Raymie Nightingale

Kate DiCamillo has mastered a particular strand of sadness: the heartbreak and emptiness of lonely young children who’ve been abandoned by a parent and must come to terms with the fact that the parent might never return. India Opal, the heroine of DiCamillo’s beloved 2000 debut, Because of Winn-Dixie, lived with this ache, and now so does Raymie Clarke—but 10-year-old Raymie has a plan. If she can just figure out how to win the 1975 Little Miss Central Florida Tire contest, she’ll get her picture in the paper, and her father—who’s run off with a dental hygienist—will surely come home. With the help of two spunky new friends she meets during baton-twirling lessons—Beverly, the tough, lock-picking cop’s daughter who dreams of sabotage, and Louisiana, who comes from “a show business background” and is prone to fainting spells—Raymie sets out to do the good deed the contest requires, which unleashes a chain of increasingly dangerous adventures.

Raymie’s earnestness is impossible not to fall in love with. When the directions on the application form say to answer all questions, she scrawls a tiny “yes” next to the headline “Do you want to be Little Miss Central Florida Tire?” DiCamillo’s prose contains magical lines—“There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world”—which grow even more poignant when you realize the sleeping adult is a mean drunk, and that the young girls are dealing with more than they even know. She also has a profound understanding of the way children collect bits of tossed-off wisdom from adults and turn them into a life manual. It’s a thrill to watch Raymie go through this process, uncovering truths and forming new questions along the way. A–