The town of Midnight Gulch, Tennessee used to be plumb full of magic, but now all that’s left are traces – a snicker of magic here and there. When Felicity Juniper Pickle rolls into town with her family in a beat-up green van known as the Pickled Jalapeño, she’s not looking for magic, she’s looking for a place she can put down roots. She’s hoping that Midnight Gulch, her mama’s hometown, will be the place where her mama’s wandering heart will finally settle down. And despite the fact that, as Felicity herself says, “Making new friends, in a new place, when you’re the new girl, is harder than fractions,” she soon encounters Jonah, a sweet and generous boy who shares secrets, granola bars, and stories, and the two become fast friends. It’s Jonah who encourages Felicity to participate in the school talent show. Felicity has her own snicker of magic: the ability to see words representing the thoughts and feelings of people around her, and to shape those words into poems. Unfortunately, when it comes to expressing her words in public, she becomes tongue-tied and awkward. But if participating in the talent show will keep her family in Midnight Gulch for just a little longer, she’s willing to try it. In the meantime, she learns about an old curse, the one that emptied the town of most of its magic, and which may have had a profound effect on her own family. If Felicity finds a way to break the curse, will the magic come back? And will Felicity and her family be able to stay in Midnight Gulch?
Stories like this one immediately bring to mind words like quirky and folksy, and it is both of those things. However, the elegance of the language and the author’s brilliant ability to string words together elevates this book above other quirky, folksy Southern stories. Consider, for instance, Felicity’s observations in the following paragraph:
“A rebel beam of sunlight pushed through the clouds, shining through the rain beads stuck to the screen and glass. And then that strange, golden rain light shone warm and pretty over Oliver’s books. I wondered if the sun had missed the books, had waited as long as it possibly could to shine over those spines again. I knew how that felt, to love a story so much you didn’t just want to read it, you wanted to feel it.”
Like Felicity, this book revels in words and language. In fact, if it has a fault, it’s that occasionally the pacing is sacrificed in favor of intricately described detail. Characters are lovingly drawn – maybe a bit too lovingly in some cases (is wheelchair-bound Jonah a little too perfect? Is Felicity’s little sister Frannie Jo precocious beyond believability?). But the story never gets completely bogged down in sentiment, and there are nice, subtle touches of humor that keep the mood light.
I’m going to admit: I’m not a fan of the folksy Southern story. So, when a book like this causes me to sit up and pay attention. I know it’s one to keep an eye on. It’s early yet to be making predictions, but I’d be surprised if we don’t hear more buzz about this book when award season rolls around.
Published in February by Scholastic
Today's guest reviewer is Misti Tidman, Children's Librarian at the Licking County Library System (Ohio). She is a fellow 2014 Morris Seminar participant, and blogs at Kid Lit Geek.