Beginners Welcome

Book review by
Joly Herman, Common Sense Media
Beginners Welcome Book Poster Image
Well-intentioned story of sixth-grader grieving dad's death.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Annie Lee is learning music, and she explains to her grilfriend Mitch what a key signature is, and how it shows up in a piece of music. She talks about playing scales and how it feels to improvise. Mitch and Annie Lee are doing a physics experiment pertaining to gravity, which they talk about briefly.

Positive Messages

Missing people when they are gone is part of life, but you have to keep carrying on. Our brokenness makes us who we are. Pain can make music beautiful and transformative for the audience. You never know where friends will come from, so stay open to possibilities. You have to risk being hurt in order to love. Sometimes love means holding on to somebody, and sometimes it means letting go. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Annie Lee's family is White, living in Durham, North Carolina. Because of the South's stance in the Civil War, she notices Confederate soldiers are buried in the cemetery where her father is buried. She meets a Black woman named Queenie, who owns a hair salon. Queenie is loving and helpful to people in her community.

Violence

Because this book is about a kid who survives her dad's untimely death (due to natural causes), themes of death, grief, and depression are explored. An elderly man has a accident and Annie Lee finds him lying on the floor bleeding and moaning. Annie Lee's girlfriend Mitch threatens -- jokingly -- to kill her. Boys snap Mitch's bra at school every day. Because she developed earlier than other girls in her previous school, Mitch was teased and called a "slut." She changed schools because of the bullying. 

Sex
Language

Name calling: "slut."

Consumerism

Walmart, Harry Potter (the invisibility cloak from the series is featured as a way that Annie Lee imagines herself disappearing on a daily basis), Sears, D.A.R.E., Seventeen magazine, John Denver, Pop-Tarts, Harris Teeter, Toms, The Book of Three, Pippi Longstocking, Duke University, M&M's, Les Miserables, Hamilton, Beethoven, Scott Joplin, Chopin, Echo, Simon and Garfunkel, Clara Schumann, Cheerios, Band Aid, Beauty and the Beast, Creamsicles, Chuck Taylors, Bill Gates, Kraft, McDonald's, Paul Simon, Yamaha, Baldwin, Nyquil, American Ninja Warrior.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Annie Lee lives in Durham, North Carolina, which, she mentions, was built on tobacco and cigarette money made from tobacco plantations nearby.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Beginners Welcome, by Cindy Baldwin (Where the Watermelons Grow), deals with life after an 11-year-old's father dies. Annie Lee Fitzgerald and her mom are just scraping by after they've sold their suburban home in Durham, North Carolina, and her mom is forced to take on more hours as a maid to keep them afloat. Annie Lee doesn't see her mom much because of her long work hours, so she starts sneaking out of the apartment and riding her scooter to a mall a ways away from her house. She lies about this to her mom, and keeps secret the fact that she's met an older man who's teaching her how to play the piano. Meanwhile, at home, the record player starts up on its own accord, the sink is filled with her father's shaving stubble, and her mom cries constantly. Poverty looms large, making Annie very conscious about her appearance at her new middle school. Annie's friend at school describes being harassed at her former school for having "developed" before the other girls did, causing her to enroll in the larger public school, where boys continue to snap her bra strap. Death, grief, trauma, and loss are constant companions as Annie Lee tries to piece her life together after her lively father has passed away.

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What's the story?

In BEGINNER'S WELCOME, sixth-grader Annie Lee loses her dad unexpectedly over the summer while he was playing a game of "church ball" at their Presbyterian church. Annie Lee and her mom have since moved to a smaller apartment in a different part of Durham, North Carolina, where she's started a new school. Her friends Monica and Meredith, who were once her BFF's, have moved on, and Annie Lee is left with her searing grief and loneliness. She tries to be invisible, but knows she can't hide forever. When she starts taking off on her scooter after school without her mom knowing, she meets a man at a local mall who plays piano in a way that literally makes Annie see beautiful lights dancing off his fingertips. She decides to try to learn enough piano to compete in a competition that could help her earn a little money for her struggling household. After she connects with this musician, named Ray, she starts to open up enough to become friends with a girl named Mitch at her new school. Her dad hasn't let go at home, however, showing up in ghostly ways that aren't always helpful to Annie Lee and her mom. Eventually, Annie Lee has to tell her mom about sneaking out, and she has to learn to take risks in order to build trust and love in a world without her beloved dad. 

Is it any good?

This is a fearless exploration of the despair that follows the death of a parent, but the otherworldly aspect of this well-meaning story doesn't quite gel. A bag of donuts appears on the table in the apartment on the first day of school, but nobody bought them. The record player plays songs at will. Annie Lee's mom cleans out the sink every morning because remnants of a shave appear daily. Annie Lee and her mom shrug off these poltergeist moments as visits from Annie Lee's dead father. There's not quite enough suspense or build-up for these moments to be believable-- no one's startled or afraid of the fact that really ghostly things are happening in their home -- so they end up feeling a little distracting.  

What does work in this story, and what kids will appreciate, is the helplessness Annie Lee feels when she hears her mom crying all the time. Thre's also the shame of having to wash last year's clothes in the bathtub because money is really tight and the washing machine's broken. Kids will understand Annie Lee's desire to feel invisible and how she finds solace in music. She really feels the pain of being abandoned by her dad and her best friends. But she ends up making a new friend who is fierce and caring at the same time. All of these aspects of the story feel like just what Annie Lee needs to happen so she can go through the process of growth, recovery, and letting go. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Annie Lee's habit of sneaking out in Beginner's Welcome. Her mother doesn't know for months where Annie Lee is going and how she's spending time after school. Are there apps that help your family manage kids' time away from home? Why do some parents they're important tools?

  • Annie Lee's mother's grief is affecting her ability to parent. What resources at Annie Lee's school, religious community, or online might her mom use to get help? Does Annie Lee have a list of trusted adults she can talk to?

  • Annie Lee's friend Mitch experiences a type of bullying that could be called harassment. What can she do about boys snapping her bra strap? What kinds of behaviior are tolerable and intolerable to you and your friends?

Book details

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