Book Review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

In-Depth book review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead ~ What My Kids Read

When You Reach Me is a Newbery Award winner by Rebecca Stead, who also wrote Liar & Spy (that’s a link to my review). It heavily references Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (that’s a link to my review of that book), and I think that it would definitely help for your child to be familiar with A Wrinkle in Time before reading this book. You could skip it and depend on the summaries in When You Reach Me, but I love it when my kids get the full experience of a book, and I feel like that would happen best after reading A Wrinkle in Time.

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When You Reach Me (affiliate link) is science fiction, but you do not realize it is until close to the end of the book. The main character, sixth-grader Miranda, notices certain things go missing and receives mysterious notes that she cannot explain. On top of that mystery, she muddles through the normal highs and lows of sixth grade friendships and crushes, her relationship with her single mother, and her lifelong best friend suddenly wanting nothing to do with her. There is a very scary scene when a man pushes a boy out of the street, gets hit by  bus, and dies. Unfortunately, I have to give away a major spoiler here and say that the punchline of the whole story deals with time travel. As I said before, it is obviously inspired by A Wrinkle in Time (affiliate link), but When You Reach Me doesn’t have the same whimsy. It is very well written and interesting. My ten-year-old is reading it right now, although I have several conversations planned to talk through with him.

Parents should be aware that this book may seem really creepy at parts until it is clear at the end what the mystery is about. Miranda’s dad is completely absent. He is referred to once and that is as “my non-existent dad.” Miranda’s mom has a boyfriend who wants to move in, and Miranda wants him to move it, but Miranda’s mom is hesitating. At the end of the book, Miranda gives her mom’s boyfriend a set of keys to their apartment as a gift. There is one small section where Miranda thinks about evolution. There is a small bit of romance in this story. Miranda has a crush and ends up kissing a boy. There is some violence from bullies, and a homeless man is hit by a bus and dies. There is a scene with a racist man who is convinced that a girl must have stolen his money because she is black. There are a few instances of stealing versus stealing. There is a little language, mostly a few times of “What the hell?” Please click on my categories below to see more specifics.

The message of this book is all actions, no matter how small, have consequences.

In-depth book review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead ~ What My Kids Read

My Mom-Meter gives When You Reach Me an overall safety rating of 3 (Caution) for ages 10 and up.

The Lexile rating for When You Reach Me is 750L.

Click here to skip to a Plot summary

Click here to skip straight to Potential Discussion Points

Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):

Alcohol/Drugs: Safe - no actual four-letter words

BullyingCaution

Disrespectful Attitudes: Moderately Safe

Gambling: Safe - no actual four-letter words

Gross Behavior: Moderately Safe

Language: Moderately Safe

Magic/SupernaturalModerately Safe

Morality: Moderately Safe

Romance/Sex: Moderately Safe

Scary Themes: Moderately Safe

Violence: Caution

In-depth book review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead ~ What My Kids Read

Plot summary of When You Reach Me: ***Contains Spoilers***

Wikipedia has a plot summary here.

Potential Discussion Points for Parents in When You Reach Me:

  • There is a homeless man who stands on the corner. He scares Miranda. Some kids call him Quack (short for Quackers), meaning he is crazy. Miranda gives him a sandwich on day, and her mom is mad because that is dangerous behavior. By the end of the book, you learn that he acts that way for a reason, but it still might be a great opportunity to talk about how your family views the homeless and how you interact with people who appear to be crazy.
  • Miranda’s mom tells her “Teachers didn’t have to go fight in Vietnam. So a lot of young men who didn’t want to fight became teachers.” Miranda adds “Instead of what they really wanted to be, she meant.” You might want to have a talk with your child about dodging the draft during Vietnam, and what the moral implications were for everyone during that time.
  • Annemarie has epilepsy. You might want to talk with your kids about what epilepsy is and how to help friends that have it.
  • Jimmy thinks that Julia stole his bank because she is black. He says “Some things are in the blood. All the money in the world can’t change a person’s blood.” Annemarie calls him a “racist pig.” Jimmy thinks that Miranda calls Julia “Swiss Miss” because it’s a brand of hot chocolate and she’s black, but Miranda actually calls her that because she’s rich and always getting things from Switzerland. You might want to talk with your kids about racism and bigotry (you can look dow on someone for being rich just as easily as being poor).

Alcohol/Drugs:

  • One of the tenants in Miranda’s apartment building usually burns a hole into their couch with his cigarettes.  It is also mentioned twice that there are cigarette butts on the stairs of the apartment building.
  • Mentions what to do if someone is “looking drunk.” (cross the street without being obvious)
  • Annemarie’s father has “an unlit cigar in his mouth.”

