Well, I kind of put my foot in my mouth last time around when I declared that FLORA & ULYSSES was my least favorite DiCamillo novel (or perhaps I even said it was her worst–I can’t quite remember). Of course, then she went on to win her second Newbery Medal several months later. DiCamillo’s “worst” novel is still better than many writer’s best novel, and every single one of them has been in the Newbery conversation. Then, too, I think an appreciation of the book’s humor was key to finding it most distinguished, and it just didn’t work for me on that level. This, coupled with not rereading the book and discussing the book with child readers, led me to underestimate the book. Anyway, on to RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE.
While DiCamillo’s writing is easy to recognize because of its stylistic qualities, and her recurring themes are also familiar, she really doesn’t recycle her storytelling elements (plot, setting, character) the way some other writers do. BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, THE TIGER RISING, THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, THE MYSTERIOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE, THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT, and FLORA & ULYSSES, are obviously the work of the same writer, but they are not predictable and formulaic stories. RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE is the book that many of her fans have been waiting for her to write since BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE because it revisits familiar territory. Like her first book, we have a vulnerable young girl in a Sourthern setting, and a semi-autobiographical vibe.
I was impressed by all of the literary elements here, and only vaguely remember thinking there was something slightly dissatisfying with the middle of the plot–perhaps it was too episodic for my tastes or I didn’t buy the credibility of something or other. In any case, I really can’t remember, and I’m not sure I could chalk it up to anything more than personal taste.
I know I sound like a broken record, but if you asked me to pick between PAX, BOOKED, THE WILD ROBOT, and RAYMIE right now, I’d just be playing favorites. I need to reread them all with an eye specifically toward the Newbery criteria. And I especially need to reread RAYMIE without thinking, “This isn’t as good as THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX!” because it clearly doesn’t have to be; it just has to be more distinguished than the other books published this year. No author has ever won the Newbery Medal more than twice, but my money is on DiCamillo to get a third. If not for this book, than for another one. She’s got a lot of novels left in her (not to mention picture books, easy readers, and transitional chapter books). If this particular one does not pass muster, then it’s likely some other book of hers will. (And, yes, I know the real committee won’t be discussing this, but I just can’t help myself.)
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About Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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