This futuristic, coming-of-age book by Rebecca Stead is published by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children's Books (a division of Random House, Inc.), and is written for kids ages 9 to 14 years old. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Miranda, a sixth-grader in the late 1970s, lives with her mother in a run-down New York apartment. Mom's boyfriend, Richard, spends much of his time with them. A latch-key kid, Miranda always walks home from school cautiously, particularly trying to avoid an insane old vagrant who hangs out near her building. Because of his crazy cackling, she and Mom refer to him as the laughing man.
When Miranda's best buddy, Sal, gets punched by another boy for no apparent reason, Sal abruptly ends his friendship with Miranda. Then Miranda starts getting strange notes. The anonymous writer says he's coming to save her friend's life and his own, and he needs Miranda to write a letter for him. The notes frighten Miranda, partly because they correctly predict future events, such as the date her mom appears as a contestant on "$20,000 Pyramid."
Miranda develops new friendships with classmates Annemarie (who has also "broken up" with her best friend, Julia) and Colin. Later, she meets Marcus, the boy who punched Sal. Seeing a copy of A Wrinkle in Time that Miranda always carries, Marcus provides thought-provoking commentary on the book. As they discuss the plausibility of time travel, Miranda realizes Marcus isn't mean, but he is extremely intelligent.
On her way home one day, Miranda sees Sal running from Marcus. Sal runs into traffic and is nearly hit. The laughing man kicks Sal out of the way and dies in his place. She finally realizes the laughing man, who is actually Marcus as an old man, sent her the notes. He has come back from the future to save Sal's life. Miranda's job is to write a letter to present-day Marcus, explaining the events that will transpire and reminding him to return to the past when he discovers how to travel through time.
The driver who almost hits Sal repeatedly cries, "Thank God," when he realizes the boy is fine.
Mom, who was unable to finish her law degree because she became pregnant with Miranda, is a secretary for a law office. The more she hates her job, the more she steals office supplies. A concerned parent and compassionate individual, Mom volunteers with pregnant, incarcerated women, and her law firm, for which Richard also works, often provides free legal aid to the poor. Richard, a lawyer, is a loving companion for Mom and father figure for Miranda. Miranda doesn't understand why her mother won't let him have a key to their apartment. Miranda never knew her own father, and she says you can't really miss something you never had. She doesn't hold any grudges against her father, though she blames him for her flat brown hair. Jimmy, the temperamental owner of a restaurant near their school, pays Colin, Annemarie and Miranda in sandwiches to work at his shop. They finally quit when he makes racially bigoted comments about Julia, who is black.
Other Belief Systems
Mom's appearance on "$20,000 Pyramid" falls on the same day as Richard's birthday, and Mom thinks that may be a good omen. In a school assembly, Miranda tries to use her brain waves to make Sal turn around and look at her. She ponders the world millions of years ago and the evolution of it since then, including how animals became people. Mom says people walk around with invisible veils over their faces, and that at certain critical moments, the veils are lifted, and everything becomes clear. She says it isn't due to magic or God or angels, but it's because people get distracted by little things and ignore the big ones. Miranda and Marcus discuss Einstein's theory of relativity in relation to time travel and events that take place in A Wrinkle in Time. By the end of the book, Marcus proves that time travel is a possibility and that the end of something can come before its beginning (time-wise).
Miranda says her mother calls something "a whole different bucket of poop," but that Mom doesn't use the word "poop." H--- and darn appear a few times. The Lord's name is taken in vain a few times, too. Mom drops something in the kitchen, and Miranda hears a bunch of cursing, though no actual swear words appear in the text.
Mom fears change, so she refuses to give Richard a key to her apartment. She's also nervous about letting him move in or accepting his offer of marriage. After her win on "$20,000 Pyramid," she gives him a key. The text also implies that he stays the night. Miranda mentions that she has kissed Colin a few times and that another boy kissed Annemarie.
Newbery Award, 2010; The New York Times Notable Book, 2009; Kirkus Reviews Best Children's Books, 2009; Publisher's Weekly Best Children's Book of the Year, 2009; and others
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Why does Sal stop talking to Miranda?
How does Miranda handle his rejection?
How is the relationship between Sal and Miranda like the one between Annemarie and Julia?
Have you ever lost a friend or seen your friendship with someone change?
What did you do?
What are some healthy ways to bounce back after you face friendship problems?
- Who are some of the people in this book with unique physical or mental characteristics? (Richard has one leg shorter than the other; the laughing man seems crazy; Marcus is a quirky genius.)
What makes them "different"?
How are they treated or looked on by others?
How does God want you to treat those who may have special needs, mental illnesses, or other characteristics?
Was Miranda's mom right to urge her to be cautious about the laughing man and other strangers?
Why or why not?
- Why does Miranda stop hating Julia?
Why does she help Julia rebuild her friendship with Annemarie?
What traits of a good friend does Julia show, despite her brash behavior?
Why does Miranda become Alice's bathroom partner?
What suddenly causes her to be more considerate of others' feelings?
- Have you read A Wrinkle in Time?
If so, what role did it play in this book?
Why is it significant to the events in this story?
- What compels Marcus to return to the past?
Why is he willing to risk his own life to save Sal?
- Why does Miranda's mom help women who are pregnant and in jail?
What does she hope to accomplish?
Do you agree with her belief that she can help them become less hard and feel more like people again?
Why is her work important?
How can you help people who have made mistakes realize that God allows second chances?
- What clues does the author give about the person writing the notes to Miranda?
Did you figure who had written them, or did the ending surprise you?
Nudity: The school shuts down its off-campus lunch policy a few times when a naked man is seen running down a nearby street. Miranda also thinks she sees a flickering image of a naked man standing near the laughing man. She ultimately realizes it was Marcus (as the laughing man) on one of his earlier time travel trips, practicing for his stay in New York. Time travel allows one to bring very little, including clothing.
Lying: Colin lies about where he's been when he is snooping through Jimmy's things. The school dentist lies to help hide Marcus when the police are after him.
Stealing: Colin takes bread from Jimmy's restaurant, but he says he wouldn't take money because that would be stealing. The laughing man steals Jimmy's bank full of $2 bills. Mom pilfers office supplies from work.
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