Title: Mary Underwater
Author: Shannon Doleski
Publication Date: 2020
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: 13 year old Mary Murphy lives on an island that borders the Chesapeake Bay. Her father is home from prison and as a result, her life at home has become much more unsettled. One bright spot is that she seems to be growing closer to her friend Kip as they work on a science project together. As her father demonstrates increasingly violent behavior, Mary strikes upon a way to focus her scientific mind on a project that will take her off the island: building a submarine.
My Take: I thought that this was a strong debut from author Shannon Doleski. The story is straight forward and the theme of female empowerment is conventional, but Doleski does not waste the reader’s time. At no point does the narrative bog down in heavy description or indulge in extraneous side stories. This is Mary’s story of coming into her intellectual powers and experiencing love for the first time and that is enough. I also found the basic mechanics behind submersibles to be fascinating. Due to the love interest, I found this to be more of a tween than juvenile selection.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website, Shannon Doleski curses too much.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Harriet is an 11 year old who spends her days eavesdropping on others and filling her notebook up with honest observations. When her notebook falls into the wrong hands, Harriet finds her life thrown into turmoil as her schoolmates digest all that she has written about them.
My Take: This book clearly earns its place as an enduring classic in juvenile literature. Having never read it before, I thought from its title that it would be about a girl solving small mysteries in her neighborhood and saving the day. What I discovered instead was a more complicated book about a girl with a compulsive writing habit, grieving over the absence of a caregiver, and learning to navigate the power struggles of 6th grade. I loved the characters in the book because, like real people, they are frequently less than pleasant. I laughed, for example, when Harriet was eating dinner with her parents and, stewing over their recent idea to give her dance lessons, she screams, “I’ll be damned if I’ll go to dancing school!” At another point, her former nurse writes to her and includes the line “If you’re missing me, I want you to know that I’m not missing you.” Such hard bitten interactions between the characters really kept my attention and made Harriet’s world come to life.
I also appreciate how Fitzhugh made the stakes very high for Harriet. Losing her notebook and becoming an outcast at school are frontal assaults on Harriet’s life and mind. And she does not go down easily in this fight. Apologies are long in coming from her and for a few days she is physically abusive to her peers. This struggle really pulled me along through the story.
I look forward to reading more about the history of this beloved book and recommending it to many readers.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According this article, while Fitzhugh was working on Harriet the Spy, she was also working on a novel about a teenage girl who fall in love with another girl. It never saw publication, but if it had, it would have been one of the earliest gay novel for teens.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: Mia and her parents have recently immigrated to the United States from China and are having difficulty finding work. They procure jobs to run a motel and feel grateful that they are also able to live there and thereby save on rent. They soon discover that the work is grueling, the hours long, and the owner of the motel is a martinet who docks their paychecks for small infractions. Mia pitches in to help her parents by working the front desk. As she befriends the residents of the motel, she slowly works out a plan to spring her family out of poverty and into a better life.
My Take: This is an excellent book in its portrayal of working conditions of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the 1980’s and 90’s. Yang should be commended for introducing her characters to the wrenching irony that the quality of life in China was improving. It is possible that their lives may have been better had they stayed in China. To counter such heartaches and to endure the many humiliations of their poverty, the characters develop strong bonds among each other. These relationships, along with the portrayal of immigrants’ difficult lives, are certainly the greatest strength of this book. I did find the ending too pat, as a last minute plot device saves the day. Still, I recommend this book to anyone middle grade reader.
One Interesting Note About the Author: The character of Mia was based on Kelly Yang’s life growing up, who immigrated to the United States and worked in motels with her family.