Review of the 48-Hour Book Challenge: Belle Prater's Boy
I am, by profession, a children’s librarian. My job consists of reading as many children’s books as I possibly can so that when someone walks up to my Reference Desk and says something along the lines of, “I need a picture book on ice cream for a seven-year-old, but nothing factual” (actual request), I can pull out the title they need without even blinking. The problem with this kind of job is that it requires that I somehow instinctively know all the hot books out there. All of ‘em. Fortunately, I currently work with four other incredibly knowledgeable children’s librarians. So when one of them collared me recently and informed me that having not read, “Belle Prater’s Boy” was akin to not acknowledging that the earth moves around the sun, I was intrigued. I’ve heard the sung praises of this book. I’ve listened to the rumors surrounding its existence but somehow I never made the time to actually sit down and read the puppy. Now I have. What I found was a beautiful book with a great deal of depth and imagination woven into its essential being. This is the book to hand the kids when their teachers have told them to do a report on a Newbery Medal or Honor winner. This is also the book to hand them when they get within two feet of your Reference Desk. It’s snag-a-child good.
Gypsy never knew her cousin Woodrow very well. Really, it wasn’t until his mother, Belle Prater, took a walk around midnight and never came home that Gypsy even knew to pay much attention to the boy. He wasn’t much to look at when he came to live with their grandparents either. Cross-eyed and wearing ragged hand-me-downs, Woodrow soon proves to his beautiful cousin that looks can be deceiving. Turns out, he’s a uniquely clever kid. Woodrow outwits bullies and befriends the friendless. He tells rip-roaring good stories and jokes and manages to help Gypsy as well. His lovely cousin is sick and tired of her beautiful golden hair and the fact that no one sees the girl beneath it. And as Gypsy unravels the mystery behind her father’s death, her family history, and Belle Prater’s disappearance, she learns that there is more to life than she ever could have imagined.
Some kids will be disappointed by the end of this book, I’m sure. After all, in some two-bit version of this tale, Belle Prater would probably come waltzing in the door in the last chapter and everything would be hunky-dory, peaches and cream. Author Ruth White proves to be subtler than this. In a way, the secret behind Belle’s vanishing is explained at the end of the story. And that secret doesn’t require Belle’s presence either. Far more interesting in many ways was how well White is able to show the shifting changing nature of friendship and love within a single family. Trust and love have to be earned in this tale. The multi-layered narrative does pretty well on its own, but then While is also able to add in some Richard Peckish moments of gleeful tricks and practical jokes. I’ve never seen a book fall so perfectly into the boys-AND-girls-will-read-it category. With its male focus and its female narrator, this is one of those very few books that boys and girls will read without lumping it into the boy book/girl book category.
In a way, this book also falls into the category of “summer stories” that have proven so popular with award committees as of late. You could definitely fit this in a slot alongside Jeanne Birdsall’s, “The Penderwicks”, as well as in the same category as Lynne Rae Perkins’, “Criss Cross”. The difference, however, is that “Belle Prater’s Boy” is both a summer tale and also a deeply interesting psychological teasing for young brains. If I were to name the Top 25 American Children’s Books Written In the Last 25 Years (not so big an "If"), you can bet your sweet bippy that “Belle Prater’s Boy” would be on that list. A must-read and a beautiful story. Worth holding onto, that one.