" 'Come on, Corns,' my mother says, opening the car door for me. 'Bring your stuff.' The boyfriend shrugs and turns up the radio.
"I wonder when a Girl Scout last sold cookies here. Not for a while, apparently, because the hem on my dress catches the grass as we trek to the front door.
"It's not going to be for that long, Corns. Just till Joe and me get settled.' My mother pushes some of the ivy aside and taps at the door. The skin on her hand is thin, translucent, like china held up to the light. I can hardly hear her knocks.
"I watch another bird fly across the yard and land on the roof and then an old woman walks around from the back of the house. She is tall and straight, pale as vanilla pudding, with gray hair twisted into a braid and roped around her head. Binoculars thump against her chest. My mother jumps a little when she sees her. 'Agatha.'
" 'Tell him to turn that noise off.' The old woman nods to the car, but her eyes are on me.
"My mother looks unsure about what she should do. She takes a few steps forward (is she thinking of hugging the old woman?), then changes her mind and turns toward the car, leaving me standing with my crate of books at my feet.
"I hold my breath and hope the old woman doesn't talk. I watch another bird fly to the chimney. The boyfriend turns the radio down. 'Your phone isn't working,' my mother says when she walks back to us. Then she giggles in her nervous little way that's nails on a blackboard to me. 'I need someone to take her for a while.' "
There are a bunch of memorable (and award-winning) stories that feature adolescent girls going to live with grandmothers or grandmother-types. Consider such pairings as Mary Alice and Grandma Dowdel, Dicey and Abigail Tillerman, Hollis Woods and Josie Cahill, and, in 2003, Ratchet Clark and those wacky twin nonagenarians Tilly and Penpen Menuto. Add TENDING TO GRACE to the cream of this intergenerational YA crop.
"I am a bookworm, a bibliophile, a passionate lover of books. I know metaphor and active voice and poetic meter, and I understand that the difference between the right word and the almost right word, as Samuel Clemens said, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
"But I don't talk, so no one knows. All they see are the days I miss school, thirty-five one year, twenty-seven the next, forty-two the year after that. I am a silent red flag, waving to them, and they send me to their counselors and they ask me, 'When are you going to talk about it, Cornelia?' I wrap myself into a ball and squish the feelings down to my toes and they don't know what to make of me so they send me back to this class where we get the watered-down TOM SAWYER with pages stripped of soul and sentences as straight and flat as a train track. "We read that the new boy in TOM SAWYER ran like a deer, while the kids in the honors class read he 'turned tail and ran like an antelope.'
"I know, because I read that book too."
Cornelia Thornhill refuses to speak. If she were willing to speak up she would undoubtedly be part of that honors English class. And while she has faced more than her share of tramatic experiences, her silence is due to a speech impediment--her severe stuttering. (Her schoolmates have long laughed at her expense about it.) As the story begins, she is in ninth grade. But she is forced to forgo the remainder of the school year when her mother and the boyfriend impulsively decide to hit the road and ditch her at her great-Aunt Agatha's while they head off to the greener pastures of Vegas. Agatha's grungy old farmhouse, unusual diet, other various idiosyncracies, and determination that Cornelia must learn to speak for herself provide a testing ground for Cornelia and her silence.
"I brace myself for advice, like everyone gives, especially my mother: Try harder, Corns, for goodness' sake. I know you could talk regular if you just pull yourself together. Just pick easier words.
"Or the fifth grade teacher, helpful as hail: Take a breath, Cornelia, slow down, relax, think about what you want to say before you say it. You just need more backbone, that's all.
"They make it sound so easy. Try harder, stutter less. But when I try harder, I stutter more. When I pick easier words, I stutter on easier words. And I can't pick an easier word when someone asks me my name."
Speaking of names, Agatha's naming her tipsy outhouse "Esther" and her truck "Bertha," brings back fond memories of that lovely Cynthia Rylant/Kathryn Brown picture book, THE OLD WOMAN WHO NAMED THINGS.
And like the old woman in that story, Agatha has a thing or two to learn herself.
Kimberly Newton Fusco's fine (as in china) use of language makes this book a pleasure to read and to read aloud. An engaging balance between fiddleheads, bullies, and longings for an imperfect and absent mother make TENDING TO GRACE an exceptional middle school read.