When You Reach Me – Middle Grade Sci-fi Writing Craft Review
This review of When You Reach Me, a Newberry Award-winning novel by Rebecca Stead, is hopefully the first of a series on writing craft in middle grade science fiction. I’ll explore issues of writing craft, such as theme, tone, voice, plot, characterization, etc. in a few of my new favourite books. My aim is for this review to be useful for a writer of middle grade sci-fi, or a teacher who is looking for books to read in their class.
In the last few months, I’ve read quite a few recently-released middle grade science fiction books, and I have to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of good new stories out there.
Here is the list of what I’ve read so far in order of my preference:
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
- The Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson
- See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng (which is not even sci-fi, but that’s how it was shelved at my library)
- The Wild Robot by Peter Brown
- The Last Human by Lee Bacon (out in October, 2019)
- The Last Wild by Piers Torday
So let’s get down to business. Up first is When You Reach Me, a heart-warming story about a little girl growing up in New York City.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Without question, my favourite book of the last few months was When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. I have to say, this book is barely science fiction. It technically is, but I would call it sci-fi lite.
However, I believe it’s a masterfully told story, and the sci-fi element is critical.
Due to the nature of the story, dealing with a young girl and her single mom, and the very intimate, internal nature of the conflict, I believe this book will probably be enjoyable more for young girls, or children who like interpersonal dramas and mystery, rather than action-packed adventures.
However, just because it’s not action-packed, doesn’t mean it’s not excellent. I’m serious when I say that this is probably the best book I’ve read in years. It’s a new favourite, and I enjoyed it so much that I have gone on to read more by Rebecca Stead.
What’s it like? It’s a middle-school mystery that meets a dash of science fiction.
My mini spoiler free summary: Miranda is a lower-class twelve year old girl with a single mom, who is growing up in Manhattan in the 70s. Every day on her way to school she passes a deranged homeless man which frightens her, and someone is leaving very strange notes for her, but other than that, her life is pretty normal. Until one day, when her best friend, Sal, suddenly ditches her as a friend. Without her best friend, Miranda struggles to make new friends and find her way alone in middle school. She wants to figure out why Sal ditched her, but doesn’t have the nerve to ask him directly. She also wants to figure out who the heck is leaving her these mysterious notes (notes that are eventually revealed to be from the FUTURE!).
What stands out?
- This is a book full of quirky, lovable and credible characters in a heart-warming and optimistic story.
- The voice is incredible–so realistic and vivid.
- Also the narrative arc; it’s pretty flawless.
- There’s a great life lesson in the book.
There is a lot to discuss about this book, so I’ll get into a few of these in more detail.
I have to admit that one of the reasons I loved this book is because I could really relate to the character. Who hasn’t lost a very important friend and struggled to know why, but failed to find the courage to ask directly? I also grew up with a single mom, and I felt my heart break a little during some of the scenes that touch very gently on issues such as poverty and codependence.
Flawless Narrative Arc
I think the narrative arc is an important reason why this book is so satisfying. In the end, many elements of the book that seemed like they were just randomly ‘hanging out’ actually get tied up. Such as the homeless man, Miranda’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Richard, and why Sal dumped her, and of course, who is leaving the notes.
Deep or Immersive Point of View and Voice
Looking more at the voice, which really is what stands out in this book, Rebecca Stead is truly a master. The story is told in the language that Miranda would tell it in. You don’t get the sense that the author is creeping through. She has captured so many details of how Miranda feels, her world, and her life, but she does so in a way that’s authentically Miranda, humorous and light-hearted.
The type of writing in this novel is called Deep Point of View, or Immersive Point of View, and it’s a technique that allows the reader to be closer to the character. We experience what the character experiences. We feel what she feels. We see the character as a dynamic, round human being, not a flat plot device.
Here is an excerpt to show an example of Deep POV:
I hear Mom’s key in the door and flip over my word piles so she can’t peek.
“Miranda?” She clomps down the hall — she’s on a clog kick lately — and sticks her head in my room. “Are you starving? I thought we’d hold dinner for Richard.”
“I can wait.” The truth is I’ve just eaten an entire bag of Cheez Doodles. After-school junk food is another fundamental right of the latchkey child.
It’s a short chunk, but I think you can see what I mean from just these few sentences. There are no dialogue tags (hallmark of deep pov), and there is immersive perspective about how the character interprets the events she’s experiencing. For example, she attributes the way her mother walks to her love of clogs, and she assuages her own guilt about eating an entire bag of Cheez Doodles and lying about it by claiming that it’s her fundamental right because she’s a latchkey kid.
Great Life Lesson
There is a great life lesson in this book, which is basically that it’s important to develop a wider network of friends, and not just stick codependently to one friend who you feel safe with. When you have more than one friend, you get new opportunities and new experiences and you can have more fun. That’s basically what this book is teaching, but it’s definitely heavy-handed. It’s very subtle.
The life lesson actually forms an important part of the mystery of the novel, so it’s something that you as a reader want to solve, rather than the author hitting you over the head with a teachable moment. Why did Sal ditch Miranda? You want to find that out. Haven’t we all wanted to understand why a friend ditched us?
I believe that When You Reach Me is a novel that delights on many levels. It’s not just an entertaining read, but also has a meaningful lesson about friendship and boundaries. It’s suitable for classroom and could provoke excellent discussions related to self-regulation and social emotional learning.