Newbery Medal winner Rebecca Stead on her book 'When You Reach Me'

Rebecca Stead based the main character in "When You Reach Me" on herself.
Rebecca Stead based the main character in "When You Reach Me" on herself. (Joanne Dugan)
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A 2006 New York Times article -- about a man who had amnesia and kept walking up to people asking them for help -- reminded author Rebecca Stead of a man she had passed every day growing up in New York City, whom she called the laughing man.

"He was this really erratic, scary guy and my kid-reaction was just terror," she said. That memory, she explained, "was the seed" for "When You Reach Me," which won this year's Newbery Medal as best children's book.

"I think that some of what drove [the book] were general ideas that we shouldn't make assumptions about people," she said.

The book is written from the perspective of 12-year-old Miranda, who is trying to piece together strange events happening around her: Sal, her best friend, starts ignoring her; the apartment she shares with her mom is broken into; she finds mysterious notes that predict the future.

It's a great, at times confusing story, one that almost challenges you to read it again and again to make sure you've picked up on all the clues. "I probably will never understand the book the way a smart 11-year-old would," Stead said her editor told her.

"I think it's a book that really respects kids' intelligence," Stead said. "That's one of the things that really inspired me about writing. I think that kids are a wonderful, wonderful reader to have in your head."

Stead has always been a reader, but not always a writer. She graduated from college with a psychology degree and then became a lawyer. After her second child was born, she started writing short stories, which she refers to on her Web site as "very serious stories." But when one of her sons accidentally pushed her laptop off a table, destroying it and all the stories she had written on it, she decided to try a different kind of writing.

Children's books seemed like a good place to start.

Stead based the Miranda character on herself. The story is set in 1979, the year when Stead was 12. Like her character, Stead lived in an apartment, had divorced parents and worked in a sandwich shop. Memories, Stead said, are "free material" for a writer.

Stead is working on another children's novel, although she sounds a little embarrassed to admit that "I have nothing like a writing routine. I sometimes have trouble buckling down to write at home." She writes a scene or a moment or a setting, and then pieces them all together. With "When You Reach Me," she knew the scene at the end before she knew the beginning, she said.

For young authors, Stead has two pieces of advice.

First she said, read. In "When You Reach Me," Miranda reads Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" over and over again. Other books that Stead likes are Sharon Creech's "Walk Two Moons," Robert Heinlein's "Red Planet," Louis Sachar's "Holes" and books by E.L. Konigsburg and Norma Klein.

Stead's second piece of advice: "Try really, really hard not to judge your own work too harshly," she said. "Every published writer suffers through that first draft, because most of the time that's a disappointment." For young writers, "this should be a time of exploration, and trying on different voices, and nurturing that love of reading."

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

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