When You Reach Me: A Book of Questions?

Stead, 2009

Hi all:

I know you’ve all been here before: that moment of mental wandering when you try to imagine how you would summarize the book you just read, should you ever have the opportunity to do so. Sometimes this comes quite naturally. However, sometimes you get a book like Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and (at least for me!) it’s a bit more challenging.

As I was sitting here contemplating the conundrum of how I would go about describing it, it occurred to me that part of my problem in finding the angle that would best describe it is that I’m not entirely certain what genre the book fits into.

Yes, yes, I know. I can look up online what the publishing houses choose to categorize it as just as readily as the next person, but this gentle story of a young girl coming of age in New York City with a single mother really seems to tell too much of a story to fit squarely into any one category. It’s not purely a coming-of-age story, nor is it simply a story about the challenges families face. Marcus introduces time travel into the equation, leading towards a science fiction bent, as do the regular references to protagonist Miranda’s favorite book, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, but that’s not really what the story’s about, either. Despite friend triangles (Miranda-Annemarie-Julia and Miranda-Annemarie-Colin and even Miranda-Sal, to name a few), the book isn’t really just about friendships. The book addresses the issues of class (Annemarie’s doorman’d apartment building and Julia’s diamond ring v. Sal and Miranda’s tenement-style apartment building with hole-y furniture v. the laughing man’s “bed” under the mailbox), but doesn’t seem to dwell on them. It touches on racial concerns (Julia’s caramel/cafe au lait looks and Jimmy’s Indian background), but this is just one of many subpoints here. Are you starting to see where this is complex?

Perhaps the most constant question presented in the narrative is just that: questions. The book’s air of mystery is consistent, though it’s not really just mystery. Really, it’s questions. And the book itself does an intriguing job of breaking down it’s presented mysteries into bite-size question nuggets: who’s leaving notes, why Sal stopped being friends with Miranda, who stole Jimmy’s $2 bill jar, why did Marcus punch Sal in the stomach, why can’t Richard have an apartment key, Miranda’s mother’s preparation for and participation in the televised game show (which both require her superior ability to answer questions), and the many other unknowns throughout, all present an air of question to the story. These aren’t all necessarily mysteries, per se, but open question marks that Miranda–bit by bit–finds answers to or clues to help her better understand. I feel that the idea of clue-collecting in particular is especially essential to this story because–whether it’s a relationship, a weird event, a strange conversation, whatever–the constant seems to be missing pieces, which she eventually is able to put together. But that poses yet another question: can question answering be a genre? Personally, I think not.

As you read this book, what did you think? What theme(s) stood out the most to you? What genre would you place this in (assuming YA Lit isn’ t a proper genre, in and of itself)? Or do you have a different interpretation of the text?


Norvelt PA is a real place

Norvelt_historic_markerIf you don’t believe it, check out this website.

You can find photos of the houses, church, official buildings. At this site, floorplans are included.

floorplanGantos gives us a sense of a town on its way out.

Perhaps we need to make a fieldtrip there, for research purposes? Anyone care to join me?



…and now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold

“When his deeds go unnoticed, he prays to San Ysidro, the saint for farmers everywhere.  And his prayer is answered…but with devastating consequences.”  This book blurb is the shrewdest ploy I’ve ever read.  Actually, not even necessary because the ending of this coming-of-age story was completely satisfying.  I was infected with Miguel’s burning desire to enter the adult world of his family and community.  And I think that eighth graders as well as seventh graders would identify with Miguel and learn some important lessons.  I’m writing another lesson plan that will allow me to use the 1953 movie version for …and now Miguel produced by the author, Joseph Krumgold. RS

*P.O* Walk two Moons by Sharon Creech

*P.O*-  Walk two Moons is realistic, magical and honest. Many coming of age stories connect with adolescent behavior and ideas. I felt that creating a mini poem on Sal name would help other’s understand the character better.

S–  Spunk- Sal has spunk! She was the first one to doubt Phobe, however, she never let her suspicion’s get in the way of their friendship. One must have spunk in order to not let the hardships of reality get in the way of her goals.

A–    Adventurous – Sal role in the novel is very adventurous, she tries really hard to understand why life has dealt her the cards it has. Her drive for adventure allows her to escape her reality, not until the end does she realize that her escape was always her answer to the big void in her life.

L– Loving- Sal is a loving character, who tries to hold on dearly to the small love she feels she receives from others.

