There Is A Light That Never Goes Out by Rachel Rosenberg
When I was a child, I used to love lying on the floor in patches of sunlight. I’d curl up as much as I could, trying to fit into the warm rectangle, and then let the heat relax me. Childhood is fun for that reason–you don’t understand yet why things work the way they do, so every moment has the potential for magic. Moments like those abound in Raymie Nightingale: patches of sunlight seem like portals to another world, jars of candy corn can flash like lamps, tiles can shimmer like a lake. That’s what Kate DiCamillo captures so well: the hazy, memorable slowness of summer and the whimsy and confusion of childhood. It’s 1975, and Raymie Clarke’s father has left. He’s disappeared into the night alongside a dental hygienist named Lee Ann. Devastated and feeling hopeless, Raymie concocts a plan to become Little Miss Central Florida Tire 1975 and get her picture in the newspaper. She blames herself for not realizing the extent of his sadness, having once walked in on him sitting alone with his head in his hands.
Her future win, she hopes, will make him so proud of her that he will leave Lee Ann and return home. To fulfill this plan, she joins local baton-twirling legend Ida Nee’s baton class, where she meets fellow contenders Beverly and Louisiana. Beverly is there to sabotage the competition, while Louisiana is an orphan being raised by her grandmother and in dire need of the money. “I’m hungry all the time,” Louisiana admits to Raymie as her grandmother steals food from a funeral.
Raymie Nightingale is both realistic and whimsical, with a warm affection for its characters. It can be a devastating book at times as it deals frankly with some big issues–a parent leaving with no warning, death, loneliness, poverty, child abuse–but it doesn’t get preachy or bogged down with the lessons. DiCamillo never speaks down to her middle-grade readers, and the novel’s underlying message is ultimately hopeful: life isn’t always simple, but friendships can support you and help get you through. The main relationship throughout is the one growing between the three young girls, each with her own distinct personality. Raymie is quiet and defeated, Louisiana is dramatic and idealistic, while Beverly is confrontational and matter-of-fact. After becoming a group called “The Three Rancheros”, they embark on a series of strange adventures together and become entwined in an escape plan for Louisiana’s maybe-dead cat from the Very Friendly Animal Centre.
All of this possibly sounds like a downer and, while it can be quite sad at times, the girls are funny and strong and smart in a way that keeps the story going. The writing is full of wit, from the dialogue to the descriptions. Even Raymie’s flatness is eventually bolstered by the silliness of Louisiana and the snarkiness of Beverly, and it is her love for them (and theirs for her) that makes her whole again.
As a library technician, I am always on the lookout for a middle-grade book I can recommend for both children and their parents. Raymie Nightingale is exactly what I always hope to find: an engaging story, good characterization, genuine humour and an introduction to real-life concepts. Chapters are short, but packed with inventive imagery and well-crafted sentences. DiCamillo has fit a lot. I’ve been recommending this novel to parents for almost a year now, and will continue to do so because there is much offered within its pages. Another appeal is that, in a world where women are still often pitted against each other in popular culture, this is a poignant celebration of the friendship of three girls on the cusp of their teens. Raymie’s father may not come back, but she finds a new family to love and support.
Rachel Rosenberg is a library technician and aspiring writer in Vancouver, BC. She was once published in Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul 2, a fun fact that she likes to spring on people at parties. Alongside the obvious reading and writing, her favorite things include traveling, cozy sweaters and wacky dancing. Please visit her website at rarosenberg.com