By Maureen Tai, 9 January 2022
In the middle-grade realistic fiction novel, Where the Watermelons Grow (ages 10+), twelve-year-old Della bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Pest infestations and an unseasonal, prolonged drought are causing the crops on her father’s farm – including their legendary watermelons – to wither and die. Della’s baby sister, Mylie – aptly christened “a pistol” by Miss Lorena, a kindly newcomer to the family’s small North Carolina town – is a handful, and then some. But by far, the young girl’s biggest worry is that her beloved Mama’s schizophrenia is back, and boy, is it back with a vengence.
With evocative and unflinchingly honest prose, Baldwin tells the heart-rending story of a girl desperate to find a solution to a very grown-up problem, all by herself. None of the complicated emotions – sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety – that come from having a parent with a mental illness are downplayed, none of the challenges sugar-coated. Ultimately, our charming and likeable heroine learns how to better carry her burdens, realising that there are times when you need a little help from family and friends, some poetry from Emily Dickinson, and perhaps, just perhaps, a touch of bee-honey magic.
Unusual for this genre, but similar to some other middle-grade books we have previously reviewed such as the breathtaking Wolf Hollow, the story doesn’t end in tidy, magical, Disney-esque fashion. For me, this is where the real strength of the storytelling lies: in the ability to paint a vivid, realistic and compelling picture for younger readers that is hopeful as it is bleak, and healing as it is heartbreaking.