Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

Just Under the Clouds

Melissa Sarno, Author

Knopf Books for Young Readers, Jun. 5, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-11

Pages: 225

Themes: Siblings, Family relationships, Loss, Homelessness, Shelter life, Belonging, Difference, Nature

Book Synopsis:

Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, but they are evicted from their home. Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she’s been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

Why I like this book:

I am always searching for books on homelessness.  And Melissa Sarno’s, Just Under the Clouds, offers readers a different perspective of how we view the homeless in a raw, heartbreaking, touching and hopeful way. Not all homeless people live on the streets. It’s a reminder that anyone can unexpectedly find themselves in a similar situation. When Cora’s father dies, her family is eventually evicted from their home.

The story is more character-driven than it is about the plot. Yes, the family moves from run-down apartments to homeless shelters where their safety is always an issue. But this beautiful lyrical story focuses a variety of relationships between family, friends and school. Cora is courageous and resilient and shoulders the responsibility of her sister, Adare, who is born special — her brain is deprived of oxygen at birth. Adare is my favorite character, because she has a unique perception of the world. She has a soft-song voice, says hello to everyone, stares endlessly at the sky, spins in the rain and befriends cats and crows.

Cora’s relationship with a quirky friend, Sabina, offers a happy balance to the story. Cora’s mother is an artist, who has to give up her talent to take low-paying jobs to support the family. When her mother’s childhood friend, Willa, invites them into her classy apartment, Cora is hopeful she can finally stay in one place. But how long will her mother accept Willa’s help?

The one constant in Cora’s life is her father’s “tree journal,” which he left her. He loved to map out trees in their community. Cora picks up where he has left off and it helps her feel close to her dad. She maps the trees around her, draws pictures and records seasonal information. There is a lot of symbolism for Cora ash she searches for her own “roots.”

Just Under the Clouds has a heartwarming message about understanding the struggle of others. It is a story that will create empathy among readers. It should be required reading for youth because the face of homelessness is changing.

Melissa Sarno is a freelance writer and editor with and MFA in screenwriting. She lives in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York with her family. Visit her at her website and follow her on Twitter at @melissasarno.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Copy: Library

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Harbor Me

Jacqueline Woodson, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction, Aug. 28, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10 -12

Themes: School, Friendship, Diversity, Open-minded dialogue, Deportation, Racism, Loss, Empathy, Courage

Synopsis: It all starts when six kids are sent to a room for a weekly chat – by themselves, with no adults to listen in. At first they fear this new unfamiliar and wonder what on earth they’ll even talk about. But in the place they dub the ARTT (“A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to discuss stuff they usually keep private.

A father has recently gone missing, and that starts a conversation about the things causing angst their lives, from racial profiling and fears of deportation to a deep yearning for family history and a sense of belonging. When the six of them are together, they find they can express the feelings and fears they usually hide from the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.

With her always honest, lyrical writing, acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson celebrates the power of friendship, open-minded dialogue and empathy. Harbor Me digs in deep to show how so many of America’s social issues affect today’s kids — and they creatively learn to forge their way in spite of them.

Why I like this book:

Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me is a powerful and timely book that is soulful and moving. Her first-person narrative is intimate and perfect for this poetic story. The setting, the characters, the plot and the imagery are brilliantly intertwined to create an exceptional experience for readers. They will feel the awkward silence of being in an unfamiliar place with six diverse students with only one rule — to treat each other with respect. Otherwise, they can talk about anything.

Woodson’s focus on 5th and 6th graders is perfect, because it is such a transitional time in the lives of kids. They want to be cool, but still have an urge to play with Nerf water guns and American Girl dolls. The boys voices haven’t deepened. There are no boyfriend/girlfriend relationships. They are six students who develop a lasting bond because they are able to share their secrets, feelings and fears in an honest way. They become best friends.

The characters, two girls and four boys, are memorable. Their backgrounds differ, but each one has a story to share in a place with a group of friends where they feel safe and supported. Twelve-year-old Haley narrates. She is bi-racial and longs for a real family life. Her mother was killed in a car accident, her father is in prison and her uncle cares for her. Her best friend Holly is fidgety and has trouble censoring herself. Esteban’s father is an undocumented immigrant who is taken from his job. Esteban is desperate to find out news of his father’s whereabouts and what it means for his family. Ashton is the only Caucasian in the group and is bullied by older students who call him Ghostboy and Paleface. Amari hides behind his artwork, but shares his feelings about racial profiling. Tiago is from Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish and English. His puppy dies and he struggles with feeling at home in America.

