Belle Prater's Boy
by Ruth White
Recommended Age: 10+
The 1997 Newbery Medal went to this book about growing up in Virginia in the 1950's. The tale is told by Gypsy Leemaster, a beautiful girl who carries long, golden tresses on her head and a terrible loss in her heart. She lives in Coal Station, Virginia, on the more well-to-do side of town, with her schoolteacher mother and her newspaperman stepfather, next door to her grandparents. Things get interesting when her cousin, cross-eyed, bespectacled Woodrow Prater, moves in with the grandfolks. His father hasn't been up to the job lately, boozing and womanizing and treating the boy poorly. As for his mother, Gypsy's Aunt Belle, no one knows where she is. One morning at 5 a.m. she got out of bed and disappeared without a trace.
The two cousins become fast friends as each of them works through the loss of a parent. Meanwhile, they have some remarkable adventures, including a brawl with a schoolhouse bully, a garden party at which the local prude inexplicably gets tipsy, a bout with the chicken pox, and the quarrels and personal crises that are included in the package called adolescence.
Ruth White demonstrates a keen ear for the way ordinary people speak, a deep compassion for children who have to struggle with tough problems, and a flair for jokes, puzzles, and high jinks that make the story sparkle even when it's describing things we already know. If you read this story and agree, be sure to look up the sequel, titled The Search for Belle Prater. [EDIT: This sequel is on my short "getting around to it" lit list.]
by Ruth White
Recommended Age: 10+
Tadpole, a.k.a. Tad, a.k.a. Winston Churchill Birch, is a favorite cousin of the four Collins sisters, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and Carolina. But since his parents died, he has been passed around from one relative to another... until now. Age thirteen, old enough to work, Tad has been legally adopted by his Uncle Matthew, who seems likely to work Tadpole into an early grave, and allow him no time for the joy and music that lights up his life. So Tad runs away and takes shelter with the Collins family.
This is a special time for Carolina, the youngest of the sisters. She has always missed having something special about herself, like outgoing Kentucky's popularity, Gin's beauty, and Georgia's brains. Tad shows Carolina that she is special; he brings out the gift of music in her. And in his cheerful-spirited, hardworking way, he helps the whole family - even though they seem unable to help him stay out of Uncle Matthew's clutches.
Tad is a poster boy for the need of children, and of people in general, to be allowed time for joy and leisure without being made to pay for it, even in the coin of psychological guilt. It isn't just that people are less happy when they are denied permission to have fun and be themselves; but, as Tad relates in the story of his cousin Eugene, sometimes people can't live that way at all.
This story is a lyrical account of growing up in Kentucky in the mid-twentieth century, with the sorrows and joys shared by hill people and coal people. It is a story full of romance, tension, and an overall goodness that leads you to expect things to turn out well in the end - though perhaps not in the way you expect. There is more of the same by this award-winning author, who also wrote Belle Prater's Boy.