Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo; Candlewick Press, 241 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
Fierce, stubborn, brave Beverly Louise Tarpinski will steal your heart in this heartbreakingly lovely, perfect gem of a book from the great Kate DiCamillo, the culmination of three books that began with National Book Award-nominated "Raymie Nightingale" and continued with "Louisiana's Way Home."
It begins: "Buddy died, and Beverly buried him." It's August 1979, and 14-year-old Beverly, sick with grief about the death of her dog, leaves behind her home and her hard-bitten, alcoholic mother, hitching a ride with an older cousin to Tamaray Beach, Fla., where she lies about her age to get a job busing tables at a fish restaurant and finds a place to stay in a trailer park with kindly, elderly Iola Jenkins.
Gruff, no-nonsense Beverly has a heart of gold; she won't tolerate cruelty or injustice. She exacts a kind of perfect revenge on Jerome, her co-worker's horrible boyfriend, who reminders her of her mother's boyfriends, "desperate and mean."
Through her friendship with a 16-year-old acne-scarred boy named Elmer - who hands out dimes so kids can ride the horse in front of the dollar store where he works - we learn the bare outlines of her unhappy childhood (she chipped a tooth running from one of her mother's boyfriends after stealing his wallet) and the losses she has experienced in her short life, abandoned by her father, the disappearance of her friend Louisiana, the death of her dog.
When she learns Elmer is planning to go to college in New Hampshire: "Suddenly Beverly couldn't stand the world - its heat and noise and violence, how all it ever wanted to do was strip things away." Other lessons she has learned from hard experience: "People were terrible to other people. That was the truth" ..."There were so many stupid things in the world that it was hard to keep track of them all.' ... 'She thought about how everyone lied to little kids without even thinking that they were lying."
DiCamillo is a poet, and in spare, lyrical prose she brings to vivid life her cast of colorful characters, the personalities at the fish restaurant, the Florida where she herself grew up. She writes of the ocean "crashing and muttering" or "heaving itself up and down, glittering," There's a toddler who "smelled like pee and talcum powder. She was as solid as a sun-warmed brick in Beverly's arms." There are characters you love to hate: along with Jerome there's the interfering neighbor, Iola's uptight son, the religious fanatic who frightens children with her wild drawings and apocalyptic messages.
The magic here is found in the blue of an angel's wings on the cover of a library book on Renaissance art, in the words etched in the glass of a phone booth, in a set of wax lips purchased as a gift, in an impromptu art history lesson from an old man dying of lung cancer, in Iola's story of how she and her husband met playing the sun and moon as kids in a school play. There's nothing saccharine or sentimental in Beverly's discovery of light in the world after all, in the kindness of strangers, in the small gestures that make the world a better place. The Christmas in August party at the local VFW is a lovely touch, as is the restaurant kitchen crew's strike for better conditions.
Read it once. Then read it again. This is a book to cherish.
The Starlight Claim by Tim Wynne-Jones; Candlewick Press, 240 pages ($17.99) Ages 14 and up.
Ontario author Tim Wynne-Jones has proved himself the master at writing compelling thrillers for teens ("Blink & Caution," "The Ruinous Sweep") and he outdoes himself in this fast-paced, thrilling survival tale of a teenage boy fighting for his life in the remote Canadian wilderness in winter.
Nate is haunted by nightmares about his best friend, Dodge, who disappeared four months before in a boat accident that killed his father and younger brother on Ghost Lake in northern Ontario where both families had camps.
Nate and a friend are planning to make the trek together to the remote campsite, but when the friend is grounded, Nate decides to make the dangerous trip alone, his first time in winter without his father. As Nate nears the camp, he realizes that threatening strangers have broken into the camp. But how did they know it was there? And how can Nate, who left most of his food at the head of the trail, avoid detection?
Wynne-Jones effectively uses flashbacks to flesh out the mystery of Dodge's death and the difficult friendship between Nate and Dodge, a risk-taker who constantly flirted with danger. The details of survival in winter, of caring for a winter camp, of avoiding frostbite offer a gritty backdrop that makes the adventure even more compelling.