As a two time Newbery Medal winner, Newbery Honor winner and National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, a new book from Kate Di Camillo is a big deal, especially one like Raymie Nightingale. DiCamillo's books span a range of reading levels, from easy readers like Bink & Gollie and Mercy Watson to more nuanced novels like The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn Dixie. Whatever the reading level or subject of a book, you can always count on Di Camillo's distinctive eccentricity, sort of a Southern Gothic for kids.
Raymie Nightingale is set in 1975 in a small town in Central Florida. Di Camillo creates a world you can almost feel and smell, where the searing summer sun heats the sidewalks so that they are still warm at five in the morning and a blinding glare comes off Lake Clara, named after a woman who may or may not have drowned herself there while waiting for her husband to return from the Civil War. A third person narrator lets us see into the mind and heart of ten year old Raymie Clark, who has just suffered a great tragedy. Two days before the story begins, her father "had run away from home with a woman who was a dental hygienist," leaving Raymie with a sharp pain shooting through her heart every time she considers it. I think my favorite thing about Raymie Nightingale and the character of Raymie herself is the way that she experiences and describes her emotions. As a child, I know I had no idea that the physical sensations I felt in my body might be connected to emotions I was experiencing, and have Raymie as a guide would have been invaluable. Di Camillo quickly switches from locating feelings in Raymie's heart to finding them in her soul. Sometimes she feels like her soul is shriveling, other times, it feels like it is "filling up - becoming larger, brighter, more certain," almost like a tent.
Raymie has a plan to get her father to notice her and return home. She is going to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition and get her picture in the newspaper. But first, upon the advice of his secretary, she has to learn to twirl a baton from local champion, Miss Ida Nee. Beverly Tapinksi and Louisiana Elefante are also taking lessons from Miss Ida Nee in order to ensure a win in the Little Miss Florida Tire competition. Beverly wants to sabotage the contest for reasons of her own and Louisiana wants the $1,975 prize money so that she and her grandmother can stop stealing canned food from the Tag and Bag. While never learning to twirl, the three girls do find themselves forming a quick and close bond as they are thrown into, or walk into, a series of curious, quasi-dangerous events. From an attempt to do a good deed at a nursing home that ends with a hair raising fright, to jimmying a lock and stealing a baton from a room covered, floor, walls and ceiling, in green shag carpet, to a midnight rescue and a shopping cart ride that ends in a pond that once was a sinkhole, the girls each have the chance to come to the rescue in unexpected ways.
As an adult reading Raymie Nightingale, the true gift of this novel and Di Camillo's writing is her ability to concisely and gently convey that period of childhood when you start to take notice of the ways of the adults around you and also feel like you might have some amount of control over your own life and your ability to steer the ship. Like most kids, Raymie might be able to see the adult world but she doesn't really understand how it works or how to work with it. And, while her attempts might fall short or flat out fail, Raymie has Beverly and Louisiana by her side and they will always be the Three Rancheros.
Souce: Review Copy