Sunday, July 17, 2011

I time traveled

Never Done: I time traveled (but really I read When You Reach Me)

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I loved (and which I meant to blog about but didn't.) When I got done, I wanted to preserve the experience of immersion in a book, but I also wanted to honor summer and read something light and easy, yet still worth it. I didn't have anything like that around the house, and I didn't know what it was I wanted, and so I had the idea to ask my Soup Swap group if they wanted to add a Book Swap layer to our weekly gatherings. They did! So last Sunday, we all came to Soup Swap with a selection of good summer reading, and I chose a children's book by Rebecca Stead, called When You Reach Me. It won the won the Newbury Medal for children's literature.

As is often the case when I want to write about a work of art -- a film, a book, something with a plot -- I don't want to write about it in a way that would spoil it for anyone who might also want to go see it or hear it or read it. Sometimes I throw up my hands and just warn everyone that I'm going to write spoilers, but sometimes I try a different approach: interesting vagueness. That's what I'm choosing this time. First, from the jacket flap:

By Sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it's safe to go, like the local grocery store, and they know who to avoid, like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a kid on the street for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda's mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then a mysterious note arrives, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper.

I am coming to save your friends' life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter.

The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows things no one should know. Each message brings her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her thing she's too late. This remarkable novel takes place in the real world but holds a fantastic puzzle at its heart. When You Reach Me is an original, and a brilliant and profound delight.

So now you know what the author wanted you to know before you read the book, and now I get to write what I want to tell, which has to do with what it's like to be an adult reading a children's novel. This novel plays with the concept of time travel. There, I've already said more about the plot than I would normally have. But it's true -- that's what the blurb means when it says it's set in the real world but holds a fantastic puzzle at its heart. (BTW, the book is very cool in this way -- it reads 99% like a wonderful teen novel, but it does bring in a fantastic element, but it doesn't read like a fantasy book.) So anyhow, we're adults, and this book is for children, and it has something to do with time travel, which is something you learn pretty early in the novel, only you don't learn what it has to do with time travel til the end. But ... you're and adult reading a children's novel, so you catch the clues earlier than most younger readers will, and in that way you get to experience another layer of the book -- you get to feel like you're time traveling within your own reading of the novel, because the end hasn't happened yet, but you can see how it might happen, while at the same time you can remember how you would have read this book as a child -- transport yourself to your eleven-year-old reading experience while simultaneously having a deeply satisfying contemporary reading experience.

It might have helped my time travel that the book is set over the course of one girl's sixth grade year -- 1978/1979 -- just four years after I was in sixth grade. I'm not even sure how Rebecca had transmitted those details to me, because she doesn't name the year 'til most of the way through the book, but I had already felt it enough so that when Josh asked me if the book is contemporary, I said it seemed like it was set in the 1970s sometime, even though there was actually nothing solid to know for sure. I wonder if someone twenty years older or younger than me would also have felt that it was set in their teenage era (because she writes so well about the sixth grade experience) or if in fact it's infused with details I picked up on without being distracted away from the story. Either way, if you're an adult, and you want to time travel, I recommend this book.

PS. I read it in a day. If you have a subway commute or a day off, you could too.

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