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.

Lost in the Sun

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Lisa Graff, Author

Philomel Books, Fiction, May 26, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 10 and up

Themes: Friendship, Loss, Guilt, Disfigured persons, Brothers, Remarriage

Book Jacket Synopsis: Everyone says that middle school is awful, but Trent knows nothing could be worse than the year he had in fifth grade, when he accidentally hit Jared Richards in the chest with a hockey puck out on Cedar Lake. (Who knew that Jared had a heart defect? And that one little hockey puck could be deadly?) Trent’s pretty positive his entire town hates him now, and can’t blame them. So for Trent, middle school feels like a fresh start. He may even join the baseball team, if he wants to.

If only Trent could make the fresh start happen. It isn’t until Trent gets caught up in the whirlwind that is Fallon Little — the girl with the mysterious scar across her face — that things begin to change. Because fresh starts aren’t always easy. Even in baseball, when a fly ball get lost in the sun, you have to remember to shift your position to find it.

Why I like Lost in the Sun:

Lisa Graff has written a compelling coming of age story about Trent, a sixth-grader who blames himself for Jared’s death, is wracked with guilt and doesn’t know how to handle the nightmares from the accident and the rage that burns inside him.

This novel speaks powerfully about deep emotional pain. The plot is complex, realistic and skillfully executed. It digs deeply into many themes that include recovery from a tragedy, a father’s remarriage and a new baby, the relationships between three brothers who play pranks on each other, and Trent’s friendship with Fallon, who also shares a different kind of scar.

The first-person narration by Trent is raw and honest. The characters are believable, vulnerable and memorable. It’s hard not to become attached to the characters in this story. Trent is sarcastic, moody, angry, sensitive and funny. Fallon is taunted by other kids at school about her scar, but is upbeat, wise and strives to be herself. In a way she is fragile like Trent, but her demeanor is opposite. They bond through watching baseball movies and searching for “continuity errors” in the movies. Trent and Fallon are an unlikely pairing, but they support each other on their journey towards healing in unusual ways. Trent’s brothers, Aaron and Doug, are pranksters and provide comic relief.

Although Graff’s novel is written for middle graders, young adults will be drawn to this authentic and emotionally driven story from a boy’s perspective. Visit Lisa Graff at her website.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday.

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Bumblebee Bike

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Sandra Levins, Author

Claire Keay, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, 2014

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes: Stealing, Bicycle, Behavior, Guilt, Honesty

Opening: David was impatient. When he saw something he wanted, his teeth clenched. His fists tightened. His heart raced. When he wanted something, he wanted it right away.

Synopsis: David has a secret treasure box in his closet where he keeps the things he borrows from people without asking — like the Superman he snatches from his best friend Payton, the blinking reindeer pin from Aunt Rhonda, and a green rubber ball from his neighbor Charlie. To lessen his guilt, David tells himself that he will give it all back someday. When his prized yellow bicycle is missing he feels sick inside and wonders how someone can take something that belongs to someone else. He remembers the things he’s taken and realizes what he’s done is wrong.  He knows he has to make things right.

Why I like this book: Sandra Levins’ book belongs in every home. Children are unaware of the value of an item until they lose something they cherish. A common conflict among children is the proverbial “I see, I want, and I take,” with no sense of consequence. Levins’ book addresses this common occurrence in a child’s development with simplicity and compassion.  Claire Keay’s illustrations are colorful pastels, full of detail and they compliment the storyline.

Resources: The book is a resource. There is a two-page spread of helpful information, strategies, activities and discussion questions parents can use with their children.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.