Bullying:

  • There are bullies that Miranda and Sal have to pass every day on their way to school. Sometimes they call Miranda and Sal “names that made our hearts beat fast the rest of the way home.”
  •  “…there had been a fight, with one of them slamming another one up against a parked car and hitting him. The kid getting hit had both his hands up like he was saying ‘Enough!’, but every time he tried to get off the hood of that car, the other kid pushed him down and hit him again….”
  • A boy walks up to Sal, “He made a fist that came up like a wave and hit Sal right in the stomach. Hard. Sal doubled over and gurgled like he was going to throw up. And then the kids whacked him in the face.”
  • Jimmy, the sandwich shop owner, calls Colin (one of Miranda’s classmates that works with her at the sandwich shop) “lady.”
  • The bullies “started saying things to [Miranda], different things, some of which included the words ‘sweet’ and ‘baby.’ Mom said this happened to girls after a certain age and that what the boys wanted was a reaction, any kind of reaction. ‘Don’t laugh, don’t call them jerks, don’t take off running,’ she said. ‘Do nothing. Act as if they’re invisible.'”
  • Sal passes some bullies that say “some stuff to him like they sometimes do. I saw a couple of potato chips hit him on the back… One of them reach out and pushed Sal in the chest – not too hard, but Sal stumbled back a few steps.”

Disrespectful Attitudes:

  • Miranda gives her mom a hard time about naming her “Miranda.”
  • Miranda makes fun of her mom’s clothes several times. Miranda thinks her mom dresses like a 12-year-old.
  • Miranda’s mom’s friend, Louisa, talks about the “Old people” she works with several times.
  • Miranda rolls her eyes at Richard’s jokes.

Gambling: None

Gross Behavior:

  • Miranda says “And, as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word ‘poop.'”
  • “Pee” is used several times through the book. There is a girl in Miranda’s 6th grade class that dances around holding it, forgetting to go to the bathroom.

Language:

  • “Dumb” is used many times in this book.
  • Miranda says “And, as Mom likes to say, that’s a whole different bucket of poop. Except she doesn’t use the word ‘poop.'”
  • One of the bullies yells “What the hell was that?” It is mentioned twice.
  • “Gangbusters” is used, as in “working like gangbusters.”
  • Miranda’s flat brown hair makes her “curse her nonexistent dad, who must be to blame for my hair… otherwise I don’t hold any grudges against him.”
  • “As dumb as a bag of hair” is a phrase used a few times. “Mom says it doesn’t help that some of these celebrity partners are as dumb as a bag of hair.”
  • Miranda writes that the note she found “scared the hell out of me.”
  • Miranda and her friend “laughed like idiots.”
  • “Darn” is used a few times.
  • “Gee, thanks” is said once.
  • Julia says “God, you’re an idiot. You’re an idiot, you know that?” She calls Miranda an idiot six times on one page because she is worried about Annemarie and because she thinks Miranda has hated her for a long time.
  • “Stupid” is used several times.
  • Julia tells Miranda to “shut up and listen.”
  • Miranda tells Marcus “That’s bull.”
  • Miranda and Annemarie hear “something hit the kitchen floor, followed by a bunch of cursing from Mom.”
  • Sal screams “Shut up!” to some bullies and calls the “Jerks.”
  • Miranda says “Oh my God” sarcastically.
  • “God” is used twice as an expletive.
  • “One of the police officers swore…”
  • “Thank God” is said a few times.
  • Richard tells Miranda’s mom that she looks “darn good” in her suit.

Magic/Supernatural:

  • This book is about time travel. A Wrinkle in Time is referred to many times. At the end, you realize that this book is about time travel. There are small clues that you would only notice re-reading the book.
  • The word “monster” is used once, in reference to a criminal, not a literal monster.
  • “The laughing man,” a homeless guy that acts crazy, calls Annemarie “Angel.”
  • “Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world…We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces… But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to… And it isn’t about magic, or some idea that maybe God is looking right at you, or an angel is sitting next to you, or anything like that. It’s just her way of saying that most of the time, people get distracted by little stuff and ignore the big stuff….” Later, during the game show, Miranda worries that her mom will not be able to “lift the veil and see the magic thread” if she is distracted.
  • Ghost are mentioned as a simile: “…the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone sees but pretends not to.”

Morality:

  • Miranda’s mom “swipes” things from the office supply closet at work. It is mentioned several times. Miranda and Richard (Miranda’s mother’s boyfriend) notice she steals more when she is unhappy at work.
  • Colin steals two bread rolls from Jimmy so that Jimmy would be happy to call the company and complain. He later says that he didn’t steal the bank. “The rolls were just for fun, but taking the bank would be, you know, stealing.”
  • Someone steals Jimmy’s bank full of two dollar bills. Miranda later finds out that it is the “laughing man,” the homeless guy on the corner. At the end of the book, you realize that he knows about the bank because Miranda wrote about it in the book.

