YA Review: Mother of the Sea by Zetta Elliott

Mother of the SeaMother of the Sea written by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: When her village is raided, a teenage girl finds herself on a brutal journey to the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic. Her only comfort is a small child who clings to her for protection. But once they board the slave ship, the child reveals her rebellious nature and warns that her mother—a fierce warrior—is coming to claim them all.

While I love all books by Zetta Elliott, the cover alone on this one would have convinced me to buy it if I hadn’t known who she was. It is gorgeous. You will draw readers in just by placing it cover out on the shelf (you do do that, right?).

This is the kind of book that should be read in history classes and English classes. Elliott is a world class author and her language is beautiful. There is no reason not to study the book from that angle. There is also an important perspective and piece of history that is not typically studied in social studies curriculums. The slave trade is mentioned in history class, but in a very clinical, sterile kind of way. A way that ignores the humanity of the people captured and forcibly brought here. That’s probably to make white students, families, teachers, and text book authors more comfortable with their white guilt, but it is neither fair nor wise. White students need to look at their own complicity in a system that was built on that trade and students of color, particularly black students, need to see people like them in books depicted as human. Elliott does that here in a way that we don’t often see in traditional publishing or school.

The subject matter is difficult here and rape is referenced in an oblique way. Mother of the Sea brought to mind two other books, one a picture book and the other another YA novel. In the Time of the Drums by Kim Siegelson deals with slaves drawn into the water to return home. Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun begins in the same brutal way with the Middle Passage.

While you could hand this to just about anyone who enjoys historical novels or magical realism, Mother of the Sea is perfect for reluctant readers. Suspense, beautiful language that draws you in, short, and captivating readers won’t want to put it down. High school libraries or libraries with high school age populations absolutely must have this on their shelves. These stories are important and Elliott is a top-notch writer. While a brutal story, she lulls you with the beauty of her words and her craft as a storyteller. Middle school libraries, well, your mileage will vary. I personally don’t see a problem with having this on your shelves. Most middle school American history classes discuss slavery and the slave trade, so clearly it isn’t a taboo subject (and it shouldn’t be anyway, preserving innocence of students only protects white privileged students, no one else). But I also recognize that it could be an uphill battle if this book gets challenged by a disgruntled parent. You as a librarian will have to make that call.

Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.