Like her acclaimed book “Because of Winn-Dixie,” Kate DiCamillo’s new novel, “Raymie Nightingale,” is set in a wilted Florida town. At the center of this quirky, heartfelt story are three girls embroiled in a “fairy tale that hadn’t been told yet.” . With little parental support, they must navigate a variety of challenges — loss and loneliness, among them — and find their way. The magic resides in DiCamillo’s trademark ability to find the odd beauty and amazing possibilities in the mundane.
Two days after her father has abandoned the family, 10-year-old Raymie Clarke hatches a plan: She will enter and win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, which will prompt her dad’s approval and immediate return. That very afternoon at baton lessons, Raymie meets sweetly optimistic Louisiana and scrappy Beverly, and a tentative friendship begins to form. DiCamillo handles each girl’s fraught family situation with a light hand, but it is clear that these girls are dealing with enormous stressors. Raymie especially feels almost “too terrified to go on,” and she looks for guidance from her father’s stalwart secretary and her former coach.
The author’s wry voice and delicious sense of the absurd are on prominent display as the girls careen through adventures involving a lost library book, a stolen baton and a cat presumed to be dead. Big themes of friendship and perseverance underpin the whole tale. There are no easy answers to the girls’ larger problems, but there is a fairy godmother of sorts: an elderly neighbor whose suitcase seems to hold what’s necessary for the “battlefield of life.”
DiCamillo, best known for such books as “The Tale of Despereaux,” “Flora & Ulysses” and the “Mercy Watson” series, has always appealingly balanced humor and heart. Her books are enormously popular and have won numerous awards, including two Newbery Medals and a Newbery Honor; DiCamillo is also the former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
The Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance recently named “Raymie Nightingale” its One Book, One South, Jr., choice for the summer. It’s an inspired choice, for surely this coming-of-age story is a fairy tale for our times. The young damsels in distress test their courage and rescue one another; and the book closes not with a conventional “happily ever after” but with a shared vision of the world as vast and yet intimately connected.
Mary Quattlebaum is a children’s author and regular reviewer of teen fiction for The Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
By Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick. 263 pp. $16.99. Age 10 and up