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Newbery winner 'When You Reach Me' is lovely homage to 'A Wrinkle in Time'

Mary Ann Gwinn
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — If you read a lot of books as a child, chances are good that "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle blew your mind. It did mine — a story of a girl who travels through time and space and who faces down absolute evil, it was unlike anything I had ever read.

Rebecca Stead read L'Engle's book when she was 12 — "a wonderful book and a very brave book and a rich book," she said last week from her home in Manhattan, where she writes and cares for her kids, ages 8 and 11. "There's really danger in it — that you can get trapped on the other side and not come back. It's about what's out there, what's possible, accepting death."

Millions of children have read "A Wrinkle in Time." Stead went further — she wrote a middle-grade book called "When You Reach Me" (Wendy Lamb Books) in which L'Engle's book figures prominently. Stead's exquisitely crafted story won the Newbery Award last week, the prize for the most distinguished contribution to American children's literature.

Stead sets her story in the 1970s on Manhattan's Upper West Side, in the neighborhood where she lived as a child. The sandwich shop, the school, the stationery store, the grocery store in the book "are all built from memory," she said. It's the home of Miranda, Stead's sixth-grade heroine, a funny, feisty girl and the only child of a single mom. When Miranda starts finding mysterious notes from someone who seems to be able to predict what will happen in the future, the comfortable boundaries of her world are altered forever.

One of the joys of "When You Reach Me" is that it conveys quite complicated ideas in simple language. I asked Stead if pulling that off was a challenge.

Not a bit, she said. Kids in the middle grades think a great deal more about life and the prospect of death than the average protective adult might wish for them. "Kids think about that, even more than adults," says Stead. "It takes a long time to get used to the idea that we're all going to die. It's unimaginable to us that the world was here before us, and will go on without us. That's one reason time travel is such a fun, attractive kind of puzzle ... it imagines us in a place where we can never be."

Recently, Stead spoke at a school and told the kids they could keep asking questions as long as they were simple ones she could handle while autographing. Nothing doing! One kid asked: Is time a loop, or do different ages exist simultaneously? "We were throwing this stuff back and forth in a way that adults might not be comfortable with," she says.

"When You Reach Me" has a more or less happy ending, but it delves into danger, sorrow and mortality. More than many much longer, much wordier books, it has stayed with me. If you are a kid, read it. If you know a kid, get it for them. Then maybe ask if you can borrow it back.

———


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