I Juan de Pareja possible movie characters— by OM

 I Juan de Pareja possible movie characters---  by OM

In honor of the 86th Academy Awards I couldn’t help but to think about the movie 12 Years a Slave. Then, it occurred to me that there are two characters that my mind drifted upon especially when to comes to playing roles for a possible “I Juan de Pareja” move. I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor would make a good Juan character and Lupita Nyong’o would make a good Lolis.

Island of the Blue Dolphins


OM—Scott O’Dell’s novel  “Island of Blue Dolphin” seem to have a central theme of loneliness.  Throughout the novel the character Karana seem to always end up being alone.  It seems as if Karana first felt a sense of loneliness when the Aleuts attacked her people/killed the mend of her tribe.  Loneliness plays a role in the sense that even  thought the tribe fought back they   were alone to fight their battle with whatever weapons they had.  Loneliness can also  be seen throughout other parts of the novel especially on pg 45 when Ramo was killed by  wild dogs.  O’Dell’s demonstrated real  feeling of  being alone  through his character.  Karana was forced to continue on without anyone but herself especially when it comes to fight the many odds.  On pg 152 Rontu’s death also represents loneliness.   Rontu had been a great company to Karana and now he is gone, therefore, leaving Karana to be by herself without a friendly being.  Page 168 too represents loneliness because Karana missed her chance of being save by the “white men.”  Finally, in respect to loneliness, page 173 represented the most horrific/important loneliness of the novel.  Karana  found out that the ship that her people took  was destroyed in a shipwreck.  Now, her people/family/cultural partners are all gone and she is the only one left.  “Not until I came to Mission Santa Barbara and met Father Gonzalez did I learn from him that the ship had sunk in a great storm.”

Gender role also was an important highlight in O’Dell’s novel. Society has always been involved in social roles of genders; men are supposed to… and females should not … In “Island of the Blue Dolphin” women and men had  different roles according to their gender.  Men were responsible for hunting, protecting the people and creating weapons.  Unlike men, women were responsible for cooking and farming/gathering.  Page 11 stated ” the women were cooking supper  but all of them stopped and gathered around her waiting for her to speak.”  Page 25 also supported gender roles ” the women were never asked to do more than stay home , cook food, and make clothing.”  The novel also tells of the one woman the Aleuts brought with them possibly for cooking and performing “women’s work” while they hunted.   Gender roles can also be supported by pg 49. “The laws of Ghalas-at forbade the making of weapons by women of the tribe.”

Nonetheless, I also could not not help but to think of the historical allusion that this story brought.  The events of the story simply reminded me of the Pilgrims and the Native Americans.   Like the earlier event in history “white men” came in ships to the land of the natives and caused the destruction of the Native Americans and their culture.   One might agree that Karana wanted to hold on to her traditions and keep her culture alive even though the ” white men” seem to be a force that rip the Natives and their culture apart.  It also seemed as if O’Dell was trying to  tell his audience how culturally strong Karana was and would do anything to hold on to her traditions.  Even thought Ramo was on the island, I feel that Karana went back to him and not for him because they belong together as a tribe in their home.  Even  though many people tried to keep her from going overboard she managed to break free and return home; that was true determination.  There were many y other events that demonstrated white men trying to rob Karana of her cultural riches/trying to rip her from her tradition.   However, one of the most touching of these events occurred on page 171-172.  Karana was told to strip  herself of her traditional clothing and replace them with clothes that did not belong to her people/culture.  She was alone and couldn’t fight to keep her cultural riches.

*The enclosed picture is a present day Google Earth shot of the San Nicholas Island*

… and now Miguel

OM—… And Now Miguel by  Joseph Krumgold

As I read the required literature for this class it becomes more clear to me why these books are categorized as “YA Literature.”   Adolescence is a very rough period  during an individual growth and development.  As I’ve read through Seraphina, Ella Enchanted, Howl’s Moving Castle, I Juan de Pareja and  … and now Miguel it feels as if these authors  reaped the DNA out of different adolescents and replicate it to create the adolescent.  Krumgold  created this character Miguel who represents our present day adolescent.  One main issue that is present in the book  is “Social Transition.”  Along with Social Transition  comes “Identity Crisis/ Social redefinition.” Throughout the book Miguel is an adolescent who wants to make his transition to adulthood in his society; with that desire he encounters many difficulties especially with  his identity.  Miguel wants to be seen as a man, except his family still view him as a boy who is not ready to enter the realm of manhood. In  many nonindustrial societies,  people go through different rituals to prove themselves as fit to be entered into the world of adulthood (Initiation Ceremonies)  It is clear that Miguel wants to take the sheep to Sangre de Christo Mountain, which is a job considered for a man.  He wants to help bring the sheep to the mountain because he wants to be viewed as a man, not a boy anymore.  It is clear that Miguel would do anything to prove to his parents that he is ready for such a task.  The big question is why?  Why did Miguel think that he was ready for such a task?  was it puberty? was it his age? or was he simply trying to impress his parents?

