Charismatic cousin Tadpole

Serilda Collins is the type of mother who traipses her four daughters into town for $1 perms - the only kind she can afford - then treats them all to "Rebel Without a Cause," even though it means she doesn't know where money for the next electric bill will come from. She's a mother raising her gaggle of girls alone in 1950s rural Kentucky.

Carolina Collins's father split when she was just 2, after naming each of his garrulous daughters for a Southern state: There's Kentucky, the popular one; Virginia, the pretty one; Georgia, the smart one; and little Carolina, the narrator, who hasn't quite yet figured out which one she is. When asked why she and her husband never moved north, Serilda quips, "I didn't want a child named Pennsylvania!"

The Collins sisters return home with pungent perms one day to find their favorite cousin Tadpole - affectionately named for the amphibious larva he once swallowed live - strumming a guitar and singing on their porch.

With his music and contagious charisma, Tadpole recognizes Carolina's performing potential and encourages her to define her place in the family.

He also brings out the spunk in his mild-mannered Aunt Serilda. When an abusive guardian comes bellowing for Tadpole to return to his farm, Serilda staunchly defends her young nephew.

Sprinkled with lyrics from such songs as "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and verse from poems like "The Highwayman," "Tadpole" treads gently and expertly around its delicate cast of characters: a single mother, daughters missing their father, and a mistreated orphan.

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