This is a celebratory book of the human spirit for six young people coming of age. The plot is distinctly realistic, honest, brave and complicated. It tackles relevant topics young people deal with daily. During their Friday group discussions, they learn to be vulnerable, build trust, listen without judgement and be sensitive each others challenges — a recipe that allows kindness, empathy and freedom to blossom. I highly recommend this novel. It belongs in school libraries as it is an important classroom discussion book.

Jacqueline Woodson is the 2018-19 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. She received the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the 2018 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. Her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming won the 2014 National Book Award and was a NY Times Bestseller. Her adult novel, Another Brooklyn, was a National Book Award finalist and an Indie Pick in 2016. Jacqueline is the author of nearly thirty books for young people and adults including Each Kindness, If You Come Softly, Locomotion and I Hadn’t Meant To Tell You This.  She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.

Greg Pattridge hosts the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Book: Library copy.

The Sky at Our Feet by Nadia Hashimi

The Sky at Our Feet

Nadia Hashimi, Author

Harper Collins, Fiction, Mar. 6, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 291

Themes: American-Afghani boy, Undocumented immigrant parent, Family Relationships, Runaways, Epilepsy, Courage, Friendship

Book Jacket Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Jason has just learned that his Afghan mother has been living illegally in the United States since his father was killed in Afghanistan. Although Jason was born in the US, it’s hard to feel American now when he’s terrified that his mother will be discovered—and that they will be separated.

When he sees his mother being escorted from her workplace by two officers, Jason feels completely alone. He boards a train with the hope of finding his aunt in New York City, but as soon as he arrives in Penn Station, the bustling city makes him wonder if he’s overestimated what he can do.

After an accident lands him in the hospital, Jason finds an unlikely ally in a fellow patient. Max, a whip-smart girl who wants nothing more than to explore the world on her own terms, joins Jason in planning a daring escape out of the hospital and into the skyscraper jungle—even though they both know that no matter how big New York City is, they won’t be able to run forever.

Why I like this book:

Nadia Hashimi has skillfully penned a moving and sensitive tale about two brave teens on the run in New York City (NYC) when difficult circumstances uproot their lives. Their amusing adventure through the Big Apple showcases the city’s character with its subways, NYC Marathon, Central Park Zoo, food trucks, and police officers on horses.

The characters are authentic and believable. Jason’s strong narrative highlights/underscores the dilemma for children of undocumented immigrant families. He witnesses his mother being arrested by police at work because she didn’t renew her visa and is an illegal immigrant. What will happen to him? He sneaks into their apartment, packs his backpack, and embarks on a journey to find his Auntie Seema in NYC.

Jason blacks out in the train station and wakes up in a hospital with a head injury. There he meets Max, a girl who is smart and artful in helping Jason dodge a police officer’s questioning. She’s trapped like an inmate in her hospital prison and longs to experience a big adventure before she undergoes a major surgery. Together they plot an epic hospital escape and navigate the streets evading police officers.

The author sets aside the political aspects involved in deportation of decent immigrant parents and their American children. Instead she focuses on the emotional and physical impact on a teen like Jason. His fear that his mother may be sent back to Afghanistan forever, is daunting. How is a Muslim boy in America supposed to cope with something so big? His mother hasn’t created a plan for Jason if she’s arrested. He’s left to his own resources to find Auntie Seema.

The plot is original and courageous with moments of humor, action, danger, and suspense that will keep readers quickly turning pages. When Max has a seizure along the way, Jason is challenged to find the way on his own. This is an engaging read about current and thought-provoking issues. It is also heartwarming and hopeful and a good choice for classroom discussions.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Book: Library copy.

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suárez Changes Gears

Meg Medina, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Sept. 4 2018

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Pages: 346

Themes: Cuban-American, Bullying, Aging grandparents, Alzheimer, Friendship

Synopsis:

Eleven-year-old Mercedes (Merci) Suárez knew that sixth grade would be different, but she has no idea just how different. Merci has never felt like she fits in with the other kids at her private Florida school because she and her brother, Roli, are scholarship students. They don’t live in a big house, and they have to do community service to make up for their tuition. Roli adjusts because he loves science and is a stellar student. When Merci is assigned to be a Sunshine Buddy with the new boy at school, bossy Edna Santos is jealous.

