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Literature / When You Reach Me

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It's 1979 and twelve year old Miranda, while helping her mother prepare for a stint on The $20,000 Pyramid, is thinking of all the events that happened the previous fall. If it was up to her, she'd probably not think about them. But then there are the notes asking her to do just that, to write down everything that happened last fall. Notes telling her that someone is coming to save both a friend and their own lives. Notes from a time traveler.

When You Reach Me is a 2009 novel by Rebecca Stead with allusions to A Wrinkle in Time. Despite its time traveling elements and mystery, the book is at heart a Coming of Age novel that subtly deals with social issues, racism, and the quiet dangers of late seventies New York. It won numerous awards, including the Newbery Medal.

This story provides examples of:

  • Berserk Button: A childhood, non-violent version when Julia goes off on Miranda after Annemarie has a seizure at school. She calls Miranda an idiot about seven times in the course of a minute.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sal's life is saved, but even Miranda understands the terrible burden Marcus will feel when he reads her letter and learns that he watched his own death, making a tragedy even worse for him.
  • Can't Take Anything with You: One of the later notes hints at this, saying "A man can only hold so much paper in his mouth." This seems to extend to clothes as well, which is why the Laughing Man is always seen naked when he travels to the past.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The weird kicking motion the Laughing Man always practices was actually him preparing to save Sal's life.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Laughing Man and his inexplicable actions suddenly make sense when you find out that he was Marcus, traveling back in time from the future in order to save Sal's life.
  • Child Prodigy: Marcus. He reads Einstein's General relativity for fun at age 11. He also debated temporal paradoxes from the book A Wrinkle in Time with his second grade teacher.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Marcus on occasion. He doesn't always notice people around him or where he is.
  • Connected All Along:
    • Happens In-Universe to Marcus. He recalls the day he punched Sal, and has an epiphany that the girl carrying the poster was Miranda. Miranda is shocked he hadn't realized that sooner.
    • The Laughing Man becomes transfixed with Marcus whenever they cross paths. Marcus doesn't know it, but it's because they're actually the same person.
    • The kids have to stay in the school cafeteria twice because some crazy dude is running around naked. That crazy dude is the Laughing Man delivering Miranda's notes, and he's naked because he can't take clothes with him when he travels back in time.
    • In the ending, Miranda heavily implies the Laughing Man/Marcus survived off eating Annemarie's perfectly good lunch that she tossed in the trash for months.
  • Crazy Homeless People: The Laughing Man, though how much is an act and how much is real is in question. This makes a nice Shout-Out to A Wrinkle in Time, where Mrs. Whatsit is described as looking, in day-to-day life, like a homeless tramp.
  • Death by Newbery Medal
  • Disappeared Dad: Neither Miranda nor Sal has a father. Miranda even comments that because she never had a father, she doesn't feel the need for one.
  • Domed Hometown: Discussed by the Laughing Man when he talks about the "burn scale", possibly a reference to what is known as the U.V. Index. He laments that they haven't put the dome up yet. The fact that he's a time traveller and probably referring to future events paints the future rather bleakly.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Luisa tells Miranda that "Dick Clark never ages", which triggers an epiphany that the Laughing Man will be Marcus when he ages.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Julia's parents pick out her bedroom decor and will not let her decorate her room in her preferred space posters.
  • First Kiss: Knock, knock. Oh, it's you. Kiss. Between Colin and Miranda.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Annemarie eats pizza by tearing off all the cheese and only eating that. It's later revealed she's on a diet for her epilepsy and she's not supposed to eat bread.
    • After Marcus punched Sal, Miranda mentioned it looked like he was reading her poster about why humans yawn. One of the notes answers her question.
    • Marcus tells Miranda that, if you from fifty years in the future were to travel back in time to your current self, you might not even recognize them as you. This is exactly what happened with the Laughing Man: Marcus as an old man traveled back in time, and his child self didn't even recognize it as him.
  • Fridge Logic: An In-Universe example, discussed in regards to A Wrinkle in Time. The three Mrs. Ws promise Meg and the boys that they should be back "five minutes before you left." But as Marcus points out, if this is true then Meg should have seen herself returning, because Meg and co. landed in the garden, in plain sight from the wall, where they left. Marcus is arguing a Stable Time Loop is in effect, while Miranda (very defensive of her favorite author) maintains that the future hadn't happened yet, so of course they wouldn't be seen. There is a simpler explanation, which no one In-Universe notices: Mrs. Whatsit says they'll be back five minutes before they left, unless "something goes terribly wrong." And something does indeed go terribly wrong.
  • Game Show Appearance: Much of the plot deals with Miranda helping get her mother ready for her appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. The taping of the show is written about as well.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Marcus chases after Sal to try to apologize. Future!Marcus sacrifices himself to push Sal out of the way of a moving vehicle, saving his life.
  • How We Got Here: The story starts in the present, at least April 1979, (and told in the present tense). The story is Miranda narrating the story that she would tell from Sal getting punched to the fateful chase and death as that was the story she was tasked to write down.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: With Pyramid as a plot point, the chapters are titled in the style of Winners' Circle categories (i.e. "Things that..." or "...Things"). The few chapters that aren't references deal with the notes.
  • Invisible Parents: While Annemarie's father is prominent in the few scenes he is in, her mother is only referred to in one scene. Julia's father is never seen while her mother is in the closet (her meditation room) when Miranda is at Julia's house one day.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Sal was a Type B. Ironically, he gave up his one friendship in order to get more friends.
  • Jerkass: Jimmy, who makes fun of Chinese people and kicks Julia out of his store because he believes she will steal (based on the fact that she's black) despite the fact she's rich.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Julia could be a jerk at times, even to Annemarie and especially to Miranda, but she truly cared for Annemarie. Miranda even found out that part of how Julia treated her was how she had treated Julia in the past and, after making the first move, Miranda did find Julia to be nice.
  • Look Both Ways: At the climax, Sal is running away from Marcus, who he believes is out to get him, and runs out in the middle of the street where a truck is bearing down on his position with a possibly inattentive driver.
  • Meaningful Echo: "Common sense is just the name for the way we're used to thinking." First said by Marcus to Miranda, and later repeated by Miranda when she realizes that time travel is real.
  • Mistaken for Racist: Miranda calls Julia "Swiss Miss", in reference to her Swiss watch, but it's mistaken by Jimmy (who approves) and later Annemarie (who does not) as a reference to her skin color (Swiss Miss is an American hot chocolate brand.)
  • Naked on Arrival: As described in Can't Take Anything with You above. At one point during the climax, Miranda even sees a naked man appear and then disappear. This was due to the Laughing Man appearing from the future. In fact, it is likely all of the times they were locked in school due to a naked man seen nearby were all the same thing.
  • No Antagonist: The book really was about the usual goings-on of a sixth grader and her friendships combined with the mystery of who was writing her the notes.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Seen below in O.O.C. Is Serious Business , Wheelie can play this when she wants to.
    • The dentist also deters the police looking to talk with Marcus when he locks his door with Marcus and Miranda inside while waiting for Miranda's mother to come as Marcus' legal representation. It was also implied that the teachers didn't tell the officers where the dentists' office was.
  • Only Friend: Deconstructed Trope. Sal and Miranda were this to each other, until Sal realized how unhealthy and frankly lonely it is to be able to rely on just one person and started to make other friends. At the end of the book, both of them have made plenty of friends, while still being close to each other.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Miranda only knows the school secretary as Wheelie, a nickname many of her classmates give the secretary.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Wheelie, the school secretary, knows all of the students, what class they are in, and even who is absent. But when the police come looking for Marcus, Miranda realizes just how bad the situation is when Wheelie asks them to repeat his name and ask what grade he is in.
  • Potty Emergency: Alice Evans. She waits too long to ask to go to the point she does the Potty Dance. It is implied that she has encountered Potty Failure as she is the only sixth grader with a change of clothes at school. Classmates love to keep her talking with them when she has to go just to watch her suffer.
  • Rich Bitch: Miranda dislikes Julia, who has a lot of money and does stuff like constantly talk about her family's trip to Switzerland. Subverted once Miranda gets to actually know Julia and they become friends.
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: Whether this trope or Stable Time Loop is in effect all depends on how you believe the "Save your friend's life and my own" statement was fulfilled.
  • Title Drop: The first note has the phrase "I will not be myself when I reach you".
  • Two Girls and a Guy: Miranda, Annemarie, Colin. Is there a Love Triangle? In Miranda's mind, yes. In reality, who knows?
  • Unfortunate Names: Miranda hates that she was named after a criminal. Her mother was in law school in 1967, when Miranda was born.
  • Unnamed Parent:
    • Miranda's mother. Surprising as two close friends of the mother are also frequent characters.
    • While we find out Annemarie's father's name is Jerry, her mother goes unnamed.
  • Wham Episode:
    • "The Last Note." Miranda witnesses Sal's near death by car collision, the Laughing Man's actual death while saving Sal, and the realization that the Laughing Man was the one writing the notes.
    • "Magic Thread." Miranda realizes that the Laughing Man accomplished all he did through time travel, and that the Laughing Man is Marcus. Also, Miranda's mom wins ten thousand dollars.
  • Wham Line:
    • Miranda seeing "Book, bag, pocket, shoe" scratched into the Laughing Man's mailbox, revealing that he's the one who wrote the notes.
    • Marcus is the magic thread. You are the Laughing Man. You are Marcus. Marcus is the Laughing Man.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: The teenaged boys who hung outside the garage would taunt and torment younger kids, sometimes pushing them a little, but they would never hit them. That was beneath them.
  • Writers Cannot Do Math: The Tuesday after Thanksgiving is referred to as the first cold day in December. This takes place in 1978 and Thanksgiving was on November 23, meaning that Tuesday would be on Nov. 28. Marcus exacerbates this by telling Miranda to imagine she went to the movies the previous week, "December whatever". While he is a Cloudcuckoolander, Miranda does not correct him, which she is known to do.