In this novel for older elementary school children, a fifth-grader’s determination to shine at roller skating becomes entangled in her concerns about her height, family, and best friend’s shifting loyalties.
Ten-year-old Tillie Watkins worries about her absent mother, short stature, and peculiar home with her eccentric uncle in a piano factory–turned–artists’ colony (it accommodates “ten artists plus one kid”). Her insecurities over being different are magnified when her best friend, Shanelle, deserts her for Glory Peterson, a cool new girl in school. If Tillie can only prove herself in an upcoming roller skating skate-a-thon, maybe Mama will come back and everything else will fall into place. (Tillie’s “guilty wish” is “that I could have a regular car and a regular house with a mom and a dad and a dog sleeping on the porch.”) Author and poet Atkinson (Owl Girl, 2016, etc.) gives the book’s setting and characters notable authenticity. Readers gradually understand that Tillie’s mother has been in and out of treatment due to substance abuse and largely absent from her daughter’s life. Yet Tillie hangs on to an idealized portrait of Mama, imagining loving conversations with her and wanting to make her proud so that she will come back to stay. Tillie’s realization that others—including a brilliant little second-grader whom she tutors and even Glory—may live with difficult challenges, too, emerges gradually and without preachiness. Tillie’s pride in her odd home and the people in it also develops slowly and effectively. When her affectionate and protective Uncle Fred helps her understand that she has nothing to do with Mama’s unreliability, it is a moving moment of truth. Atkinson’s message of reassurance and confidence-building—children aren’t responsible for their parents’ flaws; they are worthy of being loved for who they are—is an organic part of a warm and lively narrative told through a young girl’s thoughts, actions, and growing comprehension of her world and those around her.
An outstanding tale that approaches issues of self-doubt, rejection, and acceptance with sensitivity, warmth, and an engagingly realistic voice.