I  simply believe that Miguel felt within himself that he was ready for the challenge and being accepted as a man within his community.   Dealing with sheep was the responsibilities of adults, on page 14  ” It’s only that I wanted you to know it was ME- I brought you the bags when you asked for them.”  By Miguel’s statement one can understand that he is trying to tell his father that he chose the bags, but it goes further. Not only did Miguel chose the bags he went to say that he chose correctly as in he has the cognitive skill that is necessary to do man’s work.  However the crisis is that his father simply looks beyond what Miguel is trying to communicate with him.  As the story progresses  Miguel also tries to prove that he is no longer a child by spending less time with his little brother (Pedro).  This might a result of his Sense of Identity

One other confusing thing about being an adolescent is gaining certain privileges in society, but still not given the title of being an adult.  There are many examples in our society that represents this issue like earning the right to drive at 16, but you’re still not an adult, the right to vote/serve your country at 18, but still not viewed as an adult to society.   My reason for these example is simply because no matter how much privilege you earn, there are factors that still prevent you from gaining the title that you really desire.  One example of this is at age 18 society consider an individual as an adult, but still you are not given  the right to take part in the consumption of alcohol, entering a night club, or even purchasing x rated movies.  We see that Miguel experience this problem because even though he was allowed to help with the sheep he still wasn’t allowed to go to Sangre de Cristo Mountain.   This happens even when Miguel brought back the lost sheep by  himself, and being allowed to sit at the table amongst men.

On the other hand I can’t help but thinking on a religious perspective. On page 26 Miguel is in charge of branding the lambs with ID tags, these lambs purely represents him in the sense that he tags himself as being an adult. There is one other example of how religion plays a role in Miguel’s desire.   Miguel  desires  to pursue his social redefinition of being a man by going to Sangre de Cristo Mountain represents a baptism.  On a Christian perspective, when one is baptized, they enter the water as a sinner, they are then plunged under the water ( blood of Christ/ Sangre de Cristo) and washed clean in the blood of Christ. After they have been washed clean, they are viewed as a new being.   In Miguel’s case he will climb the mountain Sangre de Cristo (blood of Christ)  and come back to his differently to his society as a changed person; not Miguel, nor a child.  He will be elevated to a MAN.

On I, Juan de Pareja

What a thoughtful and beautifully written post, LD!

Like you, I really enjoyed these two books. But I only want to write about I, Juan de Pareja because it’s my favorite of all the books we’ve read so far. For me, I, Juan de Pareja really illustrated the day-to-day realities of parts of history with which we are all familiar, but perhaps never understood or envisioned so vividly. For instance, Treviño describes Juan’s encounter with the plague quite graphically: “When she was taken away, to the tolling of sad bells, I could not follow, for I had fallen sick most suddenly and was past all thinking. I lay on my cot dreaming of water and burning with fever, suffering dreadful hallucinations and terrors, drenching sweats, horrible retchings and vomiting. I have no idea how many days and nights I lay thus at the point of death” (14). We also catch glimpses of aspects of Spanish culture, such as flamenco dancing and the class system that existed in Spain during the early seventeenth century. First, we follow Juan as he observes the hierarchical order of the Catholic Church (19). Later, after meeting Carmelo, we become aware of the ethnic makeup of Spain during this time, and we are witness to violent forms of racism. There are so many moving descriptions of Juan’s historico-cultural context, but the Renaissance (as the greater historico-cultural context) is probably the most inextricably bound to the progress we observe throughout the course of the novel.