Things aren’t going well at home, either. Merci’s grandfather, Lolo, has acted differently lately. He forgets his glasses, falls off his bike, tries to pick up the wrong twin grandsons at school, wanders off and gets angry over nothing. No one in her family will tell Merci what’s going on, so she’s left to her own worries, while also feeling all on her own at school. In a coming-of-age tale full of humor and wisdom, award-winning author Meg Medina gets to the heart of the confusion and constant change that defines middle school — and the steadfast connection that defines family.

Why I like this book:

Meg Medina skillfully writes a heartwarming and engaging novel that tackles several big topics. There is a mean, rich-girl bully theme at school, due to the differences in social status and culture. While the rich kids show up in expensive SUVs, Merci arrives in the old truck Papi drives for his painting business. Instead of expensive vacations, Merci is stuck watching her twin cousins. And there is her grandfather’s Alzheimer diagnosis, which her parents shield Merci from until the end of the novel. Her concerns for Lolo turn into anger when she discovers that she is being lied to and treated like a child. After all, the Suárez family prides itself in being truthful.

This richly textured Latino story is peppered with Spanish expressions from her Cuban-American family. Medina uses humor in this true-to-life story that is topsy-turvy and filled with heart. The Suárez family is a large multigenerational family that live in a group of three pink houses where all family members come and go, regardless of who lives where. The three identical houses are affectionately called Las Casitas. Needless to say there is a lot of chaos. The Suárez family is a close-knit family that work, cook and eat together, share childcare, and support each other, even if money is tight.

The characters are memorable. Medina uses authentic voices to create a story about a tween girl who has worries, frustrations and angst about her looks. Merci is a strong-willed, but it  takes her a long time to realize that she is genuinely liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. This is a winning and completely satisfying coming-of-age story.

Meg Medina is the author of the YA novels Burn Baby Burn; Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, for which she won the Pura Belpre Author Award; and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. She lives in Richmond Virginia. Visit Meg Medina at her website.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by publisher.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground

T.R. Simon, Author

Candlewick Press , Fiction, Sep. 11, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Zora Neale Hurston, Jim Crow south, Slavery, African-Americans, Community, Friendship

Synopsis:

A powerful fictionalized account of Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood adventures explores the idea of collective memory and the lingering effects of slavery and the Jim Crow south.

“History ain’t in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives.”

When Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie Brown, discover that the town mute can speak after all, they think they’ve uncovered a big secret. But Mr. Polk’s silence is just one piece of a larger puzzle that stretches back half a century to the tragic story of an enslaved girl named Lucia. As Zora’s curiosity leads a reluctant Carrie deeper into the mystery, the story unfolds through alternating narratives. Lucia’s struggle for freedom resonates through the years, threatening the future of America’s first incorporated black township — the hometown of author Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960). In a riveting coming-of-age tale, award-winning author T. R. Simon champions the strength of people to stand up for justice.

Why I like this book:

T.R. Simon skillfully captures the spirit of famous writer Zora Neale Hurston in this gripping and haunting story of her fictionalized childhood. In alternating chapters, he addresses the harsh realities of race in Jim Crow’s south in 1903, and slavery in 1855. Both Zora and Lucia’s stories are masterfully woven together until they culminate into one profound story. The narrative is rich and poetic and the dialogue is suspenseful and humorous. The plot is gripping and dangerous. The book cover is stunning!

The story is set in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all black township in the United States. The historical facts about the town, with the only black mayor, is fascinating. It is out in the middle of nowhere. The black community lives peacefully together for many years enjoying their freedom, until trouble comes calling from some white men in a nearby town.

There are many multi-layered characters that are memorable. In the main story, Zora is bold, curious and an adventurous spirit. Her best friend Carrie knows that what ever problem or mystery they are chasing always “courts trouble.”  Old Lady Bronson, who wears soldier boots, lives in solitude, and is the town healer, seer, wise woman and “witch.” Mr. Polk is mute, but has a gentle spirit and a gift for working with horses. The 1855 story characters are very compelling. Prisca, the daughter of a plantation owner, who seems naïve to slavery at first. Prisca’s best friend is Lucia, who she treats as her sister, even though she is a slave. Lucia shares many of the same luxuries as Prisca and can read and write. The truth about Lucia is revealed when Prisca’s father suddenly dies, and she is torn away from Prisca to be sold. Lucia is angry and struggles to not lose herself in her hatred. Horatio is a kind stable boy who plays a significant role in the story.

