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Monday, March 08, 2021

Middle Grade Grief Novel Sad, But Hopeful

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Everything has changed since Annie Lee Fitzgerald's father died two months ago.  Not only did the 11-year-old and her mom have to move to a tiny apartment in a rundown neighborhood, but now that her mom is working full-time as a housekeeper, Annie Lee is on her own a lot more.  Despite cutting costs in every possible way, they are still barely making ends meet.  The constant struggle just adds to the overwhelming grief that already looms between them.

Despite her father's absence, there are things that haven't changed.  The bathroom still smells like his aftershave, the radio plays his favorite music, there's stubble in the sink every morning, and the coffeemaker sometimes brews his preferred brand of coffee—even though no one buys it anymore.  Annie Lee's getting used to these strange things, so she's not all that surprised when she notices more magic while she's listening to an old man playing the piano at the mall.  It seems like a sign, maybe even from her dead father, that Annie Lee needs to go back to the lessons she abandoned long ago.  When she learns about a piano competition that pays out a significant prize, she persuades the elderly pianist to teach her.

As Annie Lee attends her clandestine piano lessons, loses herself in books, and gets to know a new friend, she starts to process her grief and even feel a little bit of hope.  When an emergency threatens to blow everything apart, however, she has to make a choice that could ruin everything.

Beginners Welcome, a new middle grade novel by Cindy Baldwin, covers a lot of territory, so it's tough to describe its plot.  In fact, the story's more episodic than tightly told, which makes it seem unfocused at time.  Nevertheless, it features warm, likable characters; an engaging storyline; and solid prose.  While magical realism, even lightly sprinkled, isn't always my favorite, it worked for me in this case, giving the story an extra punch to make it more memorable.  I also appreciate that although this novel deals with some tough subjects, it remains upbeat and hopeful throughout.  While I didn't end up absolutely loving this heartfelt novel, I did enjoy it.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin as well as other middle grade grief novels, although no specific titles are coming to mind.)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for difficult subject matter and brief, mild language (no F-bombs)

To the FTC, with love:  I received a finished copy of Beginners Welcome from the generous folks at HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!


  1. This sounds like it will pinch my heart a little bit. Stories with children struggling often do.

    Thanks for sharing, Susan!

  2. Grief is such a tough topic to write about for middle grade students. I am glad this author tackles it well.


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