WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

If you’re anything like me, you’ve already heard about a million great recommendations for Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME, and that can be a bit of a double-edged sword.  The great reviews made me really, REALLY want to read the book, but they also set up what I worried might be unrealistic expectations.  Could it really be THAT amazing?

It could.  And it is.

These young characters, growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are reminiscent of Judy Blume’s families in TALES OF FOURTH GRADE NOTHING and the FUDGE series. They’re authentic, multi-faceted, funny, and real.  Their story of friendship and first crushes and first jobs would have been enough to win me over. But then the letter comes. When main character Miranda reads it, she she learns that a mysterious someone says he or she is coming to save her friend’s life, and the story evolves from a coming of age tale into a mystery/science fiction, genre-bending marvel. At the heart of WHEN YOU REACH ME is a thread about time travel — the possibilities, the what-if and the how-might-we, and the sheer wonder of believing.  When I finished, I wanted to pick it up immediately and start reading all over again.

This is going to be the first book that I share with my middle school students as a read-aloud in the fall. I absolutely, positively can’t wait.

Editing to add: I loaned my copy of WHEN YOU REACH ME to

 , who has also posted a recommendation today. Hers is longer and way more detailed because she is like that and also makes fancy little place cards when you go to her house for dinner.  You can read her thoughts here.

First Light by Rebecca Stead

I’ve had Rebecca Stead’s debut novel First Light in my pile of books to read since November, when I met her at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival.  But then the Cybils came along, and I discovered that being a panelist for middle grade fiction meant reading nothing BUT middle grade fiction from October through the end of the year.  (First Light was actually nominated in the Fantasy & Science Fiction category, so it was in someone else’s pile.)

Once I finally started this book, it was hard to put down.  Peter Solemn’s world is rocked in the very first chapter when his father, a glaciologist, announces the family is going on a research trip to Greenland.  Two chapters later, we meet a second main character, Thea, who lives under the arctic ice in a society created generations ago by a group of people fleeing persecution in Europe.

What I loved most about this book was that it plunged me into not just one, but two fascinating new worlds.  Greenland itself really qualifies as an alien landscape of sorts, and Stead’s rich details bring it to life.  (Is there really a Volkswagon Road there where the company tests new models?  So cool!) Thea’s world beneath the ice is painted vividly as well with terrific  techno-details about the innovations of that new society called Gracehope.  I’ve added Gracehope to the list of imaginary places (along with Hogwarts and Narnia) that I long to visit some day.

I’m not giving too much away if I share that Peter and Thea  cross paths along the way.  Their stories intertwine in ways that are surprising but perfect and believable at the same time.  First Light is a great read — a fantastic mix of science fiction and adventure with plenty of real science mixed in, too.  Teachers looking for titles to integrate with earth science and environmental units will especially love this one.

Rochester Children’s Book Festival

This is what it looked like when they opened the doors at 10:00…

…and what it looked like all day long, while several thousand people poured into the festival on the campus of Monroe Community College.

I am in AWE of the volunteers from the Rochester Area Children’s Writers & Illustrators who put this festival together. I’ve never seen so many kids, clutching so many shiny, new, autographed books, looking so excited.  Saturday’s festival was a high-energy, joyful celebration of reading, and I was  thrilled to be a part of it.  I sold out the bookstore’s 50 copies of SPITFIRE and was especially happy to hear that some of those copies are on their way to classrooms & libraries. I met lots of great readers, too!

My family and I came home with a huge pile of books signed by some of our favorite authors as well.

You can’t see her smiling face here, but this is Vivian Vande Velde, my festival table-next-door-neighbor… and this was the view I had of her most of the day!  She signed about a zillion books for excited readers– every one with a huge smile.

Here’s Vivian’s smile!  She’s on the left, with fellow festival organizer Kathleen Blasi on the right.  My E loves American Girl books and other historical fiction, so she was thrilled to have a signed copy of Kathy’s book A Name of Honor.  (She’ll get to read it as soon as I’m done!)

Tedd Arnold was busy signing his zany picture books here, but he signed a copy of his new YA called Rat Life for J.  If you read the review I posted of Rat Life last week, you know how much I loved it.  It’s a great, great book, and I was excited to meet Tedd and tell him how much I enjoyed it.

I was also excited to meet Coleen Murtagh Paratore, since I love the voice in her writing (and because

  told me I had to go see her.  Coleen says hi, Debbie!)

James Howe had a loooonnng line of people waiting for him to sign when he came back from his presentation.  Here he is, getting started.

Here’s Kathy Blasi (left) with Rebecca Stead (right) , author of First Light, which I’ve heard such good things about and have been dying to read.  Now I have a signed copy waiting for me on the bookshelf.

Michelle Knudsen signed so many copies of Library Lion that they were gone by the time I made it over to take her picture.  This was the only photo I got of Michelle, so I decided to share it, even though her eyes are kind of closed, because she looks so cute anyway.  When my eyes are closed in a photo, I just look sleepy.

I met fellow North Country  Books writer Sally Valentine for the first time on  Saturday, too.  Her book, The Ghost of the Charlotte Lighthouse, was a popular choice, since it’s set near Rochester, NY.

Carol Johmann
was still smiling after doing double-duty at the Children’s Book Festival — as both an author and the festival organizer.  Carol is an AMAZING woman whose organizational skills astound me. Thanks, Carol, for EVERYTHING you did to make the festival so fantastic.

Here’s another amazing lady from behind the scenes of the festival… Annie Crane from the Lift Bridge Book Shop in Brockport.  Annie and her staff handled sales at the event and worked tirelessly all day long to make sure everyone had what they needed. Thanks, Annie!

This was such an incredible festival, with so many fun, amazing moments, but there’s one in particular that I have to share…

One ten-year-old boy kept coming back to my table.  I had given him a bookmark and a Spitfire temporary tattoo.  He had tasted the hardtack that I offer up as samples to show kids what life was like on the gunboats during the American Revolution.  We had chatted about the real 12-year-old boy who’s one of Spitfire‘s narrators and what it must have been like for him to be in a battle when he was so  young. 

Finally, the boy came back with his mom and siblings, each of whom carried a single book.  (His sister had Coleen’s The Wedding Planner’s Daughter and was holding it so tightly that you would have needed a crowbar to get it away from her.) 

“Do you see why I’m having trouble choosing?”  he said, looking up at his mom.  And then I understood why he kept leaving and coming back.  In a room with more than fifty authors and hundreds of books, he could choose one.

“I sure do,” she told him.  “But pick the one you think you’ll enjoy the most.”

He nodded.  “I want this one,”  he said, and handed me a copy of Spitfire to sign.  I barely made it through the signature and my thank you to him before the tears came.  He came back one more time a few minutes later, so his aunt could take his picture with me.

No matter how many books follow Spitfire, I think that’s the moment I’ll to remember the most when I think about why I write for kids.