When You Reach Me is a Newbery Medal winning young adult book by Rebecca Stead.
Set in New York City in the 1970s, Stead tells the story of Miranda, a twelve-year-old girl who mysteriously receives instructions to write a letter and give it to someone. She doesn’t know what she needs to write or for whom, but through a series of these mysterious instruction notes, she embarks on a journey to unravel the mystery.
The book is a coming-of-age story where Miranda has to navigate life in middle school and within her family. The biggest themes in the book are friendship and the power of small actions.
I am coming to save your friend’s life and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. Second, please remember to mention the location of your house key.Chapter 17, The First Note
This story has a lot of characters and subplots. Not all of them are discussed here, but significant details are included.
Cast of Characters
Annemarie, Julia, Miranda, Sal, Marcus, Colin, and Alice all attend the same school. All of them are in sixth grade; Marcus is the only one in a different class. We meet Annemarie’s dad, Julia’s mom, and her boyfriend, Richard. There’s Wheelie, who works in the principal’s office, the dentist who treats kids at school, and Jimmy, the owner of the restaurant near the school. There are several other minor characters, but the strangest character is the laughing, kicking man, a seemingly homeless character who sleeps below the mailbox, and sometimes calls out things to Miranda and her friends.
Miranda and Sal are best friends, inseparable until Sal tells Miranda that he needs a break. That throws Miranda off because Sal is the only friend she has. Lucky for her, Annemarie also needs a friend around that time. She and her friend Julia had a falling out. While Sal shuts Miranda out, Annemarie and Julie remain distant friends. Miranda and Annemarie start hanging out in and outside of school.
Then Annemarie and Miranda become friends with Colin and start working with him at Jimmy’s restaurant. They are not paid in cash, but rather with a cheese sandwich by Jimmy, the owner. The three kids often eat their lunch back in class. They are temporarily fired when Jimmy thinks they stole his bank, but then rehired. Soon after that, they leave anyway, because of a racist comment Jimmy makes about Julia.
When Annemarie has a medical episode, Julie comes to the rescue and teaches Miranda how to deal with it. Soon afterward, Miranda notices that Julia misses Annemarie as she misses Sal. This encourages her to show kindness not only to Julia, but also to Alice. With Julia, she calls a truce, and they start to share a friendship with Annemarie. They also discover that they love the same book, A Wrinkle in Time.
Alice is a friendless child in school who is so shy that she won’t even ask to go to the bathroom; she carries a spare set of clothes to school. Miranda has mercy on her one day and starts asking to go to the bathroom when she notices Alice’s need so that they can go as partners. They get to the point of working out a system of communication in class so that Alice doesn’t have to get to the squirming stage.
Marcus is a smart kid, a bit different. He’s in a different class, seemingly a loner. He escapes Miranda’s notice until the day he hits Sal, suddenly, out of the blue. This creates fear in Sal. Miranda discovers Marcus goes to their school while getting students for their dentist visit at school, and strikes up a conversation with Marcus now and then. She eventually finds out that Marcus hit Sal as a kind of experiment, not because he had any issue with Sal. But she never got a chance to tell Sal that.
Miranda has a mystery. Along with the mysterious note about writing a letter, she’s also been given a series of clues to prove the writer comes from the future and who he is. He tells her that he’s come back to save her friend.
One day, Miranda comes home and finds the door unlocked. She and her mom don’t notice anything missing until some time later when Richard can’t find his shoes. His shoes are distinctive because one has a thicker sole for his shorter leg.
When Jimmy fires Miranda, Annemarie, and Colin, it’s because he thought they stole his money from his bank. Later, Miranda realizes the homeless man stole the money because her friend told her he paid with 2 dollar bills folded into triangles, which was how Jimmy put the money in his bank.
Stranger From Another Time
One day, Miranda finds herself following Sal home from school. Then she notices Marcus heading for Sal. When Sal starts running, Marcus runs after him. Sal, fearing Marcus, runs straight into traffic, not realizing that there is a truck coming. But the homeless man is there to save the day, kicking Sal out of the way of the truck and sacrificing himself. Seeing his shoes, Miranda realizes that he was the one who stole Richard’s shoes.
The police try to question Marcus, but the dentist and Miranda manage to buy him some time. Then Miranda’s mom, who’s a paralegal, swoops in to deal with the police and clear up the misunderstanding. The police had a report that Marcus deliberately chased Sal into the street, and needed statements from those involved as proof otherwise.
While Sal is recovering in the hospital, he and Miranda talk out their differences and when Sal returns to school, they are able to walk together sometimes and establish a new, non-exclusive friendship.
With everything else going on, Miranda’s mom goes to compete on a game show and wins some money. Everyone in the family has plans for the money. Richard and Miranda gift her mom with applications to study law, and Miranda and her mom give Richard his own keys to the place. This is momentous because Richard wants to marry Miranda’s mom, but she hasn’t said yes.
Solving the Puzzle
At the end of When You Reach Me, Miranda figures out the puzzle. The homeless man was Marcus, from the future, to save Sal from his younger self. She also finds out that Marcus and Julia ended up together for many years. This is revealed on a piece of paper under the mailbox, which contained a drawing of Julia’s face along with the stolen house key. That’s why the laughing man used to lie there.
Miranda knows that she needs to give Marcus the letter. She decides to write and deliver the letter containing “the story of what happened and everything that led to it”. She doesn’t reveal everything that she’s discovered, but enough to help him come back and leave the notes.
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