In Queens during the summer of 1961, a shy 11-year-old white girl finds her voice and learns to use it.
Word-loving aspiring writer Shirley Alice Burns lives with her overprotective single mother and her gentle Russian-immigrant grandmother. Not one to rock the boat, Shirley always goes along with the crowd. But when she finds out the father she thought simply long absent is really deceased, she vows to confront her mother about it. Also on Shirley’s list of things to do once her “courage comes in”: stand up for herself when her teacher accuses her of plagiarism, tell her mother she’s too old for summer camp and that she wants to go to Lake Winnipesaukee (affectionately nicknamed “Lake Winni Pee”) with their large extended family instead, as well as telling her that she hates ballet and following her mother’s restrictive Safe-at-Home Doctrine. As revealed in Best’s precise, evocative third-person narrative, Shirley taps into the courage of her hero Pippi Longstocking and projects memories of her father onto a dead mouse she hides in the freezer. Shirley’s gradual change and just the right amount of lost innocence are punctuated by summer adventures with cousin Phillie; her disdain for her mother’s gassy boyfriend; her strong, loving bond with her grandmother; and her looming first kiss, courtesy of spin the bottle. This Queens neighborhood, with its menagerie of carefully drawn secondary characters, appears to be an all-white one.
Picture-book author Best’s first middle-grade novel sparkles and pops like a Fourth of July firecracker. (Historical fiction. 8-12)