“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” said Albert Einstein, and that’s exactly what 12-year-old Miranda has. In fact, her whole story is a mystery. Readers know from page one that Miranda is telling this story to someone in particular. She narrates the story and stops every now and then to address the unknown person: “Just like you said” or “You asked me to mention the key.” Then there’s Sal, Miranda’s best friend—only friend, actually—who is hit in the stomach and face on the way home from school one day, and that ends their friendship, but we don’t know why that should be. And Miranda begins finding mysterious notes that say things like, “I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own” and “The trip is a difficult one. I will not be myself when I reach you.” The notes indicate that she is being watched and that whoever is writing them knows about things before they happen.
The book’s cover gathers some of the clues: a key, a shoe, a two dollar bill, a mailbox with a person’s shadow extending from it (but there’s no person), a green coat, a book, a sack of bread. All of these things play into the story, though readers will just have to keep reading if they don’t understand everything right away. They can trust Rebecca Stead’s masterful plotting. She sprinkles clues, and readers must collect them along the way, as Miranda does.
In the midst of all the mysteriousness is an expertly crafted realistic story perfect for intermediate readers. The setting—New York City’s Upper West Side in 1979—is well drawn, and Miranda’s mother lets her navigate the streets of her neighborhood, teaching her to avoid those older boys hanging out and that mysterious laughing man always saying crazy things.
What could be better: a great setting, believable characters and a mystery deftly woven by a fine writer. This is a book to be reckoned with come Newbery season.
Dean Schneider teaches middle school English in Nashville.