A Birthday Party Ruined by Katrina

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, by Julie T. Lamana, (Chronicle Books)

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere is one of those luminous YA reads that bookstores would do well to stock with adult fiction, as well as YA. It’s a “problem novel,” but the problem isn’t a distant boyfriend or a fight with a bestie; the problem is Hurricane Katrina.

Armani Curtis’s family has yielded to her imploring and decided to remain in New Orleans, despite the pending storm, to celebrate her birthday. This is a bad decision. A very bad decision that puts everyone involved through all the worst that we’ve come to associate with Katrina: being stranded on the rooftop of their flooded house, losing (and not always finding once again) family members, traveling across and in badly polluted water, facing the misery and incipient violence in the King Dome, and trying to avoid child protective services, so the family won’t be broken up further.

The pacing of this novel is just right. At first, we see the world simply, through Armani’s eyes. She chafes against some of the restrictions imposed by her parents, but respects the discipline and sense of personal history that they and her grandmother provide. The shift from normality to disaster begins gradually enough; we can see why the family might choose to remain. But when Katrina hits, things change quickly and dangerously.

Yes, this is fiction, but it does a wonderful job of placing readers in the middle of a challenging, devastating disaster that may be beginning to slip out of current memory. This is a book we—adults and teenagers—need to help us grasp the magnitude of natural disaster. We also need it just so we can meet Armani and watch her, sometimes unwillingly, rise to the occasion.

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