A Conversation with Rebecca Stead about her Newbery Award winning novel for younger readers, When You Reach Me
Q: Even the fact that Miranda's mother is so concerned with social issues contributes to
the setting of the book. How might her character be different if the book were set today?
A: Miranda's mom is concerned about human rights, and I think she'd have plenty to worry about today, unfortunately.
Q: The chapter headings (or titles) are categories like those used in The $20,000 Pyramid. How did you determine to structure the novel in this way?
A: It began as one of those floating thoughts, one that I liked right away. For most of the book, Miranda is trying to make sense of her own story at the same time that she's helping her mother practice recognizing categories, seeing the invisible thread that connects things in life. So Miranda begins to see her own experiences in terms of categories. And at the same time, she's learning to look beyond categories altogether, to recognize that the people in her life are not necessarily who she assumes them to be.
Q: The clues are skillfully woven into the story. Did you decide the clues first, and then work them into the plot? Or, did they just appear as you wrote?
A: I figured them out as I wrote. Some didn't work well and had to be changed. I didn't want the clues to point too strongly to the book's resolution, but I also didn't want readers to feel double-crossed by an ending they could never have foreseen.
Q: The theme of friendships, lost and gained, transcend time. What do you hear from your readers that make you know that they identify with Miranda, Annemarie, Julia, and Sal?
A: I've had kids write to me about feeling alone, or seeing themselves as being between groups. Those transitions are painful but usually necessary. One girl wrote to me that she'd always hung out with the boys in her grade, until suddenly they didn't want to anymore. She told a lot of her problems to the animals in her life. I think it's important for those of us who remember those parts of childhood to acknowledge that yes, there are dark moments. Otherwise, kids experiencing those dark moments have no way of knowing that they're feeling what many of us have felt.
Q: The ending of the story is a surprise. Did you know how the story would end when you started writing it?
A: Yes and no. I knew the basic choreography of what was going to happen, but I didn't know right away how all of the characters were connected. I had a few complex theories that thankfully fell away as the book progressed. I decided that the most satisfying ending was also the simplest one.
Q: Like A Wrinkle in Time, When You Reach Me may be classified as science fiction, mystery, adventure, realism, and a bit of each genre. Do you think young readers are intrigued by the fact that the books cross genres?
A: I don't know whether kids think explicitly about "genre." I will say that it's helpful to be able to describe the book in different ways for different readers. Some kids are drawn in by secret notes and time travel, others by friendship struggles and fights with mom.
Q: What is your writing day like?
A: Variable. I don't have a set writing schedule. On many days, I don't sit down to write at all. But a nonwriting day might be a day when I jot an idea down while I'm on on the subway, and that idea might turn into an important character or a plot twist, or just a line of dialogue I'm happy with. When I'm working on a story, I try to keep it turning in my head all the time.
Q: Tell us about the moment you learned that you had won the Newbery Medal.
A: Katie O'Dell, chair of the 2010 Newbery Committee, called me at home at 6:45 in the morning. It was still dark, and when she told me the news, I felt like I was seeing fireworks explode outside my kitchen window. Katie cried, I cried, and all of the committee members were in the room with her in Boston, on speakerphone. It felt strangely intimate, considering I'd never met a single one of them.
Q: First Light, your debut novel, is a blend of science and adventure, Peter's very real world and Thea's world beneath the ice. What was your inspiration for this novel?
A: First Light was inspired by books I read as a kidI loved stories about secret worlds. Also, having grown up in a big city, I've always had a sense of wonder about small towns. So the idea of a hidden society that's also a small town was very appealing to me. I loved the idea of a place where bread is delivered to every household at 6 o'clock. But I also wanted the book to feel contemporary, so I did a fair amount of research. I like reading about science, and a New York Times Magazine article about climate change gave me the idea of setting the story in the arctic. Once I settled on Greenland, I found researchers who were willing to talk to me, and read about Greenland dogs, and about the history of the people who lived there and explored there.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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