I have read so few middle grade books touching upon a parent with mental illness, yet it affects an astounding number of adults in the United States. The National Alliance on Mental Illness notes that 1 out of every 5 American adults experience mental illness in a given year. Of these, 1 in 100 American adults live with schizophrenia. What do these staggering statistics tell us then? Mental illness is not taboo. And the fact that there are so many adults afflicted means there are children struggling to make sense of a parent’s disease. How can we help these children feel less alone and more understood? One answer is to give them books in which they can see themselves and their stories.
Enter Where the Watermelons Grow, a powerful new middle grade novel by Cindy Baldwin. This beautiful book tells the story of Della Kelly, a tween girl whose mother suffers from schizophrenia. The book opens with Della’s mother digging seeds out of a watermelon in the middle of the night, talking to people only she can see, and Della at once knows her mother is being tugged back down a dangerous road that once landed her in the hospital for months. With her Dad distracted by trying to save the family farm and her mom spinning out of control, Della decides she is the only one that can heal her mama and save her family - and she refuses to let others in for help. Will Della be able to hold her family together as her mother’s symptoms worsen by the day?
I love Where the Watermelons Grow for so many reasons. First, its tackling of mental illness felt authentic at every step. It provided gut-wrenching, yet age appropriate details of schizophrenia, giving children a glimpse into this disease in a way that felt both informative for those who haven’t experienced it, and trustworthy for those who have. More importantly, though, I loved Della’s emotional journey and the way in which she matured during the story. Our protagonist went from keeping her mother’s secret buried deep down, not only for fear of what others would think of her family but because of her own fear that she somehow caused or contributed to the sickness. Yet as her mother worsened, Della matured enough to understand that not only was she in no way responsible for the illness, but allowing others to support her would give her the love and strength she needed to survive. Community can be healing, but sometimes, we shy away from that very notion because letting others in to our family secrets can be downright frightening. Della’s eventual acceptance of her mother’s schizophrenia - and the recognition that it is not a badge of shame upon her family- resonated deeply and reminds readers that all families struggle with challenges, but there are always people who will be there to help. We just have to let them in. A beautiful, tender and poignant novel.
For another, totally different yet wonderful read about a child struggling with a parent’s mental illness, check out our review of The Secret of Nightingale Wood, by Lucy Strange.
Want the book? Get it here: Where the Watermelons Grow, by Cindy Baldwin. *This is an affiliate link. HEE received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher, but all opinions contained herein are expressly our own.