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July 29, 2014
Read this YA Book If…
When You Reach Me: Big Ideas in a Small Package
by Erin Cowles

Has anyone else noticed that the recent blockbuster youth books seem to weigh as much as baby rhinoceroses? Don't get me wrong. I love a thousand-page Victorian novel as much as the next girl. But I also love books whose size won't make slow readers cower in fear.

It is a treat to find a book whose size won't scare away reluctant readers, but whose content won't talk down to them. Although I love Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, in its own right, I especially love that Stead packs this book full of ideas, but keeps a low word count.

Despite their tight finances, sixth-grader Miranda and her single mother have a good life in their 1970s New York City neighborhood. She has a strong relationship with her mother, and her mother's boyfriend is a nice guy (they've dubbed him “Mr. Perfect”). Her best friend, Sal, lives in her apartment building, and they know how to navigate their inner-city neighborhood. Miranda is happy.

Suddenly, things start to get weird. Sal gets punched by a kid they don't know, and then Sal doesn't want to spend time with Miranda anymore. Miranda's spare apartment key gets stolen, and to make matters worse, she receives a strange letter from a sender that claims to be trying to save her friend's life.

The letters keep coming, and the sender seems to know things about her life that even Miranda doesn't know — because they haven't happened yet.

In the midst of unraveling this mystery, Miranda also needs to figure out life without Sal. She makes new friends, and through being a part of their lives and challenges, she develops empathy, courage, and compassion.

The mystery in this book will be easily solved by older readers, although it should be spot on for middle grade readers. That said, I don't think solving the mystery is the point of this book.

When You Reach Me reads best as a tribute to Miranda's favorite book, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Stead's novel is full of the virtues that made me love L'Engle's classic. I loved this book's celebration of the power of thinking about big ideas, facing daunting problems, and growing in empathy. And even though I could see where it was going, I still enjoyed watching the twists unfold.

I appreciated that the book was able to tackle complex issues while still staying clean. The people Miranda encounters force her to face racism, chronic illness, homelessness, and poverty. That said, there is no substance abuse, language, or sexuality. I appreciate that it manages to be gritty without having any content that would make me hesitate to give it to my nephews.

When You Reach Me is a lovely stand-alone book — a little mystery, a little science fiction, and a whole lot of heart.

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Target Audience: Ages 9-14

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