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is stunning, heart wrenching and inspiring. Simon’s deliberate pacing and tension will keep readers fully engaged. There are many surprises for readers. It is an exceptional story, one I plan to read again.

Resources: Make sure you check out the biography of the remarkable Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline that chronicles her life, which are at the end of the story.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by publisher.

One Good Thing About America by Ruth Freeman

One Good Thing About America

Ruth Freeman, Author

Holiday House Books, Fiction,  Mar. 21, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 160

Themes: Refugee, Immigration, Africa, Differences, Fitting in, New customs, Language, Foods, Friendships

Synopsis: Back home in Africa, Anais was the best English student in her class. Here in Crazy America she is placed in fourth grade and feels like she doesn’t know English at all.  Nothing makes sense. For example, how can you eat chicken fingers? Anais misses her family: Papa and grandmother Oma and big brother Olivier. Here in Crazy America she has only little Jean-Claude and Mama. So Anais writes lots of letters to Oma — in English because Oma insists. Oma has a friend who translate the letters and writes letters back to Anais.

Anais tells Oma how she misses her and that she hopes the fighting is over soon in the Congo. She worries about her father who is being tracked by government soldiers or rebels as he makes his way to a refugee camp in Kenya, and Olivier who is injured in a skirmish.

She tells Oma about Halloween, snow, mac ‘n’ cheese dinners and princess sleepovers. She tells her about the weird things Crazy Americans do, and how she just might be turning into a Crazy American herself. Over the school year, Anais begins to make friends, feel like she’s part of a community, and finds many good things about America.

Why I like this book:

It is always hard to be the new student in a new school, especially when you come from another country and struggle with the language, look different, eat strange foods, celebrate different holidays and leave  loved ones left behind. Ruth Freeman’s compelling and hopeful book explores differences and common grounds among cultures. She humorously captures Anais’ angst through first person narrative. The story is told in a series of letters that Anais writes to her grandmother, Oma.

After much whining about Crazy America, Anais promises Oma she will try to find one good thing she likes about America daily, whether it is sledding, tasting hot chocolate, backpacks, helpful school teachers, a close group of immigrant friends, and Christmas trees decorated with pictures. This is a good classroom or home practice for youth everywhere. Find something you like in your life daily and be grateful.

As Anais becomes more comfortable in her surroundings, readers will see her growth as she takes the lead and helps newly arriving immigrant children from Iraq, Libya and Somalia adjust to America. This is a timely story for readers as it reminds us that America is a nation of immigrants, where we must learn about each other and celebrate our differences.

Ruth Freeman grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches students who are English language learners, including many newly arrived immigrants. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books and this is her first novel.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Copy: Library book.

Seed Savers – Treasure by Sandra Smith

Seed Savers – Treasure (Book 1)

Sandra Smith, Author

Flying Books House, Fiction, Jun 11, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 9-12

Themes: Futuristic, Saving seeds, Growing gardens, Processed foods, Adventures, Friendship

Opening: “Clare walked faster, clutching the tiny packet to her chest. The sound of the footsteps behind kept pace. She darted down an alley she knew well – turning right, then left, then right again. Standing still her back against the wall, she listened. The footsteps had not followed her; she had lost them.” 

Synopsis: It is 2077.  Twelve-year-old Clare, her seven-year-old brother, Dante and best friend Lily live in a future where all food is processed and comes from stores or delivery trucks. It is round or square and is called Proteins, Sweeties, Vitees, Carbos and Snacks. Blueberry is just a flavor. Growing your own food is against the law.  And the Green Resourcing Investigation Machine (GRIM) is the government agency that bought out farmers and streamlined food production in the U.S. It also acts as a watchdog to stop people who work against them, like Ana.

Clare first hears about seeds at church, from Ana, an elderly woman who tells her about seeds and the old way of growing  food in gardens.  After a few secret meetings, Clare discovers that Ana is a seed saver, who wants to pass on her knowledge to young people. Ana gives Clare a packet of seeds to hide and keep safe. Clare shares her secret with Dante and Lily, and they are curious and excited to learn more about gardening. Soon Ana is tutoring the threesome after school about how seeds grow into plants that produce fruits and vegetables. They learn about the planting, growing and harvesting seasons.  Ana mysteriously disappears and GRIM discovers their forbidden tomato plant and arrest their mother. Clare and Dante flee.

