Summer is right around the corner, and that can only mean one thing - Summer Reading! If you've followed this blog for very long, you know that I was a very bookish child who has become a bookish adult with a serious soft spot for Summer Reading. It was my favorite time of year: curling up in a sunny spot with my dog and a good book, or making a pilgrimage to the bookmobile (later the library) only to emerge with a bag of books I could barely carry. I read everything that caught my fancy in those years, and many things that I never would have otherwise tried, but for the fact that I suddenly had plenty of leisure time to explore new literary worlds.
Heaven, for me, is books, no question.
And today's pick is one that the young me would have devoured, and then gone right back to for a second read-through. Kimberly Newton Fusco's previous books have garnered starred reviews and awards, and no wonder, because they are just amazing. But in her latest book, Beholding Bee, a WWII-era novel, Fusco has scored a home run - a character whose voice is so indelible and unforgettable that she draws you right into her story, and you never look back.
Bee has lived with Pauline ever since her parents died when she was three, and the traveling carnival where Pauline works is the only world Bee's ever known. It's not an easy life, and it's made tougher by the presence of Bee's "diamond", a prominent birthmark that draws the attention of everyone who comes to buy hot dogs from Pauline. Bee knows her diamond makes her special, but it sometimes seems too much to bear. And then things get even tougher: Pauline takes up with a boyfriend and leaves Bee behind to manage the hot dog cart all by herself. Bee takes as much as she can stand from unpleasant carnival boss Ellis. But finally she's had enough, so Bee and her dog Peabody, plus a piglet named Cordelia take off at a run, literally. And eventually Bee finds herself at a house that looks like gingerbread, where two quirky old ladies seem to have been expecting her. It's not what Bee bargained for, but it might just be everything she needs.
Beholding Bee is a historical novel for all kinds of kids, but especially for those who know what it's like to be an outsider. As an orphan and an outcast, Bee's developed a unique perspective on the world, and that informs her every decision in a way that makes her a character you can't help but root for. She reminds me so much of other strong girls in literature: Gilly Hopkins, for one, or Hollis Woods, even a younger Dicey Tillerman. She's got heart, but she's not fragile - Bee's a girl who has taken what life dishes out to her and keeps going, because she must. I love the complexity of this character, and Fusco never takes the easy way out for Bee, which makes me love her all the more.
Older readers will likely suss out some of the more mysterious elements a little sooner, but that doesn't take away from the pure enjoyment of the story. And believe me when I tell you that Bee's voice will linger in your mind: I finished this novel over a week ago, and I can't stop replaying Bee's story, thinking about her and the other characters in this vivid, unforgettable tale. With this effort, Fusco confirms her place on my list of writers I'll continue to look out for -- and I hope the Newbery committee feels the same.
Beholding Bee by Kimberly Newton Fusco, published by Alfred A. Knopf
Sample: "I hear one lady tell her girl I must have done something horrid to be stained all over my face like that. Or maybe my mama is the one who did something awful, or maybe my daddy, and I am the one being punished. . . . But Pauline holds me and whispers they are not right. Otherwise, why would I have a beautiful jewel on my cheek the color of a rose at dusk and they do not? / I do so like Pauline's way of looking at things."