It has been said this book “has a darkness and a depth that pulls you in” (Fuse #8), a subtly ominous mood and perfect pacing (100 Scope Notes). It has been called LOST for the middle grade set (The Reading Zone).
However, I am reading this on the heels of The Time Traveler’s Wife, so I saw immediate comparisons between that and When You Reach me, not only in plot, but also in the philosophy and the theory of time travel. It is as if Stead read The Time Traveler’s Wife and decided to make a spin off story for middle schoolers.
When Henry (Time Traveler’s Wife) time travels, he arrives naked. So does Marcus. There is no machine à la H. G. Wells. Both Henry and Marcus arrive at a place that was important in their pasts (for Marcus, a place where he often walked and would have chased a boy to his death, had his older self not stepped in). Both books mention other works of literature. When You Reach Me leans heavily on A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Sure, we can all remember reading one particular chapter book over and over again (for me, it was Matilda), but Stead invokes A Winkle in Time close to the point of annoyance.
So, was I blown away by this book as I thought I would be? No. Not at all. Maybe if I had read it prior to The Time Traveler’s Wife. Can I appreciate that it is praise-worthy and all those things mentioned above: well-written, engaging, humorous, truthful with three dimensional characters? Absolutely.
This book stacks up with a book like Neil Armstong in My Uncle and Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me. Great characterization, solid story, but not quite award-worthy. It just doesn’t seem to stand up to the likes of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which takes previously published stories and stereotypes (like vampires) used millions of time, and yet pulls it all together to make a fabulous story so deliciously all his own. Definitely booktalk worthy, despite its unfortunate cover.
Nominated for the Printz and surrounded by Newbery buzz, I’m sure this one will have some hardware come 2010… then again, I was sure Graceling would too and I was wrong. Hum.
*** Updated 2/12/2010
Well, it ended up winning the Newbery. Now my kidlit group will meet to discuss its merits and shortcomings (oh, yes, they exist).