A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is a unflinching look at the devastating repercussions of Hurricane Katrina on the Lower Ninth Ward, the mostly African-American community that was hit especially hard by the storm. The protagonist is a 10-year-old African-American girl named Armani, whose family loses their home, and she must make difficult decisions that affect her and her siblings' survival. The violence of nature is harsh and vivid, as when Armani and her siblings see a neighbor killed by a tree blowing down. Some of Armani's loved ones die, and she sees many horrible sights in the aftermath of the storm. Armani comes out of the experience as a stronger and kinder person, but her sorrow over her losses will take a long time to process. The characters speak in a strong local dialect, which may be off-putting or distracting for some readers.
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What's the story?
It's Friday, August 26, 2005, and Armani Curtis is turning 10 years old tomorrow. When her family hears news of Hurricane Katrina coming closer to New Orleans, Armani's only thought is that she hopes it doesn't mess up her birthday party. Armani has an especially close relationship with her grandmother, and her parents are kind and understanding of her excitement about her birthday, but even they can't deny the magnitude of the coming storm. As the storm grows bigger and almost immediately causes death and loss, Armani's birthday becomes a distant memory and she must focus only on the survival of her family. Several tragic events separate Armani from her parents, and she is left on her own with her two younger sisters depending on her to keep them safe. The three narrowly escape the chaos of the Superdome and are bused outside the city to a shelter where Armani must figure out whether or not to trust various grown-ups claiming they have Armani's best interests at heart.
Is it any good?
Armani's close-knit relationship with her family is the centerpiece here, and it's what makes this story so powerful and relatable as Armani faces an extreme situation most kids won't experience. The day before the storm and her birthday, Armani's family is depicted as warm and loving but not perfect: Armani is easily annoyed by her four siblings and often feels jealous of the attention they get from her parents and her grandma. Her almost constant grouchiness with her brothers and sisters can be grating, but it makes it all the more meaningful when the storm comes and Armani realizes just how devastated she will be if she loses any of them. Though the writer's overuse of dialect in the dialogue can be distracting, the continuous action and the overwhelming enormity of the problems Armani is forced to solve will draw readers in.
Because this book is based on a real historical event, it's disappointing that there's no author's note explaining what is fact and what is fiction in Armani's story, but some readers may be inspired to research the real people and places affected by the storm. Given the recent media attention to the lack of diversity in children's books, it's disappointing there are no African-American faces on the cover and that the publisher instead chose to depict Armani's rain boots.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the media attention given to the need for children's books with diverse characters. Why do you think the publishers chose to picture Armani's rain boots on the cover when there are so few books that show African-American characters on the cover?
Why do you think so many kids' books have been written about Hurricane Katrina? Have you read others? If so, how does this one compare?
What do you think of the strong dialect in the story? Does it add realism to the setting, or do you find it distracting?
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