If anyone ever tells you that middle-grade books don't tackle the difficult, literary topics, you can just send them a copy of Belle Prater's Boy to shut them right up. The Newbery Award winning book by Ruth White touches on some pretty tough subjects, especially considering the fact that the main characters are just kids.
Woodrow and Gypsy are two kids trying to navigate the treacherous time between childhood and adulthood, but they also have to deal with a lot of family drama. Woodrow is trying to cope with his mother's sudden disappearance, while Gypsy has demons from the past—and memories of her father's suicide—that she wants to forget.
Published in 1996, Belle Prater's Boy explores the idea that things are not always as they seem. For example, when Woodrow shows up in Coal Station, he says that he doesn't know how anyone could ever get hurt in a place like this—it's just way too beautiful and idyllic. But he doesn't know that people in his very own family have been horribly hurt in this pretty place. His mother was emotionally torn apart when her boyfriend left her for Love, her gorgeous sister. And Gypsy has had to live with the pain of her father's suicide since she was a little girl. That's some pretty rough stuff.
And the same lesson applies to people. The book comments on how people judge each other based on appearances instead of character. So everyone thinks that Gypsy is just a pretty girl and that's all there is to her—but they don't realize she has her own hopes and dreams independent of being good-looking. And Woodrow is also judged by his looks. People think he's backwards or stupid, but the truth is that he's really clever and good-hearted.
In the end, Belle Prater's Boy is all about making sure that you get to know people and the world around you without prejudice. It's much easier to see the truth that way. In other words, don't judge a book by its cover. Not even this one.
If you've ever woken up with a giant zit on the tip of your nose on school picture day, then your mom's probably told you that appearances aren't everything. And you've probably begged to differ.
Thing is, your mom is right. And the main premise of Belle Prater's Boy is that appearances aren't everything—which is something we can all stand to be reminded of every once in a while. In today's image-centric world, where everyone is constantly posting selfies to Instagram or Snapchat, it's hard not to worry about the way you look. And the characters in Belle Prater's Boy face the same struggles, even though they're living in Virginia in the 1950s, a.k.a. the (gasp) pre-Internet era.
Woodrow is self-conscious about his crossed eyes, while Gypsy has the opposite problem—she worries that everyone only likes her because of her physical appearance and that they don't care to get to know her beyond her pretty exterior. Appearances even form a rift between beloved family members in this book. Belle and Love have a messed up relationship, even though they love each other, because Belle is plain and Love is naturally gorgeous.
But it's clear that physical beauty only gets you so far, and that it can't protect you from unhappiness or tragedy. In fact, Gypsy's good-looking family has suffered more than its fair share of heartbreak.
Belle Prater's Boy may be set in a different era, but its message is as relevant as ever today. The way you look ultimately doesn't matter; it's not going to make your life better or keep you from experiencing bad things. What really matters is who you are as a person and how you take control of your own destiny. That's how you find real meaning and happiness in your life—not by having perfect yearbook pictures.
From the Publisher
You can read all about Ruth White and her many books for kids at her publisher's website. It looks like she has a particular fondness for writing books set in her home state of Virginia.
Get Your Own
Pick up your own copy of Belle Prater's Boy, and while you're at it, you can pick up the next book and learn what happens to Gypsy, Woodrow, and of course… Aunt Belle.
City Mouse and Country Mouse
In an interview before Belle Prater's Boy came out, Ruth White likened the relationship between Gypsy and Woodrow in the book as "the city mouse and the country mouse." How cute is that?
A Mind of Its Own
According to Ruth White, she started out writing Belle Prater's Boy as a comedy. Obviously it went in an entirely different direction…
Watch All About It
Want to get a rough overview of Belle Prater's Boy before you hunker down and read it? Check out this book trailer.
If you have an extra three hours on your hands, you can listen to Belle Prater's Boy as an audiobook.
Meet the Author
Doesn't Ruth White look like she could be Woodrow and Gypsy's sweet Granny?
Boy Meets Girl
The original cover for Belle Prater's Boy is pretty dramatic, and gives you a sense of what Gypsy and Woodrow would look like. Look at all that hair.
Sitting in a Tree
Gypsy and Woodrow's tree house perch looks quite precarious in an updated cover for Belle Prater's Boy.
Hint of What's to Come
If the cover of The Search for Belle Prater is any indication, it looks like Gypsy and Woodrow will definitely be going into the woods to find his mother… perhaps in a cabin?