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HomeEducation & JobsKate DiCamillo’s New Children’s Novel Is a Balm for the Soul

Kate DiCamillo’s New Children’s Novel Is a Balm for the Soul

It is universally acknowledged that each generation of young people believes it has it worse than previous generations. But today’s kids — who’ve weathered a global pandemic, an existential climate catastrophe that feels more when than if, and TikTok — might hold a unique claim to this unenviable brag. Two wonderful new novels underscore this, allowing anxious readers to travel vicariously to simpler times.

It’s not entirely clear what era 10-year-old Emma Phineas Wilkey, the protagonist of Kate DiCamillo’s latest balm-for-the-soul of a novel, lives in. Let’s call it DiCamillandia, a liminal space devoid of modern headaches like the internet, populated by quirky, caring relatives and neighbors, a charming dog who gives Winn-Dixie a run for his money, and ghosts. The kind of place where a girl is born at the fair (into the waiting arms of a beloved grandmother named Charisse) in the shadow of a Ferris wheel, which earns both Emma Phineas and the book the name “Ferris.”

“‘It’s a love story,’ Charisse said whenever she told the story of Ferris being born. ‘But then, every story is a love story. Or every good story is a love story.’” A fine thesis for every book DiCamillo — a two-time Newbery medalist, for “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Flora & Ulysses” — has written.

And FERRIS (Candlewick, 240 pp., $18.99, ages 8 to 12) is full of love, if not tremendously busy with plot. Its titular heroine is entangled in various affairs: acting as the go-between for her estranged aunt and uncle, dealing with her felonious little sister, receiving a series of unfortunate hairdos. When Charisse discovers that the resident ghost needs the home’s chandelier lit to win back her spectral husband, she enlists Ferris to help.

Any novel set in DiCamillandia will have a vein of melancholy running through it. Mrs. Mielk, a favorite teacher of Ferris and her best friend, the quietly loyal Billy Jackson, sobs alone at a restaurant, bereft because of the loss of her husband … bereft being one of the many “Mielk vocabulary words” defined in these pages (the book could double as an SAT guide!). But it’s the looming death of Charisse that threatens to break Ferris’s heart.

As Charisse’s own heart fails, Ferris asks her grandmother to return as a ghost. She refuses. Charisse has lived a full life, “loving mightily and widely. It’s what we’re here for after all.” By the time this deeply satisfying story ends, Ferris — having reunited the living and the dead, and “waded deeper into the great river of life” — seems to be doing just that.

Erin Entrada Kelly’s tender, mind-bendy THE FIRST STATE OF BEING (Greenwillow, 272 pp., $19.99, ages 8 to 12) is set quite specifically in August 1999, when the potential Y2K disaster terrifies Michael Rosario. Before Y2K was a vibe or a style, it was a global panic that technology would melt down on Jan. 1, 2000, when computers reset to 00. Spoiler alert: The disaster didn’t happen. But Michael doesn’t know that, and he’s stockpiling stolen canned goods for himself and his overworked single mother in case it does.

Michael’s anxiety is his constant companion, isolating him from most kids his age. “You have a weighted mind,” says the newcomer Ridge, a teenager Michael encounters on the morning of his 12th birthday.

Ridge, who is oddly dressed, unclear of what day and year it is, and prone to sayings like “maxing and relaxing,” turns out to be a time traveler from 2199 who has taken an unauthorized joyride in the spatial teleportation module his scientist mother is developing.

Michael introduces Ridge to Gibby, his babysitter/crush. After Ridge predicts the 1999 earthquake in Turkey — whose enormity and imminence bar the possibility of anyone altering it and committing the ultimate time-traveler sin of messing up the space-time continuum — the pair agree to help him get back to the, well, future, where we learn through clever interstitials that his mother and brothers are furiously working to bring him home.

Which isn’t to say Michael loves Ridge, who hijacks Gibby’s attention, drags them to the local mall (“a place where people shop in real life, in real places”) and refuses to tell Michael what will happen with Y2K, even though Ridge carries a “sumbook,” which notes everything of import that went down between 1980 and 2020. All Ridge will promise is that Michael and Gibby are not currently living in “one of those dangerous times,” to which Michael responds, “That’s easy for you to say.”

Kelly (also a Newbery medalist, for “Hello, Universe”) shines when acknowledging today’s readers’ justified fears while showing them that the key to surviving an uncertain road is traveling it in good company. As Ridge encourages Michael to occupy what he calls “the first state of being” — focusing on the here and now, not fixating on a future we can’t control — Michael forges friendships and comes to accept that “not knowing is part of life.” If Ridge’s version of 2199 is at times annoyingly vague (video games? sort of; flying cars? complicated), perhaps the most important detail of the future is that it exists.

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