A few years ago, a writer friend pushed a little book my way. "You must read this," she said. I read it. I loved it. Since then, I've devoured every one of Barbara O'Connor's novels and have never been disappointed.
She writes books kids love to read, often laugh-out-loud funny, with oddly intriguing characters. Stories that on the surface seem simple but always offer a kernel of truth, mini-lessons for life.
On the Road to Mr. Mineo's is just this kind of novel for young readers, ages 9-12.
In this newest book, it's summer in Meadville, South Carolina, and for Stella and her friend Gerald, the "lazy days of summer stretch out before them like the highway out by the Waffle House." Unless you count the old men playing checkers outside the Chinese takeout or the kids sitting on the flat roof surveying the world from their lawn chairs, nothing much happens in this sleepy Southern town.
Of course, that's about to change. A one-legged homing pigeon has flown Mr. Mineo's coop. Sherman, beautifully pictured on the cover of this delightful book, is missing. But at least two of the kids in Meadville not only have seen him, they've concocted schemes to capture him. Curly-haired Stella once wanted a dog, but now that she's spied Sherman, she thinks a pigeon will do just fine. Mean-spirited Mutt Raynard wants to prove he's not a liar. Which of course, he is. A liar and a bully.
As it turns out, pigeons do make pretty good pets, at least in a story by Barbara O'Connor. Sherman hangs out on the roof in a chalk village drawn by Stella and Gerald. He taps his foot to a singing of "Home on the Range." He gives pigeon kisses!
Meanwhile, back on his farm on the outskirts of Meadville, Mr. Mineo misses his homing pigeon. The other pigeons are unsettled. To add to the excitement, there's a stray dog on the loose and Mutt intensifies his efforts to thwart Stella's attempts to make Sherman her pet.
If you think an entire novel about trapping an escaped homing pigeon can't possibly work, you don't know Barbara O'Connor's writing. Then again, this one's about a lot more than pigeons.
In "On the Road to Mr. Mineo's," eight characters narrate the action in short, carefully connected chapters and very distinctive voices. It's a complicated story wound tightly around a simple idea: If you stick to something you really want, whether it's a good friend or a one-legged pigeon, and if you do the right thing, eventually you will reach your goal. Now that's something we all can try to teach our children.
O'Connor's newest novel is like spending a sunny afternoon looking at the world from a rooftop with a friend. It's a special trip down dusty roads that lead to an unexpected adventure. It's standing up to the bullies even when your mom hasn't got your back.
Read it aloud to a classroom. Share the book at bedtime with a special child. Wrap it for the holidays. This one's a keeper.
Augusta Scattergood, author of "Glory Be," reviews children’s books for the Monitor.