Fifth-grader Bernice has no friends due to her reputation as a fearsome bully.
She lashes out at everyone, especially those who taunt her and reinforce her vision of herself as fat, ugly, and stupid. But early on readers learn other truths about her. Her four older brothers are out of control, and her mother is completely self-centered and a bully herself. Bernice doesn’t even have a real bed in their cramped trailer. The public library is her only sanctuary, and the librarian encourages her to research information on the computer. She dreams of attending a stunt camp and devises a fraudulent story for a funding website, managing to raise a substantial sum—which her mother promptly steals from her to use for her own California dream. Bernice is sent to live with her aunt at St. Drogo’s, a tiny church and abbey in the town of Halfway, Texas. Sister Mary Margaret, aka Aunt Josephine, is welcoming and kind, as are the other nuns. Here she is determined to become the New Bernice. There are a few hilarious glitches along the way and one very serious setback, but she makes a friend, learns to ride a horse, and saves the church from closing. Lenz employs several stereotypes in setting and characters—Bernice’s family are collectively the cartoon embodiment of “poor white trash”—but Bernice is pragmatic, complex, and compelling, and she has a heart of gold.
Yay for Bernice. (Fiction. 9-12)