Sunday 25 February 2018

Full of wisdom and beauty

Children's fiction: Raymie Nightingale, Kate DiCamillo, Walker Books, hdbk, 272 pages, €12.99

Award-winning author: Kate DiCamillo is currently America’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
Award-winning author: Kate DiCamillo is currently America’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
Raymie Nightingale

Sarah Webb

Kate DiCamillo is best known for her award-winning children's book, The Tale of Despereaux, the story of a brave mouse with very big ears, which was turned into a popular animated film. She is currently America's National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and has just published her 17th novel for young readers, Raymie Nightingale.

At times, books like this - quiet, lyrical and wise - can get lost in the rush and clamour of attention-grabbing YA (young adult) fiction, blockbuster action adventure or fantasy series and celebrity-driven children's novels. But missing this book would be a mistake.

Raymie Nightingale is a tale filled with such wisdom and beauty that I found myself stopping to re-read sentences, marvelling at how DiCamillo manages to get so many profound ideas across in such seemingly simple sentences.

The book opens in 1975, in Ida Nee's backyard, two days after Raymie Clarke's father has run off with a dental hygienist. Ida, a baton-twirling legend in her fifties, is attempting to teach 10-year-old Raymie how to twirl, along with Beverly Tapinski, the tough, straight-talking daughter of a cop and Louisiana Elefante, who lives with her grandmother and whose parents were in show-business.

Raymie has a plan. She has decided to try and grab her absent father's attention by winning the Little Miss Central Florida Tire baton-twirling competition and getting her photograph in the newspaper. When he sees that she's a winner, he's bound to be proud of her and come home, she figures.

While filling in the entry form for the competition, Raymie is asked to list her good deeds. Confused by this, she rings her father's ex-secretary, the kind and patient Mrs Sylvester, who explains that reading to old folk is the kind of good deed that might be suitable, which sets in train Raymie's trip to the Golden Glen retirement home, leading to all kinds of misadventure when she gets her two new friends involved in rescuing her misplaced book.

Raymie is a wonderfully realistic character, perplexed by her father's actions, and determined to win him back. In less experienced hands, some of the secondary characters, such as the slightly manic Ide Nee with her "extremely bright yellow" hair and "white boots that came almost up to her knees", could have been too over the top to work, but DiCamillo is a masterful writer and knows exactly when to pull back.

The power of friendship is at the centre of this story and in a letter to readers at the front of the book, DiCamillo explains that she too "made good friends" at baton-twirling lessons.

'Those friends stood with me, beside me, next to me. They helped me understand that that world is beautiful. Raymie's story is entirely made up. Raymie's story is absolutely the story of my heart," she adds.

I spent this morning crawling around on a library carpet with a group of children from third class (age nineish), pretending to be an escaped hamster. We were looking at the world through a small creature's eyes, seeing how huge the library shelves would seem to a vulnerable animal. Each child embraced this exercise without question and with a marvellous sense of wonder and discovery. DiCamillo's book is perfect for this age group, children who still look at the world with, as Roald Dahl describes it, "glittering eyes", who still see possibility and magic around every corner.

If you know a smart, thoughtful reader of nine or 10, please press this gem of a book into their hands. It's a rich, profound story that deserves to be read. Bravo, Ms DiCamillo.

Sarah Webb's latest book for children is The Songbird Cafe: Aurora and the Popcorn Dolphin

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