When You Reach Me

A Book Review


I still think about the letter you asked me to write. It nags at me, even though you’re gone and there’s no one to give it to anymore. Sometimes I work on it in my head, trying to map out the story you asked me to tell, about everything that happened this past fall and winter. It’s all still there, like a movie I can watch when I want to. Which is never.

(When You Reach Me, page 2)

Miranda is finding notes addressed to her in the most obscure of places, asking her to write a letter. The note writer says he is coming to save the life of Miranda’s friend, and her letter will help him do it. Stranger still, the cryptic predictions included in the notes are starting to come true. Meanwhile, Miranda is just trying to get through life as a latchkey sixth grader in New York City. Sal, her lifelong best friend and neighbor, gets beat up randomly by a kid neither of them know, and afterward tells her he doesn’t want to be friends with her anymore. Now Miranda must focus on troubles such as trying to make new friends and avoiding the crazy homeless man that hangs out at the mailbox around the corner from her house. Placing the mysterious in the midst of the mundane, Rebecca Stead gives us a down-to-earth story of the home and school life of a twelve-year-old girl, interwoven with intriguing science fiction and mystery elements.

Young readers will immediately identify with the believable voice of Miranda, particularly as she navigates the tough social world of sixth grade. In fact, all of the characters are engaging and fully-realized. The storyline is extremely enveloping. Smart, shifting narrative that jumps forward and back in time keeps the clues and ideas coming without revealing too much. However, what puts this book into the running for greatness is that the day-to-day interactions of Miranda with her friends and her mother are just as captivating as the bizarre happenings with the notes, and often the notes totally escape your mind, just as they do Miranda’s. The realistic and the speculative are on entirely equal terms.

It could be easy to take for granted just how perfectly When You Reach Me fulfills the dictates of a great children’s novel. The book is clever and intricate, but not confusing. It introduces many big ideas and morals, but in small and subtle ways. It’s a relatively high interest read, and yet it also could hold up to the scrutiny of any elementary upper grade language arts curriculum. For the quality of this book and its likely ability to please young people, educators, and parents all at the same time, it seems like a serious contender for the Newbery. Indeed, search the Internet and you will find many people saying so. Unfortunately, it’s possible that such a little book could be smothered by the hype that has preceded it and that this review further promulgates, as new readers may come to it with unreal expectations. Remember, it’s not a book unlike anything you’ve ever read, it’s not a grandiose fantasy, and it’s probably never going to sell five million copies and give rise to a series of blockbuster movies. It’s just a little novel done extremely well, which turns out to be a rare thing. (Five Stars)

When You Reach Me
Written by Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books / Random House
200 pages
ISBN: 978-0-385-90664-7
Release Date: 14 Jul 2009

The Tabernacle of the Congregation

The Tabernacle of the Congregation

Okay, even though I said that I would post pictures from my hike, I am starting out with one from last week taken on the long way home from work one day, driving up through American Fork Canyon on a road that is often referred to as the Alpine Loop. Again, this is a perfect spot for a much better picture than this, but I’ll work with what I’ve got. I love the way the trees just gather in places like this.

Mysterious Fork of Provo Canyon

Provo Canyon View of Cascade Mountain

Yesterday morning, having the day off from work, I finally got out of bed at a decent time and got myself on a little hike. It is intolerable how few times I have gone hiking since I moved into Provo Canyon. (It’s also intolerable that, although I live yards away from the Provo River, I’ve never been fly fishing, but that’s another story. Somebody help me, please!)

I went to explore a nice little side fork into the cliffs on the North side of the canyon.

A Side Fork of Provo Canyon

There is a mysterious parking lot on the north side of the canyon, across from what may or may not be called Upper Falls. I have never seen more than one car at a time parked in this lot, and for the most part it is a ghost lot. At some point I noticed a little trail running up the hillside through the grasses and into the cliffs, and I have always wanted to try it. I have no idea if the parking lot is designed as a trailhead for this trail, or as a viewing area for Upper Falls, and I have no idea if this fork or trail has a name. I know I could look at a USGS map and research the trail, but that would ruin much of the allure of my random morning excursion. Even having been there I’m not sure if I’m ready to let go of its unnamed status. I may not be living in this canyon forever, so I chose this as my first of (hopefully) many hikes since it is kind of a wild card excursion. It seemed the place I would be least likely to plan and drive back to hike if I no longer lived close to it, so it was an appropriate and easy place to start.

As it turned out, my hike didn’t last all that long. The canyon soon narrows into a creek bed surrounded by steep rock faces, and the creek still has a respectable amount of water rushing down it. Some of the rock walls were mossy and weeping. I’m no rock climber, and I hadn’t come prepared for going through much water, so eventually I chose to turn around. I didn’t really want to risk ruining my camera. That’s a good excuse, isn’t it? The shot at the top of this article is the view down the canyon from the point that I turned around. It would be fun to splash up the rest of this hike, and I might try it again in a month or two if we haven’t gotten snow yet, and see if the water flow has reduced, or maybe sooner were I to get some fancy hiking sandals. At any rate, I did take some pictures, as I am often wont to do, and a few of them will be popping up here on the Freez in the next couple of days.

