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Monday, May 9, 2016

Trouble the Water, written by Frances O'Roark Dowell. A Caitlyn Dlouhy Book, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster. 2016. $21.99 ages 10 and up

"The best way to the river was to ride down through the Bottom and follow a path through the woods that Ray knew about. The Bottom was where the colored people lived, and Wendell had never spent much time there except to cut through it en route from one place to another. Now as he followed Ray down Marigold Lane, he thought about that girl Callie ... "

We meet the old yellow dog before we meet any of the other characters in Frances O'Roark Dowell's story about Celeste, Kentucky in 1953. A third person narrator lets us know that the dog knows he's dying, that he spends nights on the porch of an old woman who feeds him and allows him his need to roam, that he is searching for someone, and that his daily searches lead him down to the river.

He is the catalyst for a meeting between Callie Robinson, a young black girl who is always on the lookout for a story to tell, and Wendell Crow, a young white boy who doesn't mind being on his own, spending time by the river with his dog, King. When Callie comes looking for the yellow dog, while Wendell is looking for an old cabin his father told him about, the two make a connection. Callie wants to know more about the dog, as it has only recently appeared. Wendell has also seen it, not knowing anything more about it. As we watch them get to know one another, the reader also learns much about the two.

In their quest to learn what they can about the dog and the old cabin, they find out that the dog belonged to a boy who drowned in the river many years ago. While the story, for the most part, centers on Callie and Wendell, we also meet Mr. Renfrow, the editor of the black newspaper, The Weekly Advance. Callie has written a previous story for him, and would like to write another. She is in pursuit of the dog's story. We also meet two ghosts: the white boy who drowned and a young runaway slave who died at the river. They are both trying to make their way across. Their story is a reminder of the history of the area, and the need to remember the past.

In the meantime, Mr. Renfrow has written an editorial calling for integration of the town's new swimming pool. It is not an acceptable premise, in the same way that Callie and Wendell spending time together is seen as troubling because the presiding notion is not to 'trouble the water'. Both events lead to violence and act as a perfect invitation for discussion and understanding with middle grade readers.

Callie and Wendell are very likeable characters. Callie has courage and determination, and a passion for reporting. Wendell is fair-minded, loyal, and learning what it means to be “an eyewitness to injustice.” He has a lot to learn, but appears to be a somewhat willing student. There is no resolution for the way things are ... but, Callie and Wendell offer hope for a different future.

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