Mysterious letters deliver a fine thriller in 'When You Reach Me''

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If Madeline L'Engle was still living she would have celebrated her 91st birthday on Nov. 29. She also would have seen the publication of "When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead (Random House, $15.99, ages 9-12), which pays homage to her classic work "A Wrinkle in Time."

Stead's main character, Miranda, carries "A Wrinkle in Time" with her wherever she goes and the idea of time travel is a central theme in "When You Reach Me." Miranda continually debates with herself and others whether time travel is possible and if so, how does it work?

In the fall of 1978, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, are walking home from school. Twelve years old and street-smart, the pair knows how to navigate the busy New York streets.

They know not to talk to the crazy guy, who they call the "laughing man." They know that Belle's grocery store is a safe place to go. Miranda's mom has even told her to get her keys out before she gets to the front door of their building.

One day, however, things begin to change. As they pass a group of boys who always seems to cause trouble, a new boy punches Sal in the stomach and nose. Sal races for home and slams his door in Miranda's face, thus shutting her out of not only his apartment, but also his life.

Miranda is forced to navigate the sixth grade without the comfort of her best friend. She makes new friends, Annemarie and Colin, and the three friends start to work at a sandwich shop near school. It's owned by an eccentric named Jimmy who pays them in cheese sandwiches and tells them never to touch the Fred Flintstone piggy bank.

Surprisingly, Miranda also becomes friends with Marcus, the boy who hit Sal. She meets him one day while helping out in the school office and the two strike up an unusual friendship.

Marcus appears to be an expert on time travel and tries to tell her that L'Engle lies in her book. Marcus' explanation is pivotal to the plot and offers clues of the outcome of the novel.

Miranda's home life is a bit strained as well. Her father is absent and Miranda's mother is doing her best to raise Miranda alone. Their evenings are filled with practice sessions for the "$20,000 Pyramid."

Miranda's mother will be a contestant. And in one of many humorous details, all the chapters are titled in game-show style categories: "Things You Don't Forget" and "Things You Keep Secret."

Then one night Miranda comes home to find the door to their apartment unlocked. She nervously enters but finds nothing out of place. Her mom insists she locked the door and discovers that the key that was hidden has been stolen.

Then Miranda finds a mysterious note addressed to M. "This is hard," it begins, adding, "I am coming to save your friend's life, and my own." The letter asks Miranda for two favors. "First, that you write me a letter. Second, that you remember to mention the location of your house key in the letter."

Miranda continues to get mysterious notes left in out of the way places. Subsequent letters urge Miranda to tell a story in the letter she is asked to write. The author of the notes also refers to a difficult trip. The third note offers proof that the author knows what is going to happen before it happens.

How is this possible? Who is writing these notes? Who is the "friend" the author of the notes is trying to save?

A fast-paced and funny novel, it is both a mystery and a coming-of-age tale. Miranda begins to understand her relationships with her friends and family as well as who she wants to be. The author has a wonderful sense of middle school dynamics and her setting of 1970s New York City is perfectly portrayed.

Readers will find clues throughout the novel and will wait breathlessly for the fantastical, but somehow believable, ending. Characters who play a seemingly supporting role show their true colors as Miranda begins to solve the mystery of the notes.

Madeleine L'Engle won the Newbery Award for her novel "A Wrinkle in Time" in 1963. It would not be a surprise if "When You Reach Me" becomes an award-winner as well. It has already received a starred review by School Library Journal and made Publishers Weekly's list of Best Children's Books of 2009. Perfectly executed, wonderfully mysterious and beautifully fulfilled, it is a definite must-read.

Julianna M. Helt of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Carrick.


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