Candlewick, 2016 263 pgs
DiCamillo revisits the Florida of her childhood in the 1970's in this new middle grade novel written in the tradition of Because of Winn Dixie. Raymie's father has just left her and her mother and run off with a dental hygienist. In order to lure him back Raymie decides to win the Little Miss Central Florida Tire pageant. Once he sees her victory in the paper he will realize how wonderful she is and come home. To bring this scheme to fruition Raymie begins baton twirling lessons from an aging former champ. Her two fellow students include tough-girl Beverly and frail Louisiana. Both girls have family secrets of their own and both plan on participating in the pageant, although with different motivations for doing so. The three girls become friends, more out of circumstance than anything else, and dub themselves the Three Rancheros. The Rancheros go on a mission to rescue Raymie's library book from underneath a creepy old woman's bed in a nursing home after which their bond is sealed. The next mission to is rescue Louisiana's cat, who was left in an animal shelter. This midnight scheme does not go exactly as planned, but forces all the girls to work together and rely on their strengths. Raymie uses skills that she never thought she would have to rely on and taps into her inner courage to save a friend. This episode lands the Rancheros in both trouble and in glory, forcing their adults to see them in a new light and to bring the three broken families some much needed healing.
Well, you have to hand it to Kate DiCamillo. Her title as last year's ambassador for Young People's Literature was well earned as she really knows how to write an amazing book for children. This latest book revisits the mood, place, and time of Because of Winn Dixie, yet is entirely different in plot and character. Tightly written, every word counts, and plot points are all significant and come together by book's end. This is a quiet story, yet a lot happens and it is never boring. The characters are all highly developed and the adult characters are significant and flawed, yet supportive at crucial moments. The book is set in the 1970's, but I would not consider it historical fiction. Beyond the baton twirling lessons, which I don't think kids learn anymore, and the absence of social media, the novel feels like it could be set in today's world. The problems and emotions of the characters are universal and are struggles that young people in our current society face. Because of an absence of male characters, this story is a little less accessible to boys than Because of Winn Dixie, which features the Dewberry brothers, as well as other male characters. Themes include loyalty and friendship, the healing power of animals, dealing with loss, and finding your inner courage and what makes you special. When finishing Raymie Nightingale I let our a sigh of contentment, which to me is an indication of a great story. Will DiCamillo win another Newbery for this offering? Only time will tell. It certainly is a contender and worthy of the title.