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 Newbery 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.
The Official Rebecca Stead Website
Check out author Rebecca Stead's awesome website – plenty of fun graphics.
Rebecca Stead's Blog
Want to keep up to date with the author? Check out her blogspot blog. She updates it frequently with stories about her travels and cool links to follow.
When You Reach Me: The Movie
Look for a version coming to the big screen.
"Man Unable to Remember is Reunited with Fiancée," New York Times, October 2006
Read the news story that inspired Stead's time-travelling plot.
"Upper West Side Story: An Interview with Rebecca Stead," School Library Journal, July 2009
A short interview with the author about her book
Rebecca Stead Interview, Time Out New York, July 2009
Want more? Here's another interview with Rebecca Stead.
"Summer Reading Chronicle," New York Times, August 2009
A short book review of When You Reach Me
"Tweens," Time Out New York, August 2009
A cool article by Rebecca Stead on the phenomenon known as "Tweens"
"A Very New York Novel Wins Newberry Medal," New York Times, January 2010
An article on Stead winning the Newberry Medal
Stephen Hawking, "How to Build a Time Machine," Mail Online, May 2010
Physicist Stephen Hawking explains how one might go about building a time machine.
"The World as I See It," by Albert Einstein
This 1931 essay by the great Albert Einstein wrote ties in nicely to When You Reach Me, saying "The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious." We think Rebecca Stead would approve.
Rebecca Stead Interview
The author talks about her novel.
Want to see what the Winner's Circle is really like?
Einstein's Big Idea
How does Einstein's theory of relativity really work? Click here to find out.
Stephen Hawking on Time Travel
Listen to the famous physicist Stephen Hawking talk about his ideas on time travel.
PBS Nova: E=Mc Squared
Listen to top physicists and academics explain Einstein's famous equation.
Here's a public radio episode of Speaking of Faith on Albert Einstein's views of the social world from Krista Tippet.
When You Reach Me Audiobook
Purchase and download the Audiobook from Random House Audio
Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
This is the cover of the first edition of A Wrinkle in Time. This is the copy that Miranda gets for Christmas.
A picture of the author with some of her young fans.
This is Rebecca Stead's signature when she was in 6th grade, the same age as Miranda.
A Wrinkle in Time
Reading this great time-traveling adventure will help you to better understand When You Reach Me and all of it's comments about landing in a broccoli patch.
Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams
Can't get enough wacky thinking about time and space? Check out Alan Lightman.