with books on disc for kids is that the narrator sounds like they're reading to kids, and not in a good way. I didn't have that problem here. But I do think I viewed Miranda differently as a character as interpreted by the reader than I think I would have if I had read the book. It's unavoidable, really.

I am curious: would you call it science fiction, or fantasy? I tend to think of it more as fantasy in that there is no reasonable explanation for time travel in this context, and thus it seems little more fantastical than scientific to me. But time travel is so often placed in the science fiction camp.

Carl V. said...

I generally consider time travel to be a science fictional element vs. fantasy, but I don't have any hard and fast rules about the two genres as they tend to blend together, more so in recent novels. I think the term 'fantasy' tends to conjure up either Lord of the Rings style elements or magic for many people. But that's just me.

I am trying to recall how many books for YA I've listened to on audio. Gaiman's Graveyard Book comes to mind, which is lovely because he reads it. I've listened to several Richard Peck books and some of them have wonderful narrators and others are really bad, or at least in comparison to the really good ones.

I do like a narrator who does not sound as if they are reading to kids. That "talk down to you" voice is annoying, and I suspect it is for some children as well.

kiirstin said...

I suppose this might be a case where "speculative fiction" would be an appropriate term, as a blend of the two. Not fond of that term, but in the right place it makes sense. Part of what is happening here is that my librarian brain likes to classify things in the "right" spot.

I haven't listened to "The Graveyard Book" yet but I've heard such wonderful things about it that I plan to, even though I've read the book already. Another kid's audiobook I thoroughly enjoyed was David Tennant reading "How to Train Your Dragon." It is perfection.

Carl V. said...

I read Graveyard Book when it first came out, but every subsequent "read", and there have been a couple at least, have been listening to Neil read it to me. Wonderful!

Yes, I too am not a fan of the 'speculative fiction' term. Always makes me feel like people are trying to legitimize their work or their passions by removing it from the designations of "science fiction" or "fantasy". I'm in the camp of being proud of what you like to read.

Ah, David Tennant. My wife and I just finished watching the last of the David Tennant Dr. Who episodes last night. Tears were shed.

kiirstin said...

My husband's favourite Doctor is Tennant. Me, I ... had to stop after Eccleston, I loved too hard and too deeply. Also the boy in the gas mask scared the bejeebus out of me. I totally appreciate Tennant from a distance, though.

"I'm in the camp of being proud of what you like to read." Yes, that, exactly. I read an article not long ago by China Mieville that really articulated exactly how I feel about genre: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/meet-china-miville-ambassador-of-the-new-weird/article2046294/

Highly recommended reading.

Carl V. said...

Ah, you really should give Tennant a try. My wife mentioned the other day that while she has always enjoyed Dr. Who (the older ones we've watched included) she never expected to have a series where they made you care so deeply about the Dr.'s grief and loss and sadness. In spite of the usual goofiness of Dr. Who there was a great deal of strong emotional content to the three seasons with Tennant. Some of the most satisfying science fiction I've ever seen.

kiirstin said...

It is the emotional closeness that is the problem, to be honest. I can handle it (love it) in books, but on the screen it leaves me shattered; I have no barriers or filters that seem to be up to the challenge. Which can be excellent when I am in need of catharsis, but as a regular thing it is exhausting. It hasn't always been that way, and I expect it will pass, at which point Doctor Who is the first series I'll be picking up again!

(Instead I've been watching things like Mythbusters and cooking shows, neither of which require any emotional attachment at all.)

The brain is a fascinating thing. I have been learning to work with mine.

Carl V. said...

My wife and I were having a similar conversation with a friend and his wife this weekend as we were telling them how different episodes of Dr. Who had us in tears. The wife, who is not really into television or movies, was having a really hard time understanding why we would react that way and actually made a statement about perhaps people just get more emotional as they get older. I had to laugh as she so doesn't get it. My wife and I both have always been like this.

I like that emotional connection, but I wouldn't want to experience it every day! :)

kiirstin said...

Ha! I don't think it has much to do with age, though perhaps for some people it does. For me, it's rolling phases, all through my life. I love it when I can handle it, but know when I have to stop for a while. :)

I've always wondered why books don't seem to bother me as much, when I still get mightily attached to characters. I have been known to cry in books, but it's tremendously uncommon for me.

Carl V. said...

I don't know if she was trying to insinuate that my wife was getting close to "the change" or what. It was very odd, but funny because we know that she (a very emotional person otherwise) is somewhat like an automaton when it comes to love for films or television.

I don't know. I think we can connect much more deeply in books sometimes than television. Perhaps since the shows do much of our 'imagining' for us, showing us what the characters look like, etc., we are more vulnerable to the raw emotions of the story. There's some pop psychology for you!

While I was typing this I was wondering if Stead had any other books out and I see there is one called First Light that sounds interesting. May have to look for that at the library.

Carl V. said...

And they do, on audio! I went ahead and put a hold on it. Maybe I'll get to listen to it next week.

kiirstin said...

Oh, indeed! My library has a copy too, though not on audio. (We only have the audio for When You Reach Me because I ordered it, actually, it occurs to me.)

I look forward to hearing what you think of it. The premise looks fascinating, and after WYRM I'm willing to bet Stead does a really interesting, unconventional job of it.