Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana (2014)
Armani Curtis is about to turn ten, and that’s all she can think about. Turning ten means new responsibilities and being more than just a little kid in the eyes of adults. But it seems as all the adults around her care about is Hurricane Katrina. Armani tries to do all she can in an effort to preserve her birthday, but Hurricane Katrina is unrelenting and ends up being more powerful than anyone imagined.
Hurricane Katrina strikes the Lower Nines of New Orleans on Armani’s birthday. The storm strength only seems to increase as the night goes on, but relief comes the next morning when the skies begin to clear. Then, just as Armani’s brother Georgie is announcing that it seems there was no need for evacuation, a wall of water comes crashing through the neighborhood, heading straight for the Curtis home.
The family quickly flees to the attic to escape the rising, rushing waters. It’s hot and humid in the attic, and there are few supplies and provisions. Armani’s younger twin siblings aren’t doing well, and her grandmother Memaw is getting weaker. The Curtis family needs to find dry land and get help quickly.
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
What I liked: This book is one of the most “real” realistic fiction books I’ve read that’s for children. Lamana doesn’t spare the reader from the devastation and tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. That being said, the book isn’t overwhelming in sadness and grief; Lamana has created a good balance of joy and sadness.
The actions and emotions of the characters are completely believable given the circumstances. Armani is forced into the role of leading her family members to safety. I feel placing kids in charge and still maintaining realism is difficult thing for an author to do well, but Lamana has found a way. The reader knows Armani’s uncertainty about her decisions, and confusion about the situation.
This book is written in a dialect. While choosing to write in a dialect can turn some readers away, I feel it is important to do especially for a book like this. Lamana makes the dialect easy to read, and its presence really helps to cement the setting and create truly three-dimension characters. It also acknowledges the people who experienced Hurricane Katrina first-hand and were essentially ignored by the government as events were unfolding.
What I didn’t like: I wish there would have been a map included in the book. I think having a map would really help readers to understand more about the scale of destruction, and even track the movements of the Curtis family throughout the book. At the very least, I would have liked a location included at the start of the chapters along with the date and time that was already included. I wasn’t sure how far they ended up traveling to get to a shelter.
I also would have liked a section at the end of the book explaining which events in the book were true and which were inspired. A brief summary or timeline of events with Hurricane Katrina would be helpful too, especially considering that the target audience would have no memory of the events.
Lamana does not do a lot to remind the reader of things that happened or things that characters said earlier in the book. I found it difficult to keep track of some of the minor characters’ names and recall what was being referenced, but I recognize that was also likely due to the fact that I was unable to sit down and read this book from start to finish.
My opinion in summary: I generally am not impressed with children’s realistic fiction, but this book really struck a chord with me. I loved that Lamana wasn’t afraid to show the devastation and destruction of Hurricane Katrina, and was able to strike a balance of happiness in the midst of lives being turned upside down. This book could be enhanced with some reference materials like a timeline or map, but was an good read nonetheless.
Overall rating: 8.5 out of 10