On January 18, Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, a middle-grade novel that’s part mystery, part touching family comedy. The plot centers on Miranda, a sixth grade New Yorker who saves her friend’s life; preps her mom to appear on a game show; and holds down a part-time job at the neighborhood sandwich shop. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time will love this book; Miranda carries it around, and time travel figures into the story.
Because we couldn’t imagine the excitement Stead felt upon learning of the award, we contacted her for an e-mail Q&A. Below, she describes the moment of receiving a call from the Newbery committee, growing up in New York City and why she writes for kids.
Describe the moment when you were awarded the Newbery Medal.
I was standing in the kitchen of my apartment. [Chair of the Newbery committee] Katie O’Dell introduced herself on the phone and then said something like, “I’m about to tell you something that will change your life.” I think that’s when my feet fused to the floor. She had the whole committee on speaker phone, and there was this wonderful cheer. I couldn’t seem to move. I remember Katie saying, “it’s okay, you don’t have to talk.” But I hope I managed to tell them how grateful I felt—still feel.
What were your favorite books to read as a child and teenager?
I loved all kinds of fiction. I read books by Edward Eager, Madeleine L’Engle, E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, Norma Klein, Bette Greene, Paula Danziger, Anne McCaffrey, Louise Meriwether, Robert Heinlein and Louise Fitzhugh. I also loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales, D’Aulaire’s Myths and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-kind Family books.
What do your children read today?
My sons read a lot of fantasy, including Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. But they also love the Hank Zipzer books, Hillary McKay’s Casson Family novels, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and many others.
When did you first read A Wrinkle in Time? At what point did you decide to feature the novel in your own book?
I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was 11 or 12. My main character, Miranda, was carrying the book around from day one, but I wasn’t sure for a long time that it would be part of my final story. Wendy [Lamb] and I talked about that, and decided that I would try to deepen the connection between the two books. If it seemed to work, wonderful. If not, I would have to take Wrinkle out.
What’s the best part of writing books aimed at a younger audience?
Middle-grade kids are blossoming intellectually, and they’re less jaded than adults. I think they’re more open to big ideas. Also, kids generally root for a story to succeed, and they’re willing to do what I call “the reader’s work.” I find it much easier to write knowing that I have them for partners.
What were your favorite things to do as a kid growing up in New York City?
Eat Chinese food, see plays, go skateboarding, eat pizza, go ice skating and read. We used to have great block parties in New York City, and I loved those too. I also watched a heck of a lot of television.
Miranda’s mother appears on “The $20,000 Pyramid.” If you could go on any game show, which would it be?
I would be terrified to be on any game show, because I don’t like being put on the spot. But if I had to go on one, it would absolutely be Pyramid.
Do you identify with any specific character in When You Reach Me?
Miranda. Her brain works the way my brain worked at her age.
Have you read or listened to past Newbery acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
I’ve read a couple of past speeches in The Horn Book, but that was before I ever dreamed I might be writing a speech myself. I’m excited. And worried.
I’m working on another novel for children. It’s unrelated to either of my first two books, and it’s coming together pretty slowly. I have a feeing that lots of people will write three books before I finish this one.
And a question for readers: What’s your favorite Newbery winner?