Potentially Offensive Behavior:

  • Jimmy, a sandwich shop owner, says “Velly important” and “stretched his eyelids back with two fingers, and bowed low – it was the classic fake-Chinese act.”
  • Jimmy thinks that Julia stole his bank because she is black. He says “Some things are in the blood. All the money in the world can’t change a person’s blood.” Annemarie calls him a “racist pig.” Jimmy thinks that Miranda calls Julia “Swiss Miss” because it’s a brand of hot chocolate and she’s black, but Miranda actually calls her that because she’s rich and always getting things from Switzerland.
  • In the chapter called “Christmas Vacation,” Miranda imagine evolution taking place, and wonders about the significance of her small problems.

Romance/Sex:

  • Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, Richard, who has been “coming around” for 2 years. He wants a key to their apartment, but Miranda’s mom hasn’t given him one.
  • Belle, a shop owner, asks about the story of A Wrinkle in Time, and asks if the main character, Meg, has a boyfriend. When Belle learns that Meg is only twelve, Belle says “Plenty of time for boyfriends, then.”
  • Miranda’s mother is a single mother. Miranda’s flat brown hair makes her “curse her nonexistent dad, who must be to blame for my hair… otherwise I don’t hold any grudges against him.”
  • There are a couple mentions of a naked man being seen running down Broadway. “The naked guy was back, running down Broadway… ‘Kind of cold out to be running around in your birthday suit!'” When the bus is about to hit Sal, Miranda see a flicker of a naked man holding his head in his hands. Later, Miranda realizes that those are probably Marcus’ first attempts to time travel.
  • Jimmy, the sandwich shop owner, assigns Colin and Annemarie to work the counter. He calls them “the counter couple” and makes “disgusting kissing noises at them when he walked by.”
  • The bullies “started saying things to [Miranda], different things, some of which included the words ‘sweet’ and ‘baby.’ Mom said this happened to girls after a certain age and that what the boys wanted was a reaction, any kind of reaction. ‘Don’t laugh, don’t call them jerks, don’t take off running,’ she said. ‘Do nothing. Act as if they’re invisible.'”
  • Miranda’s and Colin’s foreheads touch while looking at Jimmy’s bank. “Ever since our foreheads had touched, looking at Colin made me feel strange. but good-strange, not creepy-strange.”
  • Annemarie looks at Colin, “and her expression was funny, as if her stomach might be floating too.”
  • Miranda’s mom runs a “pregnant-jailbird ‘parenting group.'” “Once a month, Mom takes the subway down to this actual jail and talks to criminal pregnant women about what to expect after they have their babies.”
  • Annemarie finds a rose on her doormat. Miranda thinks that Annemarie is hoping it’s from Colin. Near the end of the book, Miranda realizes it was from Julia.
  • Miranda’s mom tells her “Richard wants to move in… He wants us to get married.” Miranda is happy about it, but her mom isn’t sure if it is the right thing for Miranda. Miranda ends up giving Richard a set of key to the apartment for his birthday.
  • Colin shows up at Miranda’s apartment and kisses her, and she kisses him back.
  • “In early March… I kissed Colin a few more times, ad I suspected that Jay Stringer was working up the nerve to kiss Annemarie. I don’t think anyone dared kiss Julia.”
  • Richard gives Miranda’s mom a kiss before she goes on the game show.
  • Miranda gives Richard the key to the apartment, and the next morning she slips out “before Mom ad Richard wake up.”

Scary Themes:

  • Muggers are mentioned once in passing, but not described.
  • Sal runs away from Marcus, not looking where he was going, and almost gets hit by a big truck. “My brain boomed inside my head ‘Sal is going to die.’ ‘SAL IS GOING TO DIE.’ SAL IS GOING TO DIE.”

Violence:

  • A boy walks up to Sal, “He made a fist that came up like a wave and hit Sal right in the stomach. Hard. Sal doubled over and gurgled like he was going to throw up. And then the kids whacked him in the face.” Sal cries, and “Some blood had started dripping out of his nose, and he wiped it with the blue and white striped cuff of his jacket. He gagged a lot. It sounded like he really might throw up.”
  • “…there had been a fight, with one of them slamming another one up against a parked car and hitting him. The kid getting hit had both his hands up like he was saying ‘Enough!’, but every time he tried to get off the hood of that car, the other kid pushed him down and hit him again….”
  • Right before Sal is about to be ht by the truck, the “laughing man” kicks Sal hard and Sal falls far away from the truck. The truck hits the “laughing man” and he is killed.

In-depth book review of When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead ~ What My Kids Read

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