Where the Watermelons Grow

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
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Book about mental illness in family is real yet reassuring.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Information about mental illness and schizophrenia -- that it's an illness, not "crazy," that it responds to medication. Information about farming, crops, organic farming, drought. Reading and books figure in storyline and titles are mentioned, including Emily Dickinson poems, Mary Poppins, Lord of the Rings, The Crossover, and The Graveyard Book.

Positive Messages

Mental illness is an illness, not "crazy." When you have difficulties and challenges in a family, others in the community can help. If your own parent is too ill to care for you, other adults can come forward to provide love and care. Families pull together to get through stressful times. Kids don't have to solve adult problems, but they can find reserves of strength within themselves. Blacks and whites can attend the same church and help each other out.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Della and Daddy have a close relationship, are able to talk about Mama's illness. Della's an attentive older sister, taking care of baby Mylie when Mama's sick. Best friend Arden is attentive to Della's problems, tries to get her to talk about what's going on. Other adults in the community extend themselves to offer help, someone to talk to, a place to stay, etc. Della's a girl who's good at and loves math. The Southern farming community the book's set in is integrated, with blacks and whites attending the same church, helping each other as friends.

Violence & Scariness

Mama never actually hurts Della or her baby sister, but in trying to protect them, she takes all food away from baby and doesn't respond to baby's loud cries and distress.

Language

When Daddy explodes at Mama, he says, "Damn it, Suzanne." When other tensions rise, he "swore so loud and dirty it made me jump. I'd never heard Daddy use so many bad words all in a row."

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Where the Watermelons Grow, by debut author Cindy Baldwin, is a novel about a family touched by mental illness. It's narrated by 12-year-old Della in a first-person, soft, North Carolina drawl. Della's mom, who's diagnosed with schizophrenia, is experiencing a psychotic episode, and Della and her dad brace themselves since they've been through this before. The stakes are high, the subject matter serious, and author Baldwin doesn't gloss over the challenges. Still, there's a palpable warmth to the material, and Baldwin doesn't leave Della without support. In this small Southern farming community, white and black families are friendly and close, and many in the community offer help, infusing the book with hope and a reassuring feeling of connection. The book might be resonant for kids experiencing other types of family challenges, for instance other health crises or alcoholism, and can be a sweet, thoughtful read for all.

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What's the story?

WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW begins in a hot, dry, North Carolina summer, when Della's mom starts to exhibit symptoms of serious mental illness. She's schizophrenic and has had episodes before, and Della tries desperately to help her mother get better by taking over household chores and caring for her baby sister, Mylie. But Mama increasingly ignores her parental responsibilities and worries unreasonably that someone's trying to hurt her girls. The family lives on a working farm, which also has its stresses. The severe drought is harming the crops. Can Della help Mama get better? Should she confide in her best friend or other concerned adults, or should she keep Mama's illness secret? Will Mama ever be a normal mother? If not, who can Della turn to for help and support?

Is it any good?

This realistic but hope-tinged story, told by a girl whose mom is seriously mentally ill, manages to truthfully present the challenges while conveying a warm tenderness. In Where the Watermelons Grow, the fraught family situation feels tense in many ways. Mama neglects her responsibilities, leaving baby Mylie screaming in her crib, her diaper soiled. And because she worries someone's trying to harm her daughters, she nearly harms them herself, withholding food from Mylie, and soaking the kitchen with bleach. Author Cindy Baldwin makes clear that Della feels responsible for Mama's illness, since its onset was pregnancy. And she ventures into even more uncomfortable, unsettling territory when Della fears she herself may be genetically programed for schizophrenia later in life. Mama may get better, but she'll never be reliably normal. That's the unrosy reality Della has to live with.

Still, Baldwin has crafted a sweet, tender book. She stocks the story with folks who rally around Della, never abandoning her in her distress. Baldwin also has a lovely writing style that exudes warmth. She describes Mama, "her face relaxing and softening, the way the sky unwrinkles after a thunderstorm." And she's alert to the sensual detail of weather and place. "The sky above me was moody, with thick stacked-up gray clouds that blew across he sun like sailboats." This loving treatment of a difficult childhood never feels heavy and is filled with light.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the mom's mental illness in Where the Watermelons Grow. Do you know anyone who has a serious mental illness? How does it affect the person? How does it affect that person's family and others who love him or her?

  • What characters come forward to offer help to Della and her family? Do you have other adults or families you can turn to if you need help? How does your own family offer help to others?

  • Do you know much about farms and farm communities? Did you learn anything about crops and cultivation from the story? How does the setting affect and influence the story?

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