I like Kimberly Willis Holt as an author. I think most things she has written, even if I am not a huge fan, I will enjoy. Yet, I really went at Dear Hank Williams with no expectations. Granted, my first thought was “How many kids are going to know who Hank Williams is?” But soon realized that is not the important part.
This book might be set in the late 1940’s but in many ways, it could be set almost anytime. There is some history (mention of World War II and how the soldiers played a part in the narrator’s life) and current events (the fact the teacher wants the kids to pick pen pals from Japan and one kid does not want to “write to the enemy” and threatens the other students with “you’re a commie if you do”). And of course, musical history. But the main part of the book is a sweet story about a family that grows and must try and deal with life and death.
It is 1948 in Rippling Creek, Louisiana, and Tate P. Ellerbee is a young girl with a big heart, big imagination and has some big issues. Even though she was going to write to him anyways, she picks up-and-coming-radio-performer Hank Williams to be her pen pal. Set in letter format, Tate tells Mr. Williams (and the reader) about her family, friends and school life. The adult reader might notice where a few whoppers are being told, but the reader it is aimed at ages (strong) 8 to 10 (or even low 11-12) years-old, will learn about things as they are told in the letters. And there is one twist at the end that might not be seen coming.
The story has some mature themes, but they are not done in any way that is not sympathetic or easily accessible to all ages. I am sure most have seen worse in a Disney movie or one of today’s cartoons. It would also make an interesting read-aloud as you could discuss some of the topics (non-traditional families, race, prison and death) with your child. It might be a more difficult group read. This book I recommend to adults as well as kids.