Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon. Red Deer Press, 2020. 9780889956162
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5
Genre: Historical fiction
What did you like about the book? It’s the year 1906, and New Orleans is bustling with music, musicians and Honky Tonks. It’s also home to 10 year old boys like Sterling, who would much rather ditch school to play his battered trumpet with pals or with one of the many brass bands that play in the street. But, as an African American kid, there are lots of pitfalls with white folks and police in the Jim Crow South. There are people looking out for Sterling, but even his mother, his teacher, and his adored big brother Syl can’t protect him from Jim Crow. He ends up in the “Colored Home for Boys” for his part in defending himself from a Klansman intent on evil.
Welldon does a wonderful job setting the stage for turn of the century “Nawlins,” from the characters’ dialect, to the descriptions of ragtime and jazz, and the sounds, smells and sights of the city. When Sterling gets to the Home, I am prepared for a horrific experience, like the one in Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, but the school is run by mainly kind people and actual teachers who want to give the boys an education. Sterling actually flourishes there and learns much about music theory and notation, as a way to put down on paper the many tunes he has written in his head.
This is a stirring historical novel with an all-African-American cast, and a deep look at music AND racism. I felt truly immersed in the time and place. Some of the scenes, as in brothels or with the Mafia, are what we expect to see in books for older readers, and the scenes of Jim Crow violence are genuinely horrifying.
Many of the musicians depicted are based on actual people from the time. Welldon includes a section at the end with brief bios. There is also a glossary of terms, and an interview with the author.
Anything you didn’t like about it? I wish this were an #ownvoices title. But, I believe that Welldon has respected the true experience of African Americans at the time. My second problem is, where to shelve it, with the story about a 10 year old, one thinks Children’s. But Sterling’s actual life contains elements that we consider for older kids.
To whom would you recommend this book? For historical fiction lovers, especially fans of musical narratives, ages 14 and up.
Who should buy this book? High School, and maybe middle school, and public libraries
Where would you shelve it ? Teen or adult fiction
Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes
Reviewer’s Name, Library (or school), City and State: Stephanie Tournas, Robbins Library, Arlington, MA
Date of review: December 2, 2020