My relationship to Kate DiCamillo’s books is one built entirely on meaning. Which is to say, the less emotional and meaningful they are, the better I like ‘em. Spaghetti loving horses and girls that live in tree houses? Right up my alley! China rabbits and mice with excessive earlobes? Not my cup of tea. It’s good as a reviewer to know your own shortcomings and I just sort of figured that I’d avoid DiCamillo books when they looked deep and insightful. And when the cover for Raymie Nightingale was released it was easily summarized in one word: Meaningful. A girl, seen from behind, stands ankle-deep in water holding a single baton. Still, I’ve had a good run of luck with DiCamillo as of late and I was willing to push it. I polled my friends who had read the book. The poor souls had to answer the impossible question, “Will I like it?” but they shouldered the burden bravely. Yes, they said. I would like it. I read it. And you know what? I do like it! It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I like it a lot. I like the wordplay, the characters, and the setting. I like what the book has to say about friendship and being honest with yourself and others. I like the ending very very much indeed (it has a killer climax that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I do think it’s a different kind of DiCamillo book than folks are used to. It’s her style, no bones about it, but coming from a deeper place than her books have in the past. In any case, it’s a keeper. Meaning plus pep.
Maybe it isn’t much of a plan, but don’t tell Raymie that. So far she thinks she has it all figured out. Since her father skipped town with that dental hygienist, things haven’t been right in Raymie’s world. The best thing to do would be to get her father back, so she comes up with what surely must be a sure-fire plan. She’ll just learn how to throw a baton, enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, win, and when her father sees her picture in the paper he’ll come on home and all will be well. Trouble (or deliverance) comes in the form of Louisiana and Beverly, the two other girls who are taking this class with Ida Nee (the baton-twirling instructor). Unexpectedly, the three girls become friends and set about to solve one another’s problems. Whether it’s retrieving library books from scary nursing home rooms, saving cats, or even lives, these three rancheros have each other’s backs just when they need them most.
DiCamillo has grown as an author over the years. So much so that when she begins Raymie Nightingale she dives right into the story. She’s trusting her child readers to not only stick with what she’s putting down, but to decipher it as well. As a result, some of them are going to experience some confusion right at the tale’s beginning. A strange girl seemingly faints, moaning about betrayal in front of a high-strung baton instructor. Our heroine stands impressed and almost envious. Then we learn about Raymie’s father and the whole enterprise takes a little while to coalesce. It’s a gutsy choice. I suspect that debut authors in general would eschew beginning their books in this way. A pity, since it grabs your attention by an act of simple befuddlement.
Initial befuddlement isn’t enough to keep you going, though. You need a hook to sustain you. And in a book like this, you find that the characters are what stay with you the longest. Raymie in particular. It isn’t just about identification. The kid reading this book is going to impress on Raymie like baby birds impress on sock puppet mamas. She’s like Fone Bone in Jeff Smith’s series. She’s simultaneously a mere outline of a character and a fully fleshed out human being. Still, she’s an avatar for readers. We see things through her rather than with her. And sure, her name is also the title, but names are almost always titles for Kate DiCamillo (exceptions being The Magician’s Elephant, The Tiger Rising, and that Christmas picture book, of course). If you’re anything like me, you’re willing to follow the characters into absurdity and back. When Beverly says of her mother that, “Now she’s just someone who works in the Belknap Tower gift shop selling canned sunshine and rubber alligators” you go with it. You don’t even blink. The setting is almost a character as well. I suspect DiCamillo’s been away from Florida too long. Not in her travels, but in her books. Children’s authors that willingly choose to set their books in the Sunshine State do so for very personal reasons. DiCamillo’s Florida is vastly different from that of Carl Hiaasen’s, for example. It’s a Florida where class exists and is something that permeates everything. Few authors dare to consider lower or lower middle classes, but it’s one of the things I’ve always respected about DiCamillo in general.
Whenever I write a review for a book I play around with the different paragraphs. Should I mention that the book is sad at the beginning of the review or at the end? Where do I put my theory about historical fiction? Should character development be after the plot description paragraph or further in? But when it comes to those written lines I really liked in a book, that kind of stuff shouldn’t have to wait. For example, I adore the lines, “There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world.” DiCamillo excels in the most peculiar of details. One particular favorite was the small paper cups with red riddles on their sides. The Elephantes got them for free because they were misprinted without answers. It’s my secret hope that when DiCamillo does school visits for this book she’ll ask the kids in the audience what the answer to the riddle, “What has three legs, no arms, and reads the paper all day long?” might be. It’s her version of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Now let us discuss a genre: Historical fiction. One question. Why? Not “Why does it exist?” but rather “Why should any novel for kids be historical?” The easy answer is that when you write historical fiction you have built in, legitimate drama. The waters rise during Hurricane Katrina or San Francisco’s on fire. But this idea doesn’t apply to small, quiet novels like Raymie Nightingale. Set in the summer of 1975, there are only the barest of nods to the time period. Sometimes authors do this when the book is semi-autobiographical, as with Jenni Holm’s Sunny Side Up. Since this novel is set in Central Florida and DiCamillo grew up there, there’s a chance that she’s using the setting to draw inspiration for the tale. The third reason authors sometimes set books in the past is that it frees them up from the restrictions of the internet and cell phone (a.k.a. guaranteed plot killers). Yet nothing that happens in Raymie Nightingale requires that cell phones remain a thing of the past. The internet is different. Would that all novels could do away with it. Still, in the end I’m not sure that this book necessarily had to be historical. It’s perfectly fine. A decent time period to exist in. Just not particularly required one way or another.
Obviously the book this feels like at first is Because of Winn-Dixie. Girl from a single parent home finds friendship and (later rather than sooner, in the case of Raymie Nightingale) an incredibly ugly dog. But what surprised me about Raymie was that this really felt more like Winn-Dixie drenched in sadness. Sadness is important to DiCamillo. As an author, she’s best able to draw out her characters and their wants if there’s something lost inside of them that needs to be found. In this case, it’s Raymie’s father, the schmuck who took off with his dental hygienist. Of course all the characters are sad in different ways here. About the time you run across the sinkhole (the saddest of all watery bodies) on page 235 you’re used to it.
Sure, there are parts of the book I could live without. The parts about Raymie’s soul are superfluous. The storyline of Isabelle and the nursing home isn’t really resolved. On the flip side, there are lots of other elements within these pages that strike me as fascinating, like for example why the only men in the book are Raymie’s absent father, an absent swimming coach, a librarian, and a janitor. Now when I was a child I avoided sad children’s books like the plague. You know what won the Newbery in the year that I was born? Bridge to Terabithia. And to this day I eschew them at all costs. But though this book is awash in personal tragedies, it’s not a downer. It’s tightly written and full of droll lines and, yes I admit it. It’s meaningful. But the meaning you cull from this book is going to be different for every single reader. Whip smart and infinitely readable, this is DiCamillo at her best. Time to give it a go, folks.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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