Las Meninas, Velazquez

Las Meninas, Velazquez

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, as LD and OM have already pointed out, would not betray reality in his painting. This fact is significant as related to the Renaissance and the cultural “re-birth” it represents. Though literally meaning “re-birth,” the word “Renaissance” also connotes critical thinking and innovation. Velázquez epitomizes ingenuity through two actions: first, by rejecting the practice of portraiture aimed to please and second, by freeing Juan in order to prevent his persecution. However, as Treviño writes in her afterword, Velázquez painted truths because he did not “flatter himself” into thinking he could improve reality (178). Although Velázquez was powerless when it came to changing the fate of the Spanish people, he was able to change Juan’s fate, and he did. And even if unintentionally, I would argue that Velázquez changed the art world rather profoundly, especially through his innovation in paintings like Las Meninas. This story causes us to genuinely admire Velázquez and so he becomes its secondary hero.

Las Meninas, Picasso

Las Meninas, Picasso

The primary hero, of course, is Juan. His unfailing loyalty and self-sacrifice are remarkable. Plus, Juan is an artist in his own right. For me, the most memorable scene of the novel is the scene in which Juan organically and sort of unconsciously paints “a Negro madonna” (123). Juan’s Christianity and submissiveness run so deep that he thinks: “At first I was satisfied, even happy with my painting. Then I felt sorrow, for it seemed as if some devil had guided my hand and that I had painted Our Lady as a Negro maid in order to exalt myself and to protest that my race was the chosen one” (124). Later, Bartolomé helps Juan understand that this painting was no mistake, and Lolis helps point out their natural right to pride and in some cases, resentment. These ultimate realizations, viewed together with his bravery, faithfulness, and creativity, make Juan a complete Renaissance hero.

Posted by SD

Tenderness in male form

LD: What burns in my heart so, that I must lay down, in phrases all my own, a picture of my life that I invite you to walk around in, absorb, live, almost as I have lived it?

And Now Miguel and I, Juan de Pareja, are two touching and rich stories of male perspectives, one during a pivotal twelfth year; the other, a lifetime. Each book takes us deeply into a living person’s outlook, an evocative and leisurely stroll through specific landscapes and landmarks that define each tender soul on its particular journey. We learn about distinct subjects which serve as the frames to hold the internal subject of human love in many forms. In And Now Miguel, sheep-herding is the external love; in I, Juan de Pareja, painting is the love form. In both stories, the role of religious custom and belief plays a large role in how love is contained, reconciled and embodied.

And Now Miguel captures the soul of a sensitive and thoughtful boy as he moves across the threshold of his childhood into early manhood through  observations of the family, sheep and mountains that make up his world. With language that is peculiarly boyish, fresh, and questioning, we begin to see a changing person who allows himself to feel and consider everything around him. He has a young boy’s way of knotting things up in trying to be bigger than he is. The same love that he shares with his siblings and parents is also shown to the mountains and sheep that demand so much from everyone. One of the great pleasures of the book was the way Miguel embodies the dignified love of caring for life in all its many forms, and how that is shown as a family legacy; his willingness to take on the burdens and responsibilities of this caring were the most moving parts, as he grows in his ability to carry them.  Miguel’s religious life supports him in his exploration of life’s mysteries, and takes him into a surprisingly profound conversation with his older brother Gabriel, who is leaving. This conversation marks Miguel’s final transformation in becoming his own person, as he comes to his own conclusions, by himself. The final stage, beginning his sheep-herding in the mountains with his uncles and father, is the external reflection of his internal maturity.

In I, Juan de Pareja, a more adult and detached voice tells the story, yet as a slave, Juan must speak from forced submission, which is similar to the restraints Miguel feels at being stuck between the very young and the grown. Juan’s perspective is always colored by slavery, yet he finds opportunity to love, serve and even feel free, due to his painter master, Diego Velazquez, and his master’s submission to the calling of art. The slave learns much from the master about painting and devotion, as does the master from the slave; love grows through simple devotion to their individual tasks. Here, too, Catholicism provides deep sustenance, as Juan and his master ride the unpredictable waves of life in 16th century Europe. Both slave and master exhibit acceptance, and devotion in life, showing the great capacity for love each man has.

These two books were written in very different times; it would be hard to imagine these books being written now. The sensibilities are from a previous era.

So, why must you enter my world? I suppose the searing heat of hammered change in a soul is felt to be so powerful, so large, I must tell you, so you can tell me by reading my words: Yes, I understand your journey.

Both Miguel and Juan tell stories of great change with dignity and grace. It is their tender sensibilities that allow them to accept and adapt to reality through loving perspectives, showing us the beauty in their own lives.  As Velazquez tells his apprentice,

“Art should be Truth; and Truth, unadorned, unsentimentalized, is Beauty.”

Both books were beautiful.