Clare has heard of a place called “The Garden State,” (New Jersey) and with their bikes, a little money, and backpacks, the children begin a lonely cross-country journey that tests them both physically and spiritually. Will they succeed in their quest to find a place of food freedom? They discover an underground network of seed savers who hide and guide them along their journey. But can children make a difference, especially when GRIM is in hot pursuit?

Why I like this book:

Treasure is the first of five books in this dystopian series. It is a thought-provoking book that is  relevant for young people today. It challenges them to think about big issues — like consumers losing their ability to choose the kind of food they want to eat. It isn’t a scary book, but it carries a warning about what might happen if consumers aren’t vigilant. And our youth are the future consumers.

The plot is engaging in this fast-paced adventure. The setting is vividly drawn. The characters are realistic. Clare, Dante and Lily are curious and passionate characters who decide they want to help a cause that is important to them. They have a voice and they want to make a difference in their world, much like many students their age are doing today. It is a great way for teachers and parents to jump-start discussions about what matters to teens today.

Missing is the second book in the seed savers series and is told from Lily’s viewpoint, after Clare and Dante flee.  It is followed by Heirloom, Keeper and Unbroken.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Book: Purchased

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Mary Beth Leatherdale, Author

Eleanor Shakespeare, Illustrator

Annick Press, Nonfiction, Apr. 11, 2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-12

Pages: 64

Themes: Boat refugees, Children refugees, Seeking asylum, Persecution, War, Natural Disasters, Courage

Publisher Synopsis:

The plight of refugees risking their lives at sea has, unfortunately, made the headlines all too often in the past few years. This book presents five true stories, from 1939 to today, about young people who lived through the harrowing experience of setting sail in search of asylum: Ruth (18) and her family board the St. Louis to escape Nazism; Phu (14) sets out alone from war-torn Vietnam; José (13) tries to reach the United States from Cuba; Najeeba (11) flees Afghanistan and the Taliban; and after losing his family, Mohamed (13) abandons his village on the Ivory Coast in search of a new life. But life is not easy once they arrive. It’s hard to fit in when you don’t speak the language. These child refugees face prejudice. Yet the five make it and lead successful lives.https://gpattridge.com

Stormy Seas combines a vivid and contemporary collage-based design with dramatic storytelling to produce a book that makes for riveting reading as well as a source of timely information. These remarkable accounts will give readers a keen appreciation of the devastating effects of war and poverty on youth like themselves, and helps put the mounting current refugee crisis into stark context.

What I like about this book:

This is a timely and powerful story about resilience and determination. The book doesn’t pull any punches. It is the true stories of five refugee children who face real danger as they escape by sea. One sails aboard an ocean liner and the other four drift in open, unseaworthy boats that are overloaded. There are no lifejackets or bailing cans. Food and water is scarce. They face stormy weather and pirate attacks at sea. The boat refugees leave with hope in their hearts of seeking asylum and freedom from persecution, civil war, drought and natural disasters. They arrive at their destinations ill and needing medical treatment. Some end up in detention or refugee camps.

Reading stories about immigrants that span 80 years, offers readers a greater insight into the current refugee crisis in the Middle East, South America and Africa. It is interesting to compare the past with current events. The stories of the past echo similar themes refugees face today — they are not welcome by many countries. They are ostracized and treated like prisoners. This is an excellent and current book for middle grade students and belongs in school libraries.

Stormy Seas features a beautiful collage design with historical fact sidebars, maps of each child’s journey, timelines, quotes from leaders, and refugee data that includes costs and how many boat people die at sea. This book format is perfect for reading true stories and for research projects. Readers will gain new insights into a social justice issues that date back 600 years. Make sure you read Introduction and the Brief History of the boat people which dates back to 1670 with the Huguenots leaving France for England seeking refuge from religious persecution.

Greg Pattridge hosts the Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

Where the Watermelons Grow

Cindy Baldwin, Author

HarperCollins, Fiction, Jul. 3, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Schizophrenia, Mental Illness, Family Relationships, Guilt, Courage, Farm Life, Friendship

Publisher’s Synopsis: When twelve-year-old Della Kelly finds her mother furiously digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and talking to people who aren’t there, Della worries that it’s happening again—that the sickness that put her mama in the hospital four years ago is back. That her mama is going to be hospitalized for months like she was last time.

With her daddy struggling to save the farm and her mama in denial about what’s happening, it’s up to Della to heal her mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville, North Carolina, for generations.

