Carolina Collins is the youngest of the four Collins children, or “them loud-mouthed Collins gals” as the locals sometimes say. Fourteen year old Kentucky is the popular one. Twelve year old Virginia is the pretty one. Eleven year old Georgia is the smart one. But ten year old Carolina? She says she’s nobody at all. Sometimes with all the praising and bragging on her sisters, it can be hard to have many compliments left over.
Whatever they do, they do it loud, and readers understand right from the start. The girls and their mother, Serilda, are off to get permanent waves in their hair – one $ each Sat morn come early – and despite the five dollars already spent on their perms, the girls persuade Mom to go see Rebel Without a Cause. When they return home, favorite cousin Tadpole is on the porch with his guitar singing with some neighbors, waiting.
“Well here we are!” he exclaims. Tadpole (now simply Tad since he’s getting older), who has bounced around between family members after his parents died, has come for a visit. At thirteen he’s been adopted by his Uncle Matthew and Aunt Lucy Birch. Serilda believes it’s simply because he’s now old enough to work. Turns out she’s right, and soon more truth is revealed. Uncle Matthew beats Tad when the boy doesn’t meet his standards. Which is often.
Tad’s not just there for a visit. He’s there to escape.
But while he’s visiting, everyone is going to enjoy it. Tad acts in ways foreign to those Collins gals. He weeds the garden and picks vegetables without being asked. Then he cans them! Without Mama! He organizes a Fourth of July picnic for everyone. He gets small jobs in Polly’s Fork to help with the bills. He also sings and gets Carolina to sing with him. She can hear the layers in music – harmony, he explains – and tries her best to join him.
But the good times don’t last forever. After writing letters to family members asking them to help (none come forward) and a couple close calls when Uncle Matthew showed up at the house, Tad can’t hide anymore. Uncle Matthew Birch takes him back.
But will Tad stay? Will he return for his guitar which he left in Carolina’s care? Will Uncle Matthew change? After all, Tad’s influence on the Collins family lasts long after he leaves. Can he affect Uncle Matthew?
Normally, I don’t recommend books featuring abused children, but for some reason, this one is different. Maybe it’s all the colorful characters. Maybe it’s just Tad, a boy mature for his age, full of hope and spirit and determination. Maybe it’s the opportunity to introduce bluegrass music and Bill Monroe to 21st Century kids or Ruth White's ability to write in a distinctly Appalachian dialect. Whatever it is, it works. Tadpole has never failed as read aloud in my class, and it was voted a mock-Newbery Honor book at our school in 2004.