The Lost Songs

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Compelling story of Southern teen surviving druggie mom.

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

Educational Value

Kids will learn a good deal about the musical and cultural traditions of the South and the various forces, past and present, trying to exploit them -- not necessarily to the benefit of the locals. They'll also learn a bit about classical music because one character is a church organist. The troubles of Lutie's mother offer many illustrations of the evils of drugs, and the book is long on gentle life lessons.

Positive Messages

It takes a village -- religious faith, family values, and an emphasis on education loom large in Lost Songs. Characters or their family members have dealt with issues including murder, drug addiction, and various violent crimes, as well as more commonplace home and workplace problems, and they're more notable for learning from their mistakes than from their perfection, but the fact that they have a strong foundation is clearly essential to these kids as they cope and learn.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Numerous adult characters fall spectacularly short (most notably Lutie's drugged-out mom, Saravette, who abandoned her as a baby). But others, notably Lutie's various aunts and uncle, and pastor Miss Veola, who collectively raised her after the death of her formidable grandmother, are all strong and positive characters. They not only have made something of their lives but also are determined that Lutie should do so with hers and not follow her mother's path.


One of Lutie's classmates has a brother who is in prison for blinding a boy, and word on the street is that the brother actually killed someone, as well. Everyone expects the onetime nice boy to go the same way. Saravette tells Lutie that she's committed murder, and Lutie spends much of the book trying to determine whether this is just another figment of her drug-crazed imagination or whether she really is a murderer's child.


Lutie herself is the result of her then-teen mom's wild living, which has continued in a downward spiral of sex, drugs, and general degradation. As the plot unfolds, there's more than one scene where a vulnerable young girl is in peril from a dicey environment or a shady character.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

There's a strong anti-drug message here, as Lutie's mother smokes, drinks, and does drugs, and life goes very badly for her and her loved ones as a result.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that, partly because this novel is set in the South, nearly all the characters, both white and black, are religious, and their Christian faith is a strong force in their daily life. Lost Songs is not about proselytizing, but if constant references to Jesus by people who regard him as a presence in their lives are an issue, heads up. The novel also features a crack-and-meth-addicted mom and characters' past stories of murder and violence.

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What's the story?

Teenage Lutie Painter has always known about her musical legacy: gospel songs handed down by her maternal ancestors and committed to memory. Now, rocked by her crack- and meth-addicted mother's revelation that she's broken all the Ten Commandments, she wonders if she has a darker legacy, as well. Intertwined with her story as she searches for the truth are stories of some of her classmates: Doria, uprooted from her New England school by her parents' job loss and transplanted to the South, where she feels out of place; Kelvin, popular, affable, and unambitious; Train, with a brother in jail and the dark side calling. A host of kind adults try to keep the kids on the right path, while some opportunistic \"song-catcher\" types have self-serving designs on Lutie's songs.

Is it any good?

THE LOST SONGS offers a good read. Since the million-selling The Face on the Milk Carton, Cooney has established a well-deserved reputation for crafting compelling stories with plots and characters that grab even reluctant readers and keep them turning pages to the end. This one is an entertaining window on Southern high school life, a look at lives gone very right and very wrong, and a ringing endorsement of faith and the power of community.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how substance abuse damages families. Lutie's family raised her and took care of her after her mom abandoned her, so that she never wanted for love and security. Lutie is a happy, talented girl, an outstanding student -- but her crack-and-meth-head mom continues to devastate the entire family. 

  • As Lost Songs explains, many poor African-American singers in the early 20th century had their songs stolen by enterprising people who recorded them and copyrighted them for themselves, making all the money. Do you think Lutie is right to be concerned about keeping this from happening to her grandmother's songs? Or should all music just be free?

  • Have you ever had to adjust to being in a new school in a new part of the country like Doria? How did you stay in touch with your old friends and make new ones?

  • Do you think that once kids have started to take up a scary or criminal lifestyle that they can turn themselves around? What would it take?

Book details

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For kids who love stories about high school

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