But when the Bee Lady says that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain and more to do with healing her own heart, Della must learn that love means accepting her mama just as she is.

Why I like this book:

Cindy Baldwin has penned a timely and important debut novel that will appeal to a large range of readers, especially teens who cope with a family member who has a mental illness. It will tug at readers’ hearts, but it’s an excellent portrayal of schizophrenia. And it is a good southern read about farm life in North Carolina. It reminds me a bit of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

Della’s story is timely, realistic and will resonate with teens who have parents or siblings with a mental illness. It will also promote understanding and compassion for other readers who may be their friends. It is nice to see a spotlight shown on schizophrenia and the toll it takes on a family because of its unpredictable nature.

Della’s first-person narrative is powerful and pulls no punches. When dealing with her schizophrenic mother, she never really knows who her mama is going to be. Will she be the loving mama who laughs, sings and tells stories? Or will she be the mama who leaves baby Mylie soaked, soiled and screaming in her crib? As her mother’s illness rapidly declines, Della realizes that no sickness in the world could make her mama’s love for her less real.

Like many youth in Della’s situation, she’s forced to grow up too quickly. She becomes the adult caring for her baby sister, cleaning the house, cooking and helping her father with the family produce stand. She blames herself for her mother’s “sickness.” It is her fault and she wants to fix her mama. She keeps secrets to protect her mother. And Della worries if she will inherit schizophrenia.

Baldwin has created a strong sense of community for Della and her family. There is her best friend Arden, her grandparents and a host of mother figures who love and support Della through the chaos. Other  “mamas” appear when she needs them the most.

Where the Watermelons Grow is richly textured, lyrical and impeccably researched. The theme may seem heavy, but it doesn’t overwhelm its targeted audience. I highly recommend this novel for middle grade teens and adults. To learn more about Cindy Baldwin, visit her website.

Resources: There is a Teacher’s Guide available on the publisher’s website that includes classroom discussion questions about mental illness, family relationships, guilt and personal responsibility. There also are extension activities related to things that occur in the book.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

The Length of a String

Elissa Brent Weissman, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Adoption, Identity, Family relationships, Jews, African Americans, Holocaust

Synopsis:

Imani is adopted by a Jewish family. Now that she’s turning 13, she knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white.

When her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Imani keeps the diary a secret for a while, only sharing it with her best friend, Madeline. Anna’s diary chronicles her escape from Holocaust-era Europe and her journey to America and her new life with a Jewish adoptive family. She continues to write to her sister Belle about the tall New York sky scrapers, shopping in supermarkets, eating Chinese food, modeling fur coats, and playing Chinese checkers, until news about her family stops. She fears the worst and puts down her pen.

Imani decides to make Anna’s story her bat mitzvah research project. She uncovers some important information about the war and Luxembourg. As Imani reads Anna’s diary, she begins to see her own family and her place in it in a new way.

Why I like this book:

The author skillfully weaves two stories, one from the present and another from the past, using characters that you will feel like you know intimately. This is a very different holocaust story because it focuses on the identity of Jewish and African-American girls (70 years a part) and their search for self, something that readers will find relevant. The setting, the unforgettable characters, and the plot create an engaging reading experience. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

You learn about Anna Kirsch and the painful decision her family makes in deciding which of their seven children to smuggle to America as the Nazi’s begin to occupy Luxembourg.  Anna is selected and separated from her identical twin sister, Belle, the other half of her heart. On the ship she begins to write Belle daily letters daily chronicling her journey so that she keeps their connection alive. Anna lives with  loving strangers, Hannah and Max, a Jewish family who open their hearts and home to her. Anna is essentially adopted, like Imani. She continues to write to Belle about her adventures until news about her family stops.

My children are adopted, each responding differently like Imani and her adopted El Salvadoran brother. Like Imani, my daughter had so many questions about her past. What were her ethnic roots? Who did she look like? Why was she adopted? Like Imani’s family, we ran a genetic DNA test for our daughter so she had a sense of her heritage. This eventually led to her finding two biological sisters this past year.  Now she has answers and it has brought her peace as an adult. We need more MG and YA books for adopted children who are trying to figure out who they are and need to see themselves in stories.

Elissa Brent Weismann’s novel is a captivating story that is a departure from her humorous Nerd Camp series. Her website includes teacher resources and curriculum for all of her books.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.