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when you reach me

16 february 2010

One of these days, I'm going to write a parody Newbery Medal winner. The protagonist will be a 12-year-old girl. She will be an avid reader, and I will remind you of this constantly. She will be cared for by a mildly eccentric, feckless older woman (mother, grandmother, aunt, stepmother) who copes with life by making up ad hoc rules for existence. She will have a cadre of gently warped friends. She will keep a journal with wittily titled sections wherein she reveals precocious observational skills. Tiny little slices of life will constitute the dreary and highly circumscribed plot. Some degree of danger will hover over our heroine's world, and the danger will then disappear in a warm splash of plot resolution.

You say it's been done? That's the point of parody, of course. The most recent time it's been done is in When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead's Medalist, a book that is an odd, unsatisfying mix of formula and weirdness.

Most of Stead's novel depicts the small anxieties of protagonist Miranda's miniature nuclear family. In New York in 1979, Miranda and her single mom and their circle of friends scratch out an existence against the pressures of the city. The adults around them are softies under sometimes bristly exteriors. Miranda carries a copy of another Medal book, A Wrinkle in Time, everywhere she goes, rereading it constantly in an attempt to catch the attention of the Newbery jury.

And then . . . it would be unfair to any young readers who stumble onto this website to explain the actual resolution of the plot, so I'm not going to spoil their fun. When You Reach Me is inoffensive, and its heart is in the right place: in some ways it's a lower-verbal version of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, another inoffensive and edifying novel. The denouements of the two novels are similar (and the similarity coincidental, I'm certain).

Except to say that the denouement of Hedgehog is completely realistic, and that of When You Reach Me involves a fantasy twist that shifts the whole novel onto highly eccentric ground. In fact, I'm not sure what to make of that denouement, except to say that its sudden weirdness does not redeem the rather lukewarm triviality of the main plot.

I suppose the message of When You Reach Me is that the child is the father to the man. Given enough time, we can regret our childhood meannesses, and even wish we could redeem them. Perhaps we can redeem them while we're still young: though that might mean a kind of galloping maturity that would defeat the point of being a child.

But then, childhood in novels like When You Reach Me isn't much fun. It's precarious, threatened, and full of low-level mortifications that make us elder readers glad to have definitively escaped it.

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me. New York: Random House, 2009.