My seven year old daughter and I recently finished this modern American classic children’s book. Not having grown up here, I was completely unaware of the plot, and my biggest worry was that the dog would die, since I cried too much whilst reading Charlotte’s Web with her before. It is very hard to finish a book with tears streaming down your face.

 

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo is a charming story and most deserving of its Newbery Honor. We meet the young India Opal, new to Naomi, Florida as she runs errands for her calm and loving father, the Preacher. Immediately, chaos ensues with a dog loose in the store. Named after the supermarket in which he was found, this big, ugly dog, as many of you know, becomes Winn-Dixie, Opal’s new best friend, and the center of a story with true heart.

 

Opal talks the Preacher into letting her keep the dog, and she takes a job at Gertrude’s Pets to pay for his upkeep. At the pet store, Opal meets Otis, a shy and retiring man who she later, deliberately or otherwise, helps fight his past demons. Opal's trait of helping the grown ups in her life navigate their issues is endearing and speaks of a wisdom beyond her years.

 

Opal has some past hurt of her own, too. Her mother abandoned her and the Preacher, leaving Opal in a one-parent family. The Preacher seems almost stand-offish, not letting his emotions guide him or his parenting. His love, however, is always evident. There is a beautiful scene toward the end of the book where his true feelings, unweighted by by the shackles of practicality, are finally unleashed to Opal as she and the Preacher look for Winn-Dixie, who has gone missing during a thunderstorm, as he is wont to do.


“You always give up!” I (Opal) shouted “You’re always pulling your head inside your stupid turtle shell. I bet you didn’t even go out looking for my mama when she left. I bet you just let her run off, too”.
The Preacher was crying. His shoulders were moving up and down. And he was making snuffly noises.
“We’ll keep looking, the two of us will keep looking for him. But do you know what? I just realized something, India Opal. When I told you your mama took everything with her, I forgot one thing, one very important thing that she left behind.”
“What?” I (Opal) asked
“You,” he said. “Thank God your mama left me you” And he hugged me tighter.

 

Opal makes many poignant friendships as she gets acclimated to life in Naomi. One of the most touching is that between her and Gloria Dump, an eccentric neighborhood lady who some of the kids say is a witch. Winn-Dixie races away from Opal one day and she is faced with having to go into Gloria’s overgrown, jungle like yard to find him. Unafraid, Opal enters the garden and finds her dog eating right out of Gloria’s hand. Gloria becomes Opal’s tender hearted confidante, listening to her fears for her absent mother, and the two plant a wait-and-see tree, genus unknown. The wait-and-see tree can be viewed as symbolic of Opal’s own growth as a girl throughout the story. Gloria Dump has her own tree too, the Mistake Tree filled with glass bottles hanging and tinkling in the wind. The bottles remind Gloria, an alcoholic, not to drink again and the percussion of the Mistake Tree keeps away the “ghosts of all the things I done wrong”. This is beautiful symbolism that may escape your child, but that is part of the charm of this book, that you and your little one can enjoy it on very different levels and both feel satisfied.

 

There is so much more I would love to expound upon, I want to talk about Littmus Lozenges, and Opal’s friendship with Miss Franny Block, Naomi’s librarian, and I possibly will another day, but the takeaway is that Because of Winn-Dixie is a brilliantly crafted little book with a huge spirit. It is perfect to read with kids around seven years old, and the same age could enjoy it independently.

 

Oh, and I did cry. I cried at Chapter 26 when Opal heads to Gloria Dump’s Mistake Tree to say goodbye to her own fears and sadness.
“my heart doesn’t feel empty anymore. It’s full all the way up. I’ll still think about you, I promise. But probably not as much as I did this summer.”

 

Call me sentimental. 

 

Alison Donnelly

Children's Librarian

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