Form and Content
Judy Delton’s Kitty in the Middle, a short, easy-to-read book, is divided into eight titled chapters, each of which is illustrated with a black-and-white sketch by Charles Robinson. The novel features third-person narration, with omniscience limited to the title character, and an episodic structure that recounts the adventures of Kitty and her best friends, Eileen and Mary Margaret, at St. Anthony’s School in St. Paul, Minnesota, during 1942 and 1943. The novel, which centers on the childhood domains of classroom and neighborhood, highlights the fears, frustrations, and joys of fourth-grade life, while adult concerns occupy only a vague and distant reality.
Kitty, the only child of caring parents, inhabits a well-regulated home in which her father returns from work promptly at 5:30 p.m. to a dinner of breaded veal on Monday, pork chops on Wednesday, and tuna on Friday. Kitty’s chameleon-like personality is somewhere “in the middle” between Mary Margaret and Eileen, and she tends to take on the personality of whichever girl she is with. Mary Margaret, Kitty’s “safe” friend, is a member of a large, devout Catholic family of modest means. Studious, religious, honest, and well-liked, she always looks immaculate in her spotless homemade school uniform and perfectly arranged “sausage” curls. Eileen, on the other hand, is Kitty’s “dangerous” friend, a rather pampered only child, who longs to grow up, change her name to Dorothy, and travel the world. She knows her own mind and how to get what she wants, and she possesses the enviable ability to lie and smile simultaneously.
The novel opens, appropriately, with the first day of school, as Kitty’s apprehension about her new teacher, the formidable Sister Ursuline, is only somewhat offset by the excitement of wearing her fashionable new shoes. Kitty comes to realize, however, that Sister Ursuline is a mere mortal after all when a mischievous boy places the nun in an embarrassing predicament by stepping on her veil and refusing to lift his foot. Pride also takes a fall when the least-admired girl in class shows up wearing shoes identical to those that only a day before Kitty had judged so superior.
The traumas of the first day of school behind her, Kitty faces a series of crises only too familiar to most readers in grammar school. Valentine’s Day, always fraught with the potential for melodrama, marks the end of her first crush, when she discovers that the romantic valentine she receives from the object of her affection was given to every girl in class and that her “admirer” does not even know her name. Kitty faces another typical childhood fear by hiding in the bathroom to avoid the possibility of being called on in music class when she does not know the answer. Only after Mary Margaret advises her that giving one very wrong answer will prevent her from ever being called on again does she return to class.
After school, the girls occupy themselves making life-sized paper dolls from cardboard boxes, crashing a wedding at the local church (and even catching the bouquet), and pondering the identity of the occupant of the neighborhood’s “haunted house.” This continuous motif leads to the story’s climax, when the girls finally summon up the courage to approach the house (by devising a scheme to sell pencils for “charity”) and meet the occupant, Charlotte Neilson, a woman with a fascinating history and an attic full of wonderful old clothes. A former actress, she serves jasmine tea, encourages the girls to try on her old costumes, spins tales of her past, and offers the friends an enticing glimpse at life’s possibilities.