Darleen Bailey Beard, . . FSG, $16 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-374-30475-1

In 1924, in Babbs Switch, Okla., 36 people died when fire broke out at a Christmas party in the town's one-room schoolhouse. As a note makes clear, the event inspired Beard's (The Flimflam Man) novel, but the incendiary relationships—not the fire—fuel it. Twelve-year-old Ruthie Tillman tires of the idiosyncrasies of her older sister, Daphne, who is "not right in the head" (she seems mentally retarded) and whose "uncontrollable passion for soft things" has resulted in her unintentionally suffocating the family's kittens. When Daphne comes close to killing the Larrses' baby, Elizabeth, Ruthie and her parents are appalled and worried, and Ruthie is kept from performing in the Christmas Tree Celebration. But at that fateful party, Daphne escapes with Elizabeth, saving the life she nearly extinguished. Colorful, period-flavored dialogue keeps this tale moving at a fast clip as it explores the complexities of friendship, family dynamics and the awkward but exhilarating steps toward first love. "I'd rather kiss the south end of a northbound mule!" Ruthie tells pesky Elden Larrs, yet by book's end, Elden's kiss makes her "spine tingle like a hedgehog." Beard makes plentiful references to the '20s (George Gershwin, Bessie Smith, scandalously bobbed flappers); at the same time, her evocation of the jumbled feelings of adolescence—both loving and hating a sister (or a pesky boy)—are timeless. Ages 10-up. (Apr.)