Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Do you ever read a book that is so stunning that you want to go out and buy your best friend a copy? You want to tell everyone you meet about it? I found the Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, absolutely stunning - a book I want to give to my best friends so we can talk about it. Lanesha is a 12-year old child of the Ninth Ward in New Orleans; and she survives through Hurricane Katrina and conditions that no child, no person should have undergone. This is a story that is at once devastating and life-affirming, one that will leave kids wanting to know more about this horrible point in history, and yet also believing in children's ability to persevere.
Ninth Ward
by Jewell Parker Rhodes
NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2010
ages 10 - 14
available on Amazon and at your local library
Lanesha was born to a wealthy, uptown New Orleans family, but her family has rejected her and. ever since her birth, Mama Ya-Ya has been both mother and grandmother. Mama Ya-Ya gives Lanesha the strength to walk proudly and believe in herself. Mama Ya-Ya has the gift of seeing into the future, and Lanesha has the gift of seeing ghosts from the past. These ghosts are just a part of life for Lanesha. When Mama Ya-Ya has a premonition that a bad storm is approaching, Lanesha pays attention and starts to prepare. They don't have the money or means to escape New Orleans when the mandatory evacuation order comes, and so they prepare the best they can at home.

Jewell Parker Rhodes' writing is beautifully evocative. She combines both a realistic child's voice with figurative language that blossoms in my mind. The novel is written in the first person, from Lanesha's point of view. This draws children right into her perspective. As the hurricane is approaching, she writes:
"I see darkness on the horizon. Rolling, rolling in like a too warm blanket. Wind has picked up, blowing leaves, causing branches to sway ever so slightly." (p. 124)
But even more than the suspense and danger that the storm brings, this novel brings a sense of hope and strength that Lanesha discovers within herself. As Mama Ya-Ya tells Yanesha,
"Your testing should've come much, much later. But when it came, you shined with love and strength." (p. 145).
Jewell Parker Rhodes describes in the afterward that books were her lifeline through a difficult childhood, and that she's been waiting to write a novel that will speak to children. This novel does indeed. It speaks to children, treating them with respect and dignity, knowing that they can understand a horrible situation, but they also can survive against all odds. It is a beautiful novel.

You can find a fascinating interview with her at The Happy Nappy Bookseller. Ms. Rhodes is an award-winning author of adult fiction; this is her first novel for children. I do hope she writes more stories to inspire children. Teachers can find more resources at the Ninth Ward website here.

As a parent, I would want to think about what age this novel is best for. It does describe a terrible event in our history, but it does so with sensitivity and compassion, and the main characters survive. I would suggest that students in 5th through 8th grades will find this compelling.

Find other reviews:
Charlotte's Library
Rasco from RIF
A Patchwork of Books
The Happy Nappy Bookseller

I purchased a review copy for my personal library, upon the suggestion of my great friend Kathy Shepler, librarian at Aurora School. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this page, a small portion will go toward Great Kid Books (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support.

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