Author: Renee Watson
Genre: Contemporary, PoC, Young Adult
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books
Publication date: July 6th 2010
Hardcover: 240 pages
How is it that unsavory raw ingredients come together to form a delicious cake? What is it about life that when you take all the hard stuff and rough stuff and add in a lot of love, you still just might have a wonderful life? For Serenity, these questions rise up early when her father kills her mother, and leaves her and her brother Danny to live with their kind but strict grandparents. Despite the difficulties of a new school, a new church, and a new neighborhood, Serenity gains strength from the family around her, the new friends she finds, and her own careful optimism. Debut author Renée Watson’s talent shines in this powerful and ultimately uplifting novel.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did we get this book: We both bought our copies
Why did we read this book: What Momma Left Me is one of the finalists of Nerds Heart YA, the tournament for under represented YA Literature. We are the judges of the final round.
I was not prepared for this book. The cover of What Momma Left Me is adorable and as such it is perhaps too misleading as the contents of this story do not match the lightness of the cover at all. This is a novel that features very heavy topics such as abuse, murder, suicide and paedophilia all bundled up in a coming of age story that manages to uplifting and hopeful despite all this tragedy. What Momma Left Me is a wonderful book.
There are certain stories that just pack a powerful punch. What Momma Left Me is unrelenting on that aspect as it features a lot within its meager number of pages. It starts in the aftermath of a family tragedy, with 13 year old Serenity Evans trying to cope with the violent death of her mother and the absence of her abusive father. Serenity and her younger brother have moved in with their maternal grandparents and the entire family is trying to pick up the pieces of their lives.
Serenity is the narrator and from the start she is very clear that she is keeping secrets from us – although they are revealed slowly throughout the reading.
This secretive element is one of the great aspects of the novel, and the reader can tell that really terrible things have happened in this girl’s life – and the worst thing is, they keep coming. What makes this story particularly interesting to me is that perhaps the real tragedy is not what happens TO her but how she reacts to it. It is heartbreaking to hear Serenity musing about how much she fears she is going to grow up to be like her mother, stuck in an abusive marriage or how she fears her brother is turning as violent as their father. But Serenity is surrounded by other women who are great role models and realises that she can choose her own way and this is where the “coming of age” comes into play as Serenity starts to grow up and to make her own decisions with the help of her family, friends, her religion and poetry writing/reading.
On the down side, I felt that the book tried to address far too many issues as the things kept coming at Serenity: on top of living under the shadow of what happened to her immediate family, Serenity also comes across drug abuse, poverty, paedophilia, suicide and although I am sure all of these things unfortunately do happen to children, I can’t help but to think that in such a short, contained story they weren’t explored with the depth they deserve. Furthermore, I struggled with part of the writing and Serenity’s voice: with regards to the first, at times the book had a an old-fashioned style that didn’t sound Contemporary enough and Serenity sounded too young and naïve despite being 13. At times, I felt I was reading a MG book and not a Young Adult one.
I was emotionally exhausted at the end of this book, feeling like I ran a whole marathon but ultimately, What Momma Left Me was a very rewarding read.
When I learned that What Momma Left Me was the first finalist in the Nerds Heart YA tournament, I was a little…well, shocked. Not only was this a book I had never heard of, but the cover is incredibly misleading. To me, this looks like a picture book about a birthday or something, and I was flabbergasted to see that this was the book that had toppled Bleeding Violet to move on to the final bracket. When I read the synopsis for the book, I was instantly wary – because, dear readers, I am not a huge fan of contemporary YA, nor am I a fan of reading morose books in which Bad Things happen to young people simply to have them happen (often this feels exploitative and emotionally sadistic, and I am not a fan).
BUT. Then I started reading What Momma Left Me, and to my surprise, I couldn’t stop reading. Through deceptively simple prose and vocabulary, Renee Watson entices people into the shattered world of thirteen year old Serenity. After her mother dies – the exact cause of death is a mystery to readers initially, but we know that it is something unnatural and has caused a huge wave of news – Serenity and her younger brother Danny are taken in by their grandparents, and try to go on with their lives.
Like Ana says, there is a lot of trauma that never seems to end for Serenity, Danny and their family. Their mother is dead, their father is gone, and then other things happen, too – more death, sorrow, and suffering. Although there is so much that happens to this young girl, I don’t think it was exploitative, emotionally or otherwise. Very bad things that happen to people, and given where Serenity was growing up, surrounded by drugs, violence, poverty, it’s not a stretch of the imagination when tragedy strikes again, and again. Because the subject matter is so heavy, I found that Ms. Watson did a beautiful job of balancing tragedy with hope; the lighthearted moments of everyday happiness with pain. Serenity’s narration is key to achieving this balance, and I loved the brutal simplicity of her writing. Though the vocabulary and sentence structure may be very young – perhaps it even seems too young for a thirteen year old – Serenity has a way those words that resonates in the deepest wells of human emotion. Every chapter in the book begins with a poem or assignment from Serenity’s journal, and each entry is unexpectedly poignant.
Of course, on the plotting front, there is basically no storyline – this is most assuredly a character piece. This lack of plotting, however, does not mean the book is boring or without direction; rather, it chronicles the year following Serenity’s mother’s death, as she transitions from girl to young woman, and learns how to deal with grief and pain. A large part of this is through her writing and burgeoning relationships. I loved the relationship between Serenity and her best friend Maria, just as I loved the tangled feelings that Serenity starts to feel for Jay, a boy in her school. As Ana mentions above, though, there is also this fear that Serenity has that she will end up like her mother – attracted to the wrong sort of man, trapped in an abusive relationship – just as her brother might end up like her father. There’s also a theme of secrecy that runs throughout the novel, as Serenity learns that keeping secrets is important, but almost more important is knowing when to speak and take a stand.
There are other important threads, too, like Serenity and her relationship with faith (her grandfather is a preacher, so much of this book and many of her views and opinions are shaped by her faith), and her lost love for cooking (which disappeared when her mother died). There is plenty of hurt in this book, but there’s also healing and growth. And, at the end of the day, it’s an uplifting story with hope for the future and for Serenity. While I, like Ana, felt exhausted by the end of the novel, I think it’s an important book that should be read and deserves a much broader audience.
Is It Award-worthy?
Ana: Yes. I think this is a great book and I understand why it made the final of this tournament as it deals with powerful issues in a very effective and poignant way.
Thea: Absolutely. What Momma Left Me is a powerful, resonant book that, I think, represents what this tournament is all about. It has heart, it deals with significant issues, and represents diversity and strength. This will be a hard book to beat.
Ana: 8 – Excellent
Thea: 8 – Excellent
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