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.
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