Middle-grade book offers humor, poignancy, and life-sized lessons

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Katharine Britton

Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo

Among DiCamillo’s many gifts as an award-winning children's author is the good sense not to pander to children. In Raymie Nightingale, a finalist for the National Book Award, she takes on abandonment and betrayal.

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Raymie, our quintessential anti-hero, is baffled by life and deeply hurt by her father’s recent, middle-of-the-night skulking-off with a dental hygienist. Raymie believes that she can reverse this paternal abandonment by winning the 1975 Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest. The resulting fame and notoriety will surely bring her father back.

First she needs a talent. She signs up for baton twirling lessons, where she meets Louisiana Elefante, another aspiring entrant in the Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest, who intends her $1,975.00 winnings to keep her out of the county home. And she meets the angry Beverly Patinsky, who intends to sabotage the stupid contest.

These kids, like most of DiCamillo’s characters, are not out of central casting. They are quirky, innocent, plucky, and desperately in need of strong adult supervision. DiCamillo provides little to none.

Raymie's father’s departure has left her mother sitting in the sunroom, nearly catatonic with grief. Raymie’s father’s secretary, Mrs. Sylvester, soothes all of Ramie's ills with handfuls of candy corn. Raymie's “crazy as a loon” and somewhat shadowy neighbor, Mrs. Borokowski, drops dead unexpectedly half-way through the book. And Mr. Staphopolous, Raymie’s life-saving instructor, has left town with his life-saving dummy Edgar, after bestowing upon Raymie the inscrutable wisdom that she must be a problem-solver not a problem-causer, and importuning her to isolate her objectives. Offering no instructions on how to do either.

Beverly Patinsky's father has moved to New York City, and her mother (DiCamillo heavily implies) physically abuses her. Louisiana Elefante’s parents are both dead, and she and her granny live in an unheated house and eat pilfered canned tuna for supper. On good days. On bad days they go hungry. At least Louisiana has Granny looking out for her, even if Granny is a tad paranoid and employs questionable parenting methods.

Much in life overwhelms and confuses Raymie, which might leave some readers wondering why DiCamillo chose her as the titular character and not one of her two vastly entertaining and more grounded friends. Perhaps it’s because DiCamillo recognizes that many of her younger readers feel equally overwhelmed. Raymie is a thinker and seeker. (Have you ever wondered what it feels like to have a fully inflated soul? Raymie has.) In Raymie, DiCamillo offers readers a heroine who doesn’t have all the answers, and doesn’t let that stop her.

Besides possessing a talent, Little Miss Central Florida Tire contestants must have performed three good deeds. Raymie cannot think of even one to list on her application. Mrs. Sylvester offers Raymie a handful of candy corn and suggests that she read “a suitable book” to residents at the local nursing home. Raymie selects a library book: A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale.

Raymie arrives at the Golden Glen nursing home and almost immediately her nerves unravel, the good deed is abandoned, and she hightails it out, leaving the book behind. This event incites the first in a series of misadventures (witnessed by more whacky and ineffectual adults) that the girls must overcome. 

One of the book’s darkest moments (and there are a few), occurs in Building 10: a gray, cement-block facility, known by Louisiana as the Very Happy Animal Center, where Granny has sent Louisiana’s cat Archie. As nice as Archie's new home sounds to Louisiana, she is determined to get Archie back and enlists her new friends to help her. The scenes inside Building 10, a place Dickensian in its awfulness, will make any reader cringe who was ever told (or told anyone) that the family pet was sent to a “farm."

Betrayal and abandonment are at the heart of this novel, and DiCamillo does not spare readers their effects on the girls, even as she entertains us with witty dialogue, tender moments, and moral musings. While the betrayals that each girl suffers set this plot in motion, it is the girls' trust in one another and their friendship that bring them resolution.

Raymie Nightingale is filled with humor, poignancy, and life-sized lessons. It is predictably unpredictable: a hallmark of DiCamillo’s brilliant writing. Raymie Nightingale is available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.

Katharine Britton is the author of three novels: Her Sister's Shadow, Little Island, and Vanishing Time.


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