Before I start writing the actual review, I feel compelled to make something clear: OKAY FOR NOW by Gary Schmidt is my Newbery pick, and has been since the moment I read it. Months ago. In manuscript. On my iPhone. Three times in a row.
But this book is going to give it a run for its money, and justifiably so.
Ollie Love's daddy is a traveling preacher, the kind who moves his family around the country, setting up a revival tent and bringing the Word to the far-flung masses. Ollie knows the drill by now - they'll be there three days at the most; the townspeople will come and listen; her daddy will do his best to bring the people what he thinks they need; and then the family will move on. And it used to be exciting, the life on the open road, a new town at least once a week - but Ollie's a little older now, and times are changing, and she's thinking it would be mighty nice to settle down in one place with her daddy installed in his own church and the family installed in their own house. With plumbing, and electricity, and a town school Ollie and her siblings could go to every day. Ollie believes in what her daddy does, in what her family does, but she longs for more - she just doesn't know how to say it, because the idea of disappointing her beloved father is not one she can fully contemplate.
But on their first day in BInder, Ollie meets Luke, whose mom is in jail for killing his dad. Luke tells Ollie his mom is innocent, and Ollie believes him. She also believes that the only person who could convince the town that Luke's mom is innocent is her daddy - if only she can get him to stay around long enough to do it. This 1957 Arkansas town is filled with people who believe Luke's mama was as no-good as his daddy, and that Luke is destined to follow in their footsteps. A little investigation by Ollie, however, reveals a sad story of abuse and a house where all love has been strangled into nonexistence. Her kind heart and the sense of justice her family's instilled in her will not allow her to leave Luke's story alone, and with the help of her family and a kindhearted woman in town, Mrs. Mahoney, she sets out to make things right.
Some at Goodreads have described this as "To Kill A Mockingbird for the middle-grade set." I am often reluctant to compare anything to a classic, especially such an iconic, universally beloved one as TKAM, but I don't think the comparison hurts WANLL one bit. Ollie's a marvelous, Scout-like character with a strong sense of family and a sudden devotion to social justice that is breathtaking in the way it grabs hold of her. Her view of the world changes so many times during the course of this novel, and she grows up quickly in some very important ways. You know she is going to grow up to be an extraordinary woman outside the pages of her story, and you are lucky for every moment you spend in her company within it.
I am actually tearing up all over again just thinking about this marvelous debut novel from Tess Hilmo. I was on the ABA New Voices committee this year (which will get its own post, as it happened entirely during the many months this site sat near-dormant), and when we were readying our personal picks for finalists, this book came up during the discussion. For some reason, most of us hadn't gotten a copy, and the committee members who had felt so strongly about it that they rushed us out an email version of the manuscript. By the time we all quickly finished it, I think we all knew it would make the list handily. And to think we nearly missed it!
This one will have a long, long, incredibly deserved life, and I can only say the same for Tess Hilmo's career.