I have a a whole list of hikes that I feel it would be unconscionable if I did not attempt while living in this beautiful area. The list includes a possible climb to Cascade Mountain and/or Provo Peak, but culminates with ascending Mt. Timpanogos, something I have never done. I mainly posted all of this for selfish reasons; I want to provide myself some accountability for these hikes. So, I hereby announce my plan to hike Timp sometime in the next month or two, before the snow arrives. So let it be written, so let it be done.

The Magician’s Elephant

A Book Review

magicianselephantKate DiCamillo can render vivid and stunning scenes with simplicity. She can create heartbreak with a single sentence. She can lead you line by line through a story and have you hanging on every word. Her seemingly magical mastery of tone is perhaps unparalleled in contemporary children’s literature. The problem with DiCamillo comes when one recognizes that she could potentially use this incredible linguistic power to enchant the reader with any story, however poorly plotted or characterized. Mesmerized by the charisma of her written word, we may not even realize that we were actually reading a very silly book. Now, I’m not saying that The Magician’s Elephant is a silly book. I’m just saying that I am so drawn in by DiCamillo’s writing style that it doesn’t really matter what tale she’s telling, I want to read and hear the whole of it.

So, the tale at hand: Peter Augustus Duchene, an orphan boy in an imaginary European city, is sent to the market with money given him by his guardian, an aging, ailing soldier. Instead of buying bread and fish, he gives the money to a fortune teller. She informs him that his deepest hope is true: his sister is alive. Furthermore, in a perplexing and cryptic instruction, the fortune teller counsels Peter that an elephant will lead him to his sister. Two days later, a magician, performing before the rich and noble of the city, intends to produce a bouquet of lilies for the audience. Instead, in a burst of hubris, he calls forth an elephant. It crashes through the roof of the opera house and lands in the lap of one Madame LaVaughn, permanently crippling her legs. The magician is imprisoned, and the citizens of the entire city, most especially Peter, become obsessed with the portentous pachyderm, very much still in existence but hidden in an undisclosed location in the city. A succession of short scenes given from the perspectives of numerous characters, including the hapless elephant herself, moves the story towards some magical eventuality that promises to provide something great for everyone, i.e., a happy ending.

My only complaint with the story is that, unlike the endings of traditional fairy tales, DiCamillo perhaps spreads the happy ending too thin between too many characters; many of them do not seem to have passed through the extreme magic-curse-based ordeals which are usually required to earn a fairy tale ending. Instead, they have passed through more realistic ordeals: disease, loneliness, guilt, poverty, etc. In a relatively short book such as this, these trials and burdens don’t necessarily impress themselves as strongly on a reader as, say, being pursued by a man-eating giant or being forced to live in a castle with a monster. The magic displayed in the book is as out-of-the-ordinary to the characters in the story as it is to us; DiCamillo clearly wanted this magic to happen in some place resembling the real world.  Even the elephant, who the other characters look to as a magical being, does not consider herself magical and is as confused and powerless as anyone to the magic that has occurred.  She’s just an elephant that has suddenly found herself in a strange, cold place without friends.   DiCamillo is quoted on the back flap of the book as saying, “I wanted, I needed, I longed to tell a story of love and magic.” It may be that the book, although dealing with magic, is more a fable than a fairy tale; all along the way, we read scenes that illustrate despair and hope, empathy, perseverance, charity, and forgiveness. Perhaps the magic DiCamillo so longs for the reader to see is nothing other than love itself, and thus it is only appropriate that she would want to spread it around to as many characters as possible.

Stylistically, as well as story-wise, DiCamillo walks the line between fairy tale, fable, and magical realism. The book is filled with beautiful, imagistic scenes and dreams that are described with the succinctness and surrealism of prose poems. The magical elements are reported matter-of-fact-ly alongside the many realistic elements of the story. Cold, overcast skies and snow storms are so vividly realized, right down to the footprints of the elephant in the snow, that the reader more readily identifies with what the characters are feeling. Sly authorial interjections do occasionally pop up in the text, (“And what did the magician say? You know full well the words he spoke,”) but they do not seem to be as pervasive as they were in Desperaux. For better or for worse, this time around we don’t receive any of the author’s idiosyncratic definitions (although there certainly are a lot of new vocabulary words for young readers in this book.) As in her other books, the strong built-in storytelling voice lends itself to a great read-aloud experience.

All in all, we have another magical little book from DiCamillo. Is the story ridiculous? You know full well it’s ridiculous; all fairy tales and fantasies are. It is nonetheless a beautifully rendered and engaging book, filled with fables of hope, empathy, forgiveness, humility, and love that will speak to children and adults alike. Four-and-a-half stars.

The Magician’s Elephant
Written by Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Yoko Tanaka
200 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7636-4410-9
Release Date: September 8, 2009