I'd seen many glowing reviews of When You Reach Me, and knew that it was inspired by A Wrinkle in Time, which also played a significant role in the story itself. In addition, it's followed in Wrinkle's footsteps by winning the Newbery Award.
in When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead doesn't go after the big questions in the way Madeleine L'Engle does, but one of those questions - time travel - plays a big part in the mystery her protagonist Miranda is trying to unravel. The stakes are different from the ones confronted by the Murry children, but Stead also manages to create a similar sense of foreboding that hangs over the story.
I appreciated the call-backs to Wrinkle and how they worked into the story, but what I liked even better were the details that Stead used to give her characters a life of their own - a life I could recognize. Set on the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1970's, Miranda and her friends are free-range, latchkey kids; many of us who grew up around that time were also one or the other, if not both. These sixth-graders walk to and from school on their, and know what spots in their neighborhood to avoid. Miranda and her friend Sal both have working, single mothers; Miranda's mother has a boyfriend, but she won't give him a key to their apartment. And Miranda's mom is preparing to compete on a TV game show, The $20,000 Pyramid; I watched that one regularly when I was Miranda's age.
As it happens, what I liked most about When You Reach Me were the things that didn't really pay homage to Wrinkle - the novel stands on its own merits very well. The mysterious notes weren't all that compelling to me, but the characters were - they're vivid and memorable, and their relationships felt authentic. Themes of friendship and growing up play a far bigger role than time travel does. This book didn't really turn out to be what I expected - and on reflection, I'm glad it didn't. I like what it actually is quite a bit better.