The new school year has just bgun for my two middle schoolers, and this novel by Rebecca Stead is just the sort of thing you would want to put into the hands of kids that age. Stead’s 2010 Newberry winner is an homage to Madeleine L’Engle and her classic novel A Wrinkle in Time. As in that novel, our heroine, 12-year-old Miranda, finds herself grappling with the concept of time travel, but unlike Meg Murry, she will not be the traveller. Earthbound Miranda has to travel the dizzying social world of middle school, trying to save a friendship and possibly a life. But is she already too late?
When the story begins, Meg has already been through the worst but doesn’t understand exactly what has/is/will happen next. Someone has been leaving her mysterious notes, someone who seems to know the future and is begging her for help to save her friend’s life. The final note asks Miranda to write a letter about it all and get it to the mystery person. It’s April 1979, and Meg is trying to help her single working mother prepare as a contestant on the hit TV show $20,000 Pyramid. Miranda, her mom and boyfriend Richard all have big hopes and dreams for the winnings. In the midst of this, Miranda tries to go back in time in her mind and figure out where the story begins and how to write it.
For Miranda, the world changed for the worse the day last fall/winter when she and her neighbor Sal, who is also her best friend, were walking home from school as usual. From out of nowhere, for no reason, some kid punched Sal hard, really hurting him. Sal seems to want to have nothing to do with Miranda after this event, but he won’t explain why or what has happened to their friendship. Meanwhile, Miranda must now look to other kids in her class for friendship, and as a result she gets to know Annemarie, who seems to have such a beautiful life; her father dotes on her and they live in a lovely apartment with a doorman. Miranda is somewhat embarrassed about the apartment she shares with her mother — it’s older, rundown, not quite so charming. Miranda, Annemarie and a classmate named Colin begin hanging out together at lunch and even work at a local deli during lunchtime (in the 1970s, you were allowed to leave school at lunch and come back!). But another classmate, the wealthy and snobby Julia seems to resent Miranda’s newfound friendship with Annemarie, and a kid named Marcus shows up who seems to know a lot about time travel and has a bone to pick with A Wrinkle in Time, Miranda’s favorite book.
Over the course of winter and spring, Miranda will receive clues, develop new friendships and learn to look outside herself and consider the feelings of others more. Watching her mature in her relationships with her friends (both old and new) and with her mother was moving and beautifully written. Stead creates a neat snapshot of city life in a slightly less terrifying time, with latchkey kids but also streakers and odd homeless people on the streets. Stead also very cleverly titles each chapter as if it were a category on the $20,000 Pyramid, which I quite enjoyed.
Having recently read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time, I appreciate Stead’s use of the novel as a springboard for her own creativity. I suppose it isn’t necessary to have read AWIT first, but why not encourage it for your middle schooler? Both are first rate stories about love, bravery and persistence — qualities we could all use more of, especially in our kids.