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Kate DiCamillo’s New Novel May Be Her Finest Yet

No one in children’s literature illuminates the interplay of heartbreak and hope like the two-time Newbery medalist Kate DiCamillo (“Because of Winn-Dixie”; The Tale of Desperaux”). Her latest novel, BEVERLY, RIGHT HERE (Candlewick, 241 pp., $16.99; ages 10 and up), the third in a kind of trilogy that began with “Raymie Nightingale” and continued with “Louisiana’s Way Home,” may be her finest yet.

It’s 1979, four years since hard-nosed Beverly Tapinski became friends with Raymie and Louisiana and rescued a dog, Buddy, who became her own. Now Buddy is dead. Beverly “had run away from home plenty of times, but that was when she was just a kid.” She’s 14 now, and this time she simply leaves, hitching a ride with a derelict cousin to Tamaray Beach, Fla. She finds a job busing tables at a greasy-spoon lunch restaurant. A lonely widow, Iola, feeds her tuna melt sandwiches and lets her sleep on the porch of her trailer in exchange for driving Iola to bingo at the V.F.W.

Beverly keeps her distance: “People pretend to care, but they don’t, really,she tells herself. At work she’s busy enough that she can forget not only Buddy’s death, which she doesn’t know how she’ll survive, but the other hard facts of her life. Her father walking out when she was 7. Her mother perpetually drunk and uninterested in her whereabouts. All her life Beverly has wanted to “slip the surly bonds,” as she read in a poem at school, to get away and stay away. She’s still innocent enough that when she arrives at Tamaray Beach she believes she has.

Yet hope keeps sneaking in. Iola, no fool, elects to trust Beverly despite Beverly’s assurances that she shouldn’t. Down at the convenience store, an awkward teenage clerk named Elmer hands out dimes so kids can ride the mechanical horse outside, and reads books on Italian Renaissance art. He shows Beverly a painting with lapis lazuli, the most beautiful shade of blue she’s ever seen. She finds a line of poetry scratched into the glass of a phone booth. She buys Iola a pair of wax lips. Tiny events accumulate until, while not counterbalancing the evil in the world, they return Beverly to a sense of who she is.

It sounds extremely sophisticated for a book aimed at fourth graders and up — kindness, brilliant color and scraps of poetry as salvation — and that’s the key to DiCamillo’s genius. She dares sophistication, trusting her readers to understand. She doesn’t sugarcoat, and she never compromises the truth. (Beverly can drive because her uncle taught her in the fourth grade.That was better than having her intoxicated mother behind the wheel.) At the same time, DiCamillo never wallows in misery. She doesn’t burden readers with details of, for example, the death of Buddy the dog. She only tells us he’s dead. That’s enough. She uses just enough words, not even one more.

This delicate balance of simplicity and sophistication extends to every aspect of the story. Most books about 14-year-old runaways with criminal tendencies would be aimed squarely at the young adult market. Here, although Beverly often acts in an adult role, it’s clear she’s been prematurely thrust there. Her story and her needs are still those of childhood, and the plot, language and arc of the novel reflect this. Yet the story is grounded in absolute realism — it lacks even the faint whiffs of magic that appear in the previous volumes in the trilogy. This helps readers understand the danger Beverly puts herself into when she runs away.

Nothing horrible happens to her — but it could have. Beverly is driven by loss, not adventure. Connection, not authority, brings her home. As Iola points out, eventually everything in life leaves without you. “And that is why you go to dances every chance you get.”

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