Shortly before she turned 10, Cadence Mariah Jolly made God a promise: that if her father could somehow get her a Takahashi 3000x keyboard and microphone, she would share her gift for singing with everyone around her. Even though she’s in the children’s choir in a very musical church, no one else is yet aware of her beautiful singing voice.
But now Cadence is feeling guilty because, while God kept His end of the bargain, she’s afraid to keep hers. A case of crippling shyness makes her desperate to avoid any kind of attention. It doesn’t help that, since her mother left her, Cadence’s father, her church, and her town dote on her and treat her as if she might break at any moment.
When an opportunity unexpectedly arises, Cadence takes a risk and sends a recording of herself singing to the new choir director. But things get out of control when her recording goes viral and an unscrupulous friend tries to take the credit. Cadence has to weigh kindness, integrity, and her promise to God in making a decision that could change her life forever.
Sherri Winston’s “The Sweetest Sound” introduces middle-school readers to a warm, unforgettable cast of characters, including the shy but engaging Cadence. At times it seems as if her shyness and introversion are over-emphasized — the writing in general can be a little over-emphatic — but a lot of kids will be able to relate to her fear of anything new and strange, her enjoyment of peace and quiet, and her dislike of people trying to “fix” her. In situations that feel very realistic, Cadence, her half-brother, and several of her friends wrestle with their desire to make changes and to express their feelings and needs to those around them. Though they don’t always make the right decisions, they do learn a lot along the way.
Faith is a refreshingly strong presence in the novel, with much of the action centered on Cadence’s church. Her own relationship with God is a motivating factor in her life, as is the gospel music that she and her fellow churchgoers love. (Sometimes the music of secular artists is performed in church, but only songs that are appropriate to the situation.) Cadence painstakingly and sometimes humorously describes the sights and sounds of her African-American church — imposing ladies in elaborate hats, congregational participation, and more — in ways that make them feel both familiar and fresh, never clichéd.
Throughout the story, Cadence works to come to terms with her pain over her mother’s desertion, eventually reaching a point where she can both acknowledge the wrongness of her mother’s actions, and consider forgiving her. A few references to her father’s two divorces, and a few mild profanities (involving the Lord’s name), are the biggest content issues here.
Our heroine can exasperate as easily as she can enchant, but by the end of the story, she has grown in both character and courage. She’s even come to realize that having lots of people who dote on her may be something to appreciate, not to resent. Middle-school readers will find her a role model to learn from and to enjoy.
Image copyright Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Review copy obtained from the reviewer’s local library.