It’s June 5, 1975, and 10-year-old Raymie Clarke is standing on the bank of Lake Clara, trying to learn how to twirl a baton from mercurial local baton legend Ida Nee. The baton twirling is essential to her plan: If Raymie learns to twirl a baton, then she might win Little Miss Central Florida Tire. If she wins Little Miss Central Florida Tire, then her picture will be published in the newspaper. And if her picture is published in the newspaper, then her father, who has run off with a dental hygienist, will have no choice but to come home.

At least, that’s what Raymie hopes.

But as becomes clear that first day on the bank of Lake Clara, nothing is ever simple. For one thing, Raymie’s got competition: ebullient, tragic, perpetually fainting Louisiana Elefante has her eye on the prize, too, for her own equally desperate reasons (and unlike Raymie, Louisiana comes from “a show-business background” — her parents, after all, were the Flying Elefantes). Meanwhile, gruff, lock-picking Beverly Tapinski — the third girl in their motley baton-twirling triumvirate — has had about enough of pageants and announces her intention to sabotage the contest altogether.

And then there’s the question of how best to fulfill the “Good Deeds” portion of the entry requirement, which necessitates Raymie make some sort of selfless contribution to the social good. (Trimming the toenails of her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Borkowski, doesn’t count, Raymie decides.) (But maybe helping Louisiana rescue her cat does.)

Brought together by circumstance, the unlikely trio forms a profound and unexpected bond. On the surface, they have almost nothing in common. Deeper down, they have more than even they seem to know: All three are from troubled families; all three were, until meeting each other, very, very alone. “We’re the Three Rancheros!” Louisiana insists. “We’ll rescue each other.” And they will.

In another novel, all this could get oppressively sappy. But DiCamillo — who also grew up in central Florida and is herself a veteran of baton-twirling lessons — wryly captures the adventure and confusion of childhood with a gut-wrenching lack of sentimentality and a razor-sharp wit.

Deeply thoughtful and delightfully matter-of-fact, Raymie is more than a spunky children’s heroine direct from central literary casting — that’s not DiCamillo’s style.

Instead, in spare, fantastically unfussy prose, the two-time Newbery Award winner creates a profoundly rich world where everyone, heroes and minor characters alike, is at once achingly human and brilliantly bizarre. There are no easy answers here — just a story of loss and friendship steeped in bittersweet hope.

 Rachel Sugar is a writer in New York.

Raymie Nightingale
By: Kate DiCamillo.
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 263 pages, $16.99.
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