As the apprentice dreamgiver Littlest learns her trade, she finds creative solutions to help protect an old woman and her new foster child John from a horde of nightmare-giving creatures. Littlest sleeps in the Heap by day and ventures out at night, like the other dreamgivers, to collect happy fragments from the objects of the humans in the household she cares for and bestow dreams. Early on, Fastidious acted as her trainer, but when Fastidious has difficulty dealing with her, Thin Elderly takes over. With Thin Elderly, Littlest moves on from collecting fragments to using them to bestow dreams. It is an important but delicate task, as they must not wake the dreamer or be discovered themselves.
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In their assigned house lives a retired lady and her dog. The old lady is lonely and will soon have a foster child come to stay with her an 8-year-old boy named John. The reader (and the old lady) slowly learn that John and his mother were abused by his father. His father is now gone, off to California, and his mother, who is secretly cared for by another dreamgiver, is turning her act around. She begins smoking less, and stops smoking indoors. She finds a job in the front office of the school where John will go to school that fall, and she begins to develop good relationships with her coworkers. This gives her confidence; she has not had friends, a job, or much external contact with the world while John's father was around. She keeps a picture of John by her desk.
John himself has been to several foster homes and sent away again. He is accustomed to making himself tough. He shouldn't cry, and believes that threats, especially threats of violence or cruelty, will make him look stronger. He no longer believes in kindness from those in control, and primarily seeks to protect himself emotionally from the world's external onslaught. Slowly, through the old lady's patient but firm demeanor, and through interaction with her dog, the boy begins to relax and trust again.
At night, Littlest and Thin Elderly strengthen the two of them with dreams collected from photographs, a seashell, an afghan, clothes whatever they can have that might hold pleasant memories. When they hear of the coming of beings that inflict nightmares Sinisteeds they are afraid for both, but can only continue to strengthen them. Littlest witnesses the effects of one Sinisteed several times when a Sinisteed comes to inflict nightmares upon John. The old lady comes to comfort him each time. Understanding his fragility and the danger he faces should the Sinisteeds come together (as they often do), Littlest, with her gossamer touch, collects fragments for him from the dog. This is permitted by Thin Elderly under the circumstances even though it is normally forbidden to collect fragments from animals, due to the danger to themselves.
The greatest danger comes, however, when the horde of Sinisteeds come together, sensing John's fragility. Littlest and Thin Elderly know that night that they will come. Thin elderly collects fragments for the old lady's dream, and Littlest, for the little boy. It is the longest, most complicated dream she has ever bestowed, and it takes a long time and tires her out. She finishes as the horde comes, and has only the strength to drop under the bed into hiding as they arrive. She goes to meet Thin Elderly in the attic, their agreed-upon meeting place, after the Sinisteeds leave, and Thin Elderly is relieved to see her safe and well.
Thanks to their efforts, John and the old lady make it through the night with enough strength to resist the Sinisteeds' efforts. John begins school and can see his mother every day at the front desk until she is ready for him to come home. Thin Elderly and Littlest return home, and Littlest notices she is growing up. She will soon be assigned her own house to care for. Back in the Heap, Most Elderly (their leader) shows her a new younger compatriot New Littlest. Littlest herself receives a new name in keeping with her light touch and great promise she is Gossamer.
Best part of story, including ending:
Lowry seeks to provide the audience with a positive message, and to stress the importance and power of positive qualities such as patience, love, and kindness over negative qualities of abuse. She also does so in a creative way, with Thin Elderly and Littlest looking out for John and his foster grandmother, unknown to them, almost like guardian angels with very specific, limited powers.
Best scene in story:
As she is going home before receiving her new name, Littlest and Thin Elderly talk about her growing up. Littlest realizes she may soon be assigned another house. In spite of the opportunities and growth for herself, Littlest is sad at the prospect of leaving the boy and the old woman. Thin Elderly acknowledges that this is often the case: "Change means leaving things behind, and that's always sad." Littlest already began to realize at the old lady's house that it is good to have a little bit of sadness mixed in with the happiness of the dreams sometimes, so perhaps she has started to realize that good things are appreciated all the more if you miss them when they're gone - but that people must move on anyway.
Opinion about the main character:
Littlest cares about her work, is diligent, and is good at it. She is able to find ways and has the courage to act on them where other dreamgivers perhaps would not or could not have done the same.