Literary Guide for Rebecca Stead’s “When You Reach Me”

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead

What grows when it dies, but eats when it drinks? This and other riddles provide an intriguing and puzzling pre-read warmup for Rebecca Stead’s Newbury Medal-winning book, When You Reach Me. Classified as a science-fiction mystery novel for young adult readers, the story is a riddle-filled puzzle that will intrigue and fascinate savvy tweens and almost-tweens.

When You Reach Me is set in New York City in 1978, and is centered around the mysteries filling the life of a girl named Miranda. Miranda’s favorite activities are watching The $20,000 Pyramid, reading her favorite book (A Wrinkle in Time), and adventuring through her Manhattan neighborhood with her best friend, Sal – who helps her navigate the surprising and sometimes slightly scary things that they encounter nearby. The story truly begins when Sal and Miranda drift apart, which begins after a mysterious boy punches Sal in the stomach while they walk down a street together. After losing her best friend, Miranda encounters some other strange events – the spare key that she and her mother keep hidden is stolen, and Miranda gets a strange note from a mysterious source. Though she and her mother change the locks and assume the trouble is over, Miranda keeps getting notes – and must stay silent, though she knows not who is writing them or what they are pushing her towards. 

The entire story is one big gigantic riddle, weaving a few different mysteries together – requiring readers to keep track of the details that they pick up throughout the story in order to predict the outcome and to understand when they reach it. In addition to the excitement and intrigue offered by the story, When You Reach Me offers readers a storyline that promotes development of important skills, such as supporting inferences with evidence, tracking details and uncovering clues within a story, and using schema (pre-existing knowledge) in order to understand information presented within a book.

The literature guide written to accompany the book is designed for fifth grade students, but could be adapted for use with middle school-aged students as well. Activities in the guide include solving some practice riddles (like the one beginning this post), keeping a detective’s notebook throughout reading the story, and engaging in critical analysis of each chapter using a list of thought-provoking discussion questions.

If you’ve finished the other chapter book included in this summer’s series, check out When You Reach Me – read slowly and savored, the story can families on their toes for the rest of the summer!

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