When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

When You Reach Me“M,

This is hard.  Harder than I expected, even with your help.  But I have been practicing, and my preparations go well.  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.

The trip is a difficult one.  I will not be myself when I reach you.”

Miranda isn’t supposed to tell anyone about the mysterious notes.  She’s not sure who she would tell, anyway: her mom would freak out, and her best friend Sal is avoiding her ever  since he got punched on the way home from school.   Miranda keeps quiet, and the notes keep coming.  Each is filled with details no one should know, and the message is clear:  she’s the only one who can prevent a tragedy, and she’s got to move quickly.

The list of awards this book has gotten literally fills the inside cover, including the Newbery Medal, and for good reason! This smart book is a perfect combination of realistic characters, a just-creepy-enough mystery with a great setting, and  accessible science fiction (which I can’t explain to you, because it will ruin the mystery). I really loved the setting: late-70s New York.  The period-specific details were just enough to make it feel interesting and different, but not overly nostalgic.  Finally, Miranda’s first-person-narrative voice draws readers in, making them feel like a close friend of hers, and a partner in the mystery-solving.  It was also quite refreshing to explore Rebecca Stead’s portrayals  nontraditional families, and the treatment of race and class issues in the text.  All in all, a great book for sharing. I’d like to read it with some middle schoolers and see who can figure out the letter-sender first.  Happy Reading!

Stead, Rebecca. When You Reach Me.  Yearling: New York, 197 pp.  Ages 10-14.

If you liked this book, I think you’ll love Blue Balliet’s stories, especially her Chasing Vermeer series and The Danger Box.  If you liked the mystery element and stories about families, you will definitely love Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck.   Finally, see what the fuss is all about: check out Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  You’ll get why Miranda loves it so much!

Best Bits:  letters that keep you guessing + science fiction that isn’t confusing + being a mystery that is not full of vampires, blood, or magic, because let’s face it, that gets old sometimes.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.  The first of these came as a terrible shock, and like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After.  Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.”

When Jacob was young, his grandfather told him many stories: stories of how he was chased by monsters out of Poland, how he took shelter on an island, at a home for children, in a place full of gardens and streams and sheep and safety. The children at the shelter had unusual skills: a levitating girl, an invisible boy, a young woman who could control fire.  Abe even had a box of photographs from those days. Jacob had seen them so many times, that he felt as if he knew them personally. Eventually, he grew too old for his grandfather’s stories,  and stopped believing.
When his grandfather is killed one night, and dies raving about monsters and begging Jacob to carry a cryptic message for him, Jacob is shattered.  Attempting to fulfill his grandfather’s final wishes leads him to a tiny island off the coast of England, where he finally finds Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And something horrifying, called wights, and their further horrifying counterparts, hollowgasts.  If you know anything about the myth of the wendigo , they will sound familiar to you.  Either way, Jacob grandfather was fully justified in his terror of the creatures.
The best part of this story is the creative format. Ransom Riggs integrates eerie old photographs into this story seamlessly.  You’ll be reading along about a character, and then turn the page, and there it is: a crying boy in a bunny costume, beautifully dressed twin girls who are ominously faced away from the camera,  a young boy with a monocle. The best part is that they are absolutely real photos, which makes them even creepier. They contribute to the melancholy, supernatural tone of the story.
After reading some reviews, I found that some people didn’t necessarily know how to respond to the between-genre feel of this book.  Is it written for adults? Is it YA lit? Is it science fiction? Light horror?  Personally, I think it is a little of all of the above, and I really like that.  The genre-crossing gives it a very unique feeling.  I loved the atmosphere of this book.  It feels like part X-men, part science fiction, part ghost story, part graphic novel (because of the photographs), and part war story.  It made me very happy for 24 hours!
If this one sounds good, you might like these, too:
Happy Reading!
Author’s website: http://www.ransomriggs.com (He says a sequel is coming!)
Riggs, Ransom. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Quirk Books: Philadelphia, 2011. 348 pp.  Ages 14 and up.