Are you a fan of mysteries? Are you a natural Sherlock Holmes? Do you have fun solving puzzles and piecing together clues? Well, good. That means you're going to love Rebecca Stead's young adult novel, When You Reach Me, which New York Times reviewer Monica Edinger calls a "thrilling puzzle" (source). We at Shmoop agree. It's a paradox of a novel. It's a riddle wrapped in an enigma cloaked in mystery. Heck, it's like one of those trippy 3D eye paintings** that you stare at until a bunch of dolphins finally jump out at you – and you're sucked in.
Reviewer Monica Edinger, who is also a teacher, says that her students "became obsessed detectives when I read this book to them – examining the map-like cover for clues, studying the clever chapter titles and constantly recalibrating their ideas as more pieces of the puzzle were revealed. When I reached the end, when they saw just how everything fitted together, they were completely and utterly delighted" (source). See? One minute you're reading, and the next thing you know, you're one of those dolphins.
The premise of the novel is simple enough to wrap your head around. When You Reach Me tells the story of a sixth-grader named Miranda who is a latchkey kid in New York City in the late '70s. Her single mom is a paralegal (she works in a law office, but isn't a lawyer) who wears crazy colored tights, and her favorite book is Madeline L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time.
That's where the simplicity ends, though. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Miranda has been finding creepy notes around her apartment that weirdly predict the future – her future. Miranda is caught in a web of questions: Who is sending the notes? Why? And how can the note-writer know things that haven't even happened yet? Our heroine unties these knots page by page, and we get to be detectives along with her.
When You Reach Me won the Newberry Medal for children's literature in 2010, and we don't think it's because the novel's puzzles are simple. This book's questions often have challenging answers – the kind that scientists and philosophers have been pondering for centuries. What is the nature of time and space? What is the relationship of the past to the present? Is time travel really possible? Did we mention that Albert Einstein and his theory of relativity play a big part in this plot? This book might just hurt your head, Shmoopers. So put on your thinking caps – er, helmets – and sally forth.
In a 1931 essay called "The World as I See It," the great scientific egghead Albert Einstein wrote, "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious." He continues: "It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed."
For old Einstein, the world was indeed a place full of marvel. His eyes were wide open to the many mysteries of the natural world. As a physicist he dreamt up the world-changing theory of relativity. That's right, he cooked up the famous equation E=mc2. Time and space were fascinating riddles to be unpacked in old Einey's noggin. The answer to those riddles would radically change the world we live in.
Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me opens with a quote from Einstein's 1931 essay, and we would argue that her novel continues along in the spirit of Einstein's thinking. No, she doesn't claim to expand on his theory of relativity. Stead is a novelist, not a scientist. Like Einstein, though, she believes in the beauty of the mysterious – and the value of a human's ability to wonder. She asks us to think about the truths of space and time, sure, but also truths about humanity. What defines our experience as humans? What is it that makes us who we are? As someone as interested in society as he was science, Einstein would have approved of these questions.
When You Reach Me doesn't pretend to know everything. Instead, it asks questions – and asks us to wonder, to marvel at the answers.