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Rebecca Stead interview

The Upper West Side author and mom discusses her new novel for tweens.

Stead with sons Eli (in green) and Jack O'Brien; below, her new novel

Photograph: Troy Williams

The characters in Rebecca Stead's second middle-grade novel, When You Reach Me, are not the only ones who experience time travel—in writing the fast-paced New York story, the author did a little chrono shifting herself. Set on the Upper West Side, the book explores the same streets where Stead grew up, and riffs on some of her experiences. "I've never lived in another neighborhood in New York City," Stead says; she and her husband are raising their eight- and 11-year-old sons uptown, and her mother still resides there, too.

The book is set during the 1978--79 school year, when Stead was the age of her main character, Miranda, an inquisitive sixth-grader and the only child of a single mom. She wrestles with the challenges of a suddenly distant male best friend, new and occasionally snotty girlfriends, and a growing awareness of the wealth distinctions among them all. Its setting some three decades in the past means that there are no computers or cell phones in the novel, but what it lacks in technology, it gains in a quality that Stead felt was more important to the story.

"Kids are not quite as independent at that age anymore," she says. "From age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other's houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that's a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I'm not sure that most kids have that today."

Miranda's self-sufficiency leads her into various adventures around the neighborhood, from working in a sandwich shop at lunchtime to avoiding the corner crazy guy whom the kids all call the Laughing Man. Along the way, she has to unravel a mystery seemingly sent from the future—a concept she'd previously pondered only in terms of her favorite book, A Wrinkle in Time (also beloved by Stead). In addition to providing her characters with an organic way to talk about time travel, Stead admits with a laugh, "I just took the first opportunity to bring in this book because it meant so much to me."

An affinity for Madeleine L'Engle isn't the only similarity between the characters and their author. Although she's careful to point out that the story is completely fictional, and that her own friends and experiences were only starting points, Stead does acknowledge some inspirations. "There was a boy in my building who was my best friend when I was growing up," she says. "There was also a mysterious person on my corner who we called the Laughing Man."

The Upper West Side has changed a lot since then, a phenomenon Stead encounters every day as she raises her sons. "I can't really offer them the neighborhood I grew up in," she says. "I wish I could. I think the world just felt a little bit smaller [back then]. But maybe that's my perspective changing." She still takes her boys to the same pizza place she used to frequent (though it's changed locations, it's still run by the same guys, who remember her from when she was young), and she points out her school to her sons and regales them with tales of her childhood. With her latest novel, she has the chance to tell other kids about that era too—and send them on a little time-travel journey of their own.

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