Newbery winner: How author was discovered
My guest is James Blasingame, associate professor of English Education at Arizona State University, and the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English.
By James Blasingame
When good things happen to good people, it renews my faith in the universe, and when good things happen to two people, doubly so!
Wendy is one of those people who lights up a room when she enters, but she is also someone who has been lighting up young readers’ minds for years, including eight years with her own imprint at Random House, Wendy Lamb Books. (One of the books she published, Rebecca Stead's "When You Reach Me," just won the prestigious Newbery Medal.
Wendy writes beautifully herself, (She did, after all, attend the famed University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, which boasts John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and Wallace Stegner among its graduates) but her impeccable taste and judgment in children’s and young adult literature may be even more remarkable.
Wendy is the conduit that brings the world most of the books by Gary Paulsen, Peter Dickinson, Patricia Giff Reilly, Meg Rosoff, and Graham Salisbury. We also have Wendy to thank for discovering Christopher Paul Curtis, who has won the Newbery Medal, two Coretta Scott King Awards, and much more.
In this article from The Horn Book, Wendy lauds Christopher’s talent and gives some insight into how she discovers great writers who might otherwise go unnoticed, which is by wading into waist high piles of manuscripts and reading furiously.
Wendy’s determination to connect her authors with the world is legendary; in fact, she visited Gary Paulsen at his secluded home near Willow, Alaska, in the dead of winter two years ago, spending time in a dogsled to engage the famed author in the very environment from which his stories often spring.
The Ted Hipple Award is named for founding member and longtime executive secretary, Ted Hipple, who was the beating heart of ALAN (the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English), which was composed, at first, mostly of his former students from the University of Tennessee and the University of Florida.
Dr. Hipple passed on in 2004, but his cherished memory lives on among hundreds if not thousands of teachers, librarians, authors, editors, publishers, parents and readers whose lives he touched in his quest to connect the very best in young adult literature with the young people who could so dramatically benefit from it.
“The very best in young adult literature” is an accurate description of “When You Reach Me,” by Rebecca Stead, one of the newest authors at Wendy Lamb Books, and the second person referenced in my “good things happen to good people” duo.
It was my privilege to sit with Rebecca, not once, but twice at our recent national convention in Philadelphia. I sat beside her at the ALAN Breakfast, the event at which Wendy received the Ted Hipple Award, and I sat by her again at the Random House author’s dinner.
Rebecca was Wendy’s special guest for the award ceremony and I think it may have been Rebecca’s first NCTE/ALAN convention, but I’m not sure. I greatly enjoyed talking with her, and in bits and pieces of conversation, her remarkable life story emerged. She is a fascinating person, and someone we might call a Renaissance woman, certainly someone who fears nothing in pursuing her dreams and even in attempting to battle the injustices in the world, but more on that later.
I left Philadelphia, came home to Arizona, and it was as if Rebecca Stead’s name were on the wind here (a very pleasant 72° wind, by the way).
My good friend and young adult literature guru, Faith Hochhalter (aka the Book Babe ) updated me on her recent favorites, and When You Reach Me was at the top of the list. Terri Lesesne (aka: The Goddess of Young Adult Literature: had it as one of only six 2009 Five Star books on her website (look for Dr. Lesesne’s new book from Heinemann, “Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be in March,” by the way),
The kicker, however, was when I read The New York Times online and saw Rebecca’s book among the eight Notable Children’s Books for 2009 as the year was drawing to a close.
And so I read the book.
Well, that was not exactly the drill. Actually, I read "A Wrinkle in Time" first. From what I was reading about the plot and narration of "When You Reach Me," it was clear that a reader couldn’t understand or enjoy 100% of the intricacies of Rebecca’s book unless he or she were steeped in L’Engle’s earlier story.
So I bought an old "A Wrinkle in Time" and marched through it. I remembered it from when I was in the sixth grade, and I also see book reviews of it every semester in my Arizona State University students’ reading logs. WYRM reads just fine if you haven’t read AWT, but the older book only takes a few hours to complete and is definitely worth it for its own sake. I recommend it.
"When You Reach Me" is about a sixth grade girl named Miranda who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where her mother is a paralegal and her mother’s boyfriend, Richard, is an attorney. Miranda’s mother is about to appear as a contestant on the $20,000 Pyramid television game show, and Miranda and Richard help her every night by simulating the game. Miranda’s best friend’s name is Sal, and the two of them have been closer than brother and sister since they could crawl.
SPOILER ALERT FROM THIS POINT ON!!!!!
But one day something strange happens on the street that seems to end their friendship for reasons totally baffling to Miranda. In that one moment on the street the conflict around which the whole plot revolves is initiated and further events set in motion that will continue for the characters’ lifetimes. Readers are mildly reminded of this event throughout the book, but its significance and how other events relate to it will not be revealed until the very end.
When strange written notes to Miranda start appearing, she is unable to explain how the writer knows things about her even before they happen unless the messages are coming from the future.
A mysterious, tenuous connection seems to exist among Miranda, Sal, Marcus, Julia, Annabelle, Jimmy the sandwich shop owner, a dentist who has an office inside the school, and “the laughing man,” an elderly homeless man who haunts Miranda’s street corner.
As Miranda attempts to solve this mystery, she will discover that (1) people are often much more than they seem, (2) human actions don’t happen in a vacuum but rather begin ripples that can save or destroy lives; and (3) we are all accountable for our actions, even if we would like to pretend we are not.
Miranda will witness a visitor from the future coming to visit the present to right a wrong that has haunted him his whole life, an act which will explain everything.
SPOILER ALERT OFF!!!
Time travel plays an important role in the story. Miranda’s perspective on her life experience is framed by the events and characters in her favorite book, "A Wrinkle in Time," by Madeleine L’Engle, a story in which travel through time and space are key to resolving the conflict.
AWT has its own teenaged protagonist, Meg, who is battling against evil in the form of IT, a giant brain that is set on domination of the universe or at least domination of all living creature in the universe. Three nearly supernatural beings bend the fabric of time and space (which they call “tessering”) to help Meg rescue her dad who is imprisoned by IT because his mind is too strong to enslave. Time travel is the topic of conversation among Miranda and two friends she isn’t sure she wants at first, Julia and Marcus. These two and their understanding of time travel will play a key role in the lives of Miranda and Sal, a role that Miranda won’t understand until the very end.
Set in 1978-79, this story has an accurate backdrop that includes Dick Clark, the $20,000 Pyramid, and allusions to the game of pinball (one of the direct ancestors of videogames). Having lived in those times, I couldn’t help but feeling a little nostalgic.
One of my friends, Jerry O’Connor, was a big winner on the $20,000 Pyramid at just about this same time. Although Jerry won lots of cash in his second appearance, many episodes earlier he had gone home with not much more than a case of hand lotion.
Fortune smiled on future readers when Wendy Lamb first met Rebecca Stead at that famous NYC cultural center, the 92nd Street YMHA, where they took a class on adult fiction together in 1997.
Rebecca was working as an attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, and even then, 13 years ago, Wendy recognized Rebecca’s talent. The two lost touch until Wendy saw an early draft of what would become Rebecca’s first book, "First Light," which came out from Random House’s Yearling imprint after working its way through a writing group and back to Wendy’s office where the two worked together as writer and editor.
Later, dealing with much more complicated plot issues, Wendy and Rebecca ironed out multiple drafts of "When You Reach Me," insisting that the final version’s plot logic would “stand up to the merciless scrutiny of a smart 10-year-old,” as Wendy puts it. The two sought out countless readers, fearing that they were too close to the story to see any holes in the plot. An emergency conference with her father, a man who had introduced her to Star Trek many years ago, convinced Rebecca that the storyline was nearly ready, and after a few more fixes, it went to copyediting.
Rebecca explains that the idea for the plot premise for "When You Reach Me" first came to her from a national news story that appeared a few years back about a man named Jeff Ingram, from Olympia, Washington, who was found wandering the streets of Denver, appearing to suffer from amnesia. Under hypnosis he claimed to remember being married to Penny and having lost two children in a car wreck.
Later, it was discovered that his “wife” was actually his fiancée but that he had never had any children, and he was returned to Olympia after being recognized on television by relatives. Mr. Ingram was diagnosed as suffering from disassociative fugue, a rare form of amnesia. This news story sent Rebecca’s imagination into high gear and placing herself in the situation before Ingram’s true identity and past were discovered, she asked, “What if he knows something the rest us don’t know?” And so she came to speculate on the possibility of someone so disoriented by time travel as to appear to be a derelict, but actually someone who had come back to the past to save his family from a horrible accident.
Rebecca and her protagonist have a lot in common. Rebecca was raised by a single mom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just like Miranda, and was also in the sixth grade in 1978, just like her protagonist. Rebecca also loved Madeleine L’Engle’s classic book about time travel, as does Miranda.
At age 11 Rebecca worked at a Subway Sandwich shop on Broadway and 95th Street during her 40 minute school lunch period, just as Miranda works at Jimmy’s in the book. Rebecca’s mother was on the real $20,000 Pyramid television show although she did not bring home a fortune like Miranda’s mom; instead, she brought home a case of household cleaning product.
A strange, mysterious man did haunt the corner by her house when Rebecca was a child, and this man morphed into Miranda’s “laughing man” through assimilation with Jeff Ingram’s amnesiac identity. Just as Richard meets Madeleine L’Engle in a bookstore where she signs a first edition copy of A Wrinkle in Time for Miranda, so did Rebecca also meet the author at an NYC bookstore as a child.
Unless there is a sequel, we will leave Miranda forever at age 12, but we can follow Rebecca Stead as she travels through time all the way forward to the present day.
After graduating from highly renowned Stuyvesant High School in 1985 (I wonder if she had Frank McCourt for a teacher there), Rebecca went on to Vassar College and graduated with a BA in 1989. Ultimately, she would earn a degree in jurisprudence from New York University, which enabled her to work as a public defender.
On a related note, Counselor Stead supports the nonprofit organization, The Bronx Defenders, a group of attorneys who hold that our current criminal justice system needs some work.
Even as a public defender, Rebecca was writing, although these were her “serious stories,” but when her four-year-old son had a run-in with her laptop, the serious stories for adults disappeared into cyberspace and have taken a backseat to her present genre of preference.
Truth-be-told, Rebecca has been writing for most of her life; in fact, her first story was in her elementary school literary publication, The Spicy Meatball. She and her husband currently live on the Upper Westside of Manhattan with their sons, Eli (8) and Jack (11), which brings Rebecca’s life story back to where it began (and Miranda’s, too).
I hope to see Rebecca at next year’s NCTE Convention and ALAN Workshop in November in Orlando. Actually, I have already asked Random House if she can come, and they have said she can, so “YIPPEEEE!” Hey Rebecca, we’re going to Disney World!
James Blasingame is the 2010 president of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English; the 2008 Arizona State University Parents Association Professor of the Year; the 2008 International Reading Association Arbuthnot Award Winner; and the 2007 Arizona State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Teacher for the Humanities. He is a past editor of the ALAN Review, the on-line journal of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, a Scholastic Professional author and a former high school English teacher who pursued his doctorate degree after nearly 20 years of K-12 teaching. He is the director of the Central Arizona Writing Project.
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| January 27, 2010; 1:00 PM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers, Reading | Tags: james blasingame, literature
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