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Set in a folksy South Carolina town in 1968, this heartrending and funny debut novel deftly evokes place, time and character. Karlene, a gutsy eighth-grader determined to win the Shirley County Spelldown, narrates in a charming voice that exudes her love of words. Mrs. Harrison, her new Latin teacher, brings the dead language alive, for Karlene and for readers. The woman volunteers to be her spelling coach and warmly welcomes Karlene into her heart and her home. As the teen spends time in their seemingly perfect household, babysitting for the two Harrison children, Karlene envisions her teacher and loving husband as her "pretend parents." Theirs is a different world from Karlene's: her father's soul has become "trapped in a liquor bottle" and her increasingly dispirited mother labors long days at the mill. In one especially moving scene, the girl hauls a Christmas tree through the woods to her younger twin brothers waiting at home, musing, "the way it looks around here, it's up to me to make the holiday happen." Readers will revel in the heroine's much heralded public victories, yet her private triumphs—among them a longed-for first kiss from a kind older boy and her reunion with her father at a treatment center—are even more moving and memorable. Peppering her narrative with copious references to '60s songs (Karlene observes that a sad teacher "probably keeps her face in a jar by the door like Eleanor Rigby"), Luddy has composed a resonant, applause-worthy work of fiction. Ages 10-up. (Jan.)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.