‘Leeva at Last’ by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Matthew Cordell is destined to be a classic

While “Leeva at Last,” written by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, is written with plenty of hyperbole and shows exaggerated cruelty worthy of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” at heart this is a beautiful, thoughtful story of standing up for truth and doing the right thing. It’s also a story about the importance of books and reading, and as celebrated children’s author Gary Paulsen shared about his childhood, how books and reading can literally save the life of an abused and neglected child, as it did for him.

When we first meet Leeva, she shares how people avoid walking past her house, and she is not allowed off the property. Poor Leeva not only doesn’t know her birthday, she’s not even really sure of how old she is—”somewhere between eight and nine”—and she has learned everything she knows about the world from a soap opera she watches on television called “The Winds of Our Tides.” Her neglectful parents couldn’t even be bothered to give her a name, but I’m not telling how she ended up “Leeva.” You have to read that delightful but heartbreaking scene.

When Leeva sees in the local paper–usually only filled with ads and a word of the day which she eagerly learns–that a new school is opening, Leeva is thrilled. Her parents had told her that schools only existed in soap operas and that “real towns didn’t have them.” After a heartbreaking scene when she learns that her parents had been lying to her, Leeva is determined to explore the outside world to find the answer to a question that her father threw in her face after she said she wanted to be with other people. For her mother, people exist in order to make her famous. (She is the mayor of their town of Nutsmore.) For her father, people exist in order to supply him with money. (He is the accountant for Nutsmore.)

So disobeying the Employee Manual they had created for Leeva, filled with horrible rules and restrictions, she ventures out to the building next door, which happens to be a library. We know Leeva is brilliant because not only has she taught herself to read from magazines and the newspaper, she also has gained a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics and is able to complete complex calculations in her head.

But what made me know that this is a book I would love is the way Pennypacker talks about reading. She demonstrates that she understands the feeling one gets (be it a librarian or, in my case, a teacher) when a child gets the right book that will maybe, hopefully, turn that child into a reader, a lover of books. In that library next to Leeva’s house lives and works a librarian whose mission in life, whose joy, is to match up books with readers. “Handing exactly the right book to the right person at the right time and saying, ‘This one.'”

Yes, Pennypacker understands books and those who love them. In another clever nod to what we all pretend not to believe, Pennypacker writes, “…she chose the one with the most exciting cover—you can tell a lot about a book by its cover…”

Every day, Aunt Pauline, the librarian, picks out ten books for Leeva which she reads and returns the next day. In the book, we learn about some of Leeva’s favorites, including Because of Winn Dixie, about which Pennypacker writes: “Reader, that last one also shows the incredible, courageous, somber, hilarious, steadfast value of dogs, and after she read it, Leeva resolved to read seventy books about that someday.”

When Leeva’s father disparages books by sneering that “They are just printed words on paper,” Leeva shows what she has come to understand about books. She now knows “that as you read a book, those words became real people, doing real things. By the end of a book, those words left you weeping or cheering or vowing to change your life. Words had true power…”

What I loved about reading this book that is so masterfully written is how Pennypacker created such a brilliant but shortsighted narrator. While the narration is not first person, it’s all from Leeva’s point of view. The acting librarian, Harry, who is Aunt Pauline’s nephew, is helping out because his aunt can’t climb the three flights of stairs in the library due to her injured knees and lack of health insurance. In fact, the library is falling apart, and the town doesn’t seem to have any money to fix it. But Harry is clever, and he’s determined to help Leeva.

There are others in Nutsmore who are also hurting; children Leeva’s age who for one reason or another aren’t happy. And Harry manages to get them to meet, and when they tell Leeva that they are confused because Harry told them he was sending a treasure their way, we know that the treasure is Leeva. It’s a case of the reader understanding more than the (semi)-narrator, even though Leeva isn’t technically the narrator.

What Pennypacker has created is a novel that is at times heartbreaking, humorous, sweet, touching, and enthralling. We love Leeva almost from the first page, and we are rooting for her to overcome the neglect and abuse of her horrible parents and come into her own. What reader can resist a grumpy badger? A germaphobe whose world is turned upside down after meeting Leeva? Even a whole town whose assets have been systematically stolen?

This would be a wonderful read aloud as in the hands of a capable adult, there is a plethora of ideas and thoughts to discuss and delve into deeply. And I’d be remiss not to mention the clever illustrations by the talented Matthew Cordell. From the chapter numbers to occasional illustrations on the pages of the book, he captures the emotions and the personalities of the characters, even including Bob, the cantankerous badger. And the cover, which (don’t forget) says a lot about a book, effectively illustrates the main characters and Leeva out front with Bob at her side.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Balzer + Bray, the publishers, for review purposes.