Hello Jewell Parker Rhodes, Please tell us a little about Ninth Ward?
Ninth Ward is a coming of age story. Using perseverance and inner strength, my characters become heroic. In the face of tragedy, they are able to triumph through faith, friendship, and
This is your middle grade debut. When I heard about it I was so excited, it felt right. When I think of novel's set in New Orleans, you are one of the first authors that comes to mind.
How did this project come about?
All my life, I’ve wanted to write for young readers. I never doubted that it was going to be a challenge to write a good book for children. So, for decades, I’ve been practicing my craft and searching for the right story to tell. In 2008, when Hurricane Ike threatened New Orleans, I thought, “oh, no, not again,” and I went to sleep. I must’ve been dreaming, feeling anxious for Louisiana’s children, for when I woke, Lanesha’s voice was inside my head.
Ninth Ward was worth the wait. Lanesha’s voice was perfect. Many adult authors who crossover into children's literature, have a difficult time creating realistic children's voices. Smart, strong, level headed Lanesha, came across as the 12 yr old she was suppose to be.
How did you approach crafting Lanesha's voice?
Lanesha’s voice was a gift. When I woke, the first few lines were full-blown. It was if Lanesha was guiding me to tell her story. More than any character that I’ve ever written, Lanesha is her own unique self. I never had a problem with her voice, it was just there, inside my head. All I had to do was listen.
Lanesha picked the right person to tell her story. I loved the opening lines "They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove. My mother died birthing me. I would've died too, if Mama Ya-Ya hadn't sliced the bloody membrane from my face."
Since Lanesha can see ghost from birth and there's a reason for this ability, it doesn't seem so strange or improbable. The gift of sight is very fitting for a novel set in New Orleans.
Many of your novels feature a little magical element. What came first your love of New Orleans or magical realism?
Literary people love the term “magical realism.” My grandmother would’ve said, “It isn’t magic, it’s just real.” I think, particularly in the south, folklore is alive and deeply connected to our relationships and family history. So, there’s always an acceptance of the “magical” as a reality. So, as a little girl my grandmother raised me to believe that everything in the world has a spiritual essence to be respected and that the world is filled with symbols that can be interpreted. As a writer, I’m a magical realist; as, Jewell, I’m writing about life as grandmother taught me.
Lanesha and Mama Ya Ya relationship was simply wow. You really make the reader feel their connection. Can you tell us a little about it?
Mama Ya Ya is based upon my grandmother, Ernestine, who raised me. But Mama Ya Ya is older and has the opportunity to share all her love and knowledge with Lanesha. (My grand-mother died unexpectedly when I was in college.) Mama Ya Ya is representative of how elders (and I include teachers and librarians, too!) can be so important raising a child. Lanesha and Mama Ya Ya might not have much in terms of material wealth, but they are rich in love. They create a family even, though legally they aren’t recognized as relatives.
This is a very visual read, especially after the hurricane hits. I could clearly see Lanesha using an ax so they could escape onto the roof. While I was reading this scene, I pictured Strickland's illustrations for A Place Where Hurricanes Happen.
That visual was much easier on me then remembering the real thing. When you were writing Ninth Ward did you ever feel the need to disconnect yourself from memories of Hurricane Katrina? Was that even possible?
I do not think I could’ve written Ninth Ward immediately following Hurricane Katrina. It took three years for me to process the devastation, then another year of writing about Lanesha. But I always knew that Louisianans would endure with love, faith, and fortitude. It will be the Lanesha’s of the world—our young people—who will shape a better future.
The fifth year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has recently past. How do you think New Orleans is recovering? And what about the Ninth Ward?
New Orleans’s spirit is electric. But I am dismayed at how long it takes to demolish decrepit buildings and how long it takes to rebuild. When I last walked the Ninth Ward, I was thrilled to see the new energy efficient and flood-safe housing. “More, more, more, please” and “faster, faster, faster.”
I love Ninth Ward’s cover. Customers are responding very well to the cover art and the overall design of the book.
Who is the artist behind the cover? And who is responsible for the books design?
Shino Arihara, a Los Angeles based artist, created the cover art. She captured beautifully the spiritual peace and loveliness that can still exist in a world ravaged by storm. I love how Lanesha looks straight ahead, unafraid of the future, and using a magnolia, a flower symbolizing dignity and beauty, as her umbrella.
Alison Impey, Senior Designer at Little Brown Books for Young Readers, