When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99, 9780385737425/0385737424, 208pp., ages 9-14, July 2009)
Although it is not necessary to have read A Wrinkle in Time to appreciate Rebecca Stead's (First Light) latest novel, it is 12-year-old narrator Mira's favorite book (she "had probably read it a hundred times, which was why it looked so beat-up"). Mira is highly likable, trustworthy and funny, and chances are, if readers glom onto her, they will want to read or reread A Wrinkle in Time, too (this reader did). Mira never knew her father, but she's very content with her mother, her mother's boyfriend, Richard, and her life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The heroine likes being a "latchkey" child because, as Richard says, "Keys are power. Some of us have to come knocking" (Richard does not possess a key to their apartment). Everything is dandy, until the day that Mira's lifelong friend Sal randomly gets punched in the stomach. At least, that's what Mira thinks.
Stead opens up the profound possibilities in a city where a neighborhood can contain an entire world. Mira and Sal "read" the energy of a gang of boys, deciding if "the boys were being regular" or if they need to cross to the other side of the street. They gauge the behavior of "the laughing man," the homeless gent who sleeps with his head under the corner mailbox, to see if it's safe to pass him. And after Sal gets punched and lets Mira know that he doesn't want to be her friend anymore, Mira even winds up getting to know Marcus, the boy who punched Sal. The good news is that a postcard arrives saying Mira's mother will finally get her shot on the $20,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark on April 27, 1979--"Just like you said." That comment is readers' first clue that something larger is going on here. Someone knew ahead of time that Mira's mother would get her chance on that particular day; someone who leaves mysterious notes for Mira. How the heroine puts the pieces of the puzzle together takes a back seat to all of the fascinating characters that come through her life, the effects they have on her and the ideas they introduce to her--such as Marcus quoting Einstein's idea that "common sense is just habit of thought" or prickly classmate Julia using a ring full of diamond chips to explain time travel. The solution may come together a bit rapidly for some readers' taste, but they will want to stick with this heroine and even reread the book to stay with her a bit longer. They will also want to pinpoint the ways in which Stead plays with the idea of time and place, and who people are at the core, and how consequences change them, and how time and experience give people different perspectives--different dimensions. This book asks you to discard your habitual thoughts. Bravo!--Jennifer M. Brown