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08 December 2010 @ 05:14 pm
When You Reach Me  
Instead of doing anything useful today (well, besides a load of laundry), I accidentally read a book. (It was a very short book.) It's a children's book called When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, which was recommended in this book by the editors of Horn Book:
(Incidentally, I'm not going to tell you what the lag time was between my learning what a horn book is, and my connecting the implications of that to the name of the magazine, but trust me: it was a stupidly long lag time.)

I'm about to write a lot of spoilery stuff about this book, so if you plan on reading it, look away.

Okay. Now, I went into this book knowing that it involved time travel; that was why I requested it from the public library in the first place. And I'm not a child, so it's impossible for me to know how I would have felt if I'd read this book when I was younger, or if it were my first time travel story. But I found the protagonist, Miranda, really frustrating, because she's so obtuse.

Well, there's real-world obtuse, and then there's book-obtuse; I suppose Miranda is actually the latter. If you were receiving notes in the real world that told you things that hadn't happened yet, and then they happened, I suppose you might not immediately go, "These notes must be written by someone from the future." If one of the notes asked you to write a letter detailing everything that happened to you, and please don't forget to mention the location of your spare house key, and you received this note after your spare house key had coincidentally been stolen, you might not say to yourself, "This person from the future has clearly read my letter, even though I haven't written it yet, and that's where he's getting all this information from." (Especially if you're not Sally Sparrow.) And you most certainly wouldn't look at the crazy man who lives on your corner, and see the way he always avoids your friend Marcus, and say, "Aha--the crazy man is in fact Marcus from the future, and he avoids Marcus so he won't cause a time paradox or something." I did, reading the book, but Miranda wouldn't.

But. Miranda is obsessed with A Wrinkle in Time. She carries it around with her everywhere; it's the only book she reads. Thanks to this book, she has not one, but two conversations about the nature of time travel with other kids--which, for some reason, even though she's read this book a million times, she inexplicably cannot understand. It's like the author deliberately makes Miranda incapable of understanding this so that she can have a blinding revelation pages away from the end of the book, by which time she really ought to have figured some of this out, or at least have entertained the possibility. Instead she's almost willfully confused, all the way through.

That is, when she's bothering to think about these mysterious notes at all. Because much of the book is just an ordinary story about an ordinary (and I mean, really ordinary: besides reading A Wrinkle in Time, she doesn't seem to have any interests other than her friend Sal) girl, going through ordinary growing-up events. I'm all for the coexistence of the mundane and the extraordinary, but the balance here feels totally off.

And I'm wondering if it's even reasonable to write a story that is so naive about or unaware of its own generic conventions, at this stage. The presence of A Wrinkle in Time as this book's intertext points out the problem with this; there are a whole lot of time travel stories out there. Maybe Miranda has only been exposed to this one (the book is set in 1978-9), but how likely is that for an average child reader today? How likely is it that a present-day reader will have as much trouble grasping the mere concept that if you went a back a week into your own past, you could ask someone this week if they'd seen you then, wherever it was you went? Especially if this is the second conversation on this subject in the book? (Which is why I don't think Miranda should have had this much trouble with this concept, since she's read L'Engle, but if the author was trying to make Miranda a stand-in for a reader who isn't conversant with time travel--in itself a problem, because Miranda's reading choices mean that she isn't such a reader--is this a reasonable thing to do?) I feel like we live in an era when the concept of time travel has trickled down enough into popular culture that without ever having seen, say, Doctor Who or Back to the Future, or having read L'Engle or any time-slip novels, a child reader is going to need a lot less handholding about this than Miranda does, and I guess I wish the narrative had been able to supply that in some way.

This review suggests that I'm totally wrong, though, and that kids will find the book mysterious and puzzling:

(For what it's worth, everything fit together neatly as far as I could see; my frustration is with the main character, who should know more than she does based on what we know about her. If she'd never read L'Engle, I'd be much more inclined to believe her confusion.)
viomisehuntviomisehunt on December 8th, 2010 11:22 pm (UTC)
Oh goody. I wanted to find something that would get my granddaughter away from the world of Edward and Bela. She would love this I think. Thanks
tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on December 9th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
Glad to have been of service!

Also, if your granddaughter likes supernatural romance, might I recommend The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope?
It's one of my favorite books. And The Sherwood Ring (same author) is delightful:

ETA: Oh, and probably anything by Holly Black. I read White Cat recently (there's a capsule review of it under my "children's books" tag) and really enjoyed it.

Edited at 2010-12-09 01:02 am (UTC)
Valancy: AdventureTriovalancy_s on December 9th, 2010 01:38 am (UTC)
I really hate book-obtuseness and so am greatly in sympathy with the frustration of your reading experience. But... A Wrinkle in Time isn't actually about time travel, right? It's about space travel that operates by collapsing the time it takes to get between two points. IIRC, they don't travel through time - in the traditional sense - until Many Waters and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

(Not that that excuses Miranda, who should clearly be aware of the concept from all of pop culture.)

Edited at 2010-12-09 01:39 am (UTC)
tempestsarekind: books and flowerstempestsarekind on December 9th, 2010 01:53 am (UTC)
That's true! However, Miranda and another character have specific conversations about time travel based on A Wrinkle in Time. It's been ages since I've read the book, but apparently one of the Mrs. Ws mentions that they've traveled through time as well as space, and so the children will return five minutes after they left. The boy who mentions this in When You Reach Me, Marcus, points out that this couldn't have been the case, since if it had happened, Meg and Calvin would have seen themselves in the garden, five minutes before they left. And Miranda finds this impossible to grasp, because she keeps saying "But they haven't left yet!"

I think what bothers me is that there are three kids in this book who have read A Wrinkle in Time. Two of them apparently used the occasion to think about time travel. But Miranda, who doesn't read any other books ever and is having a time travel adventure right now, doesn't. And that just seems like author-induced thoughtlessness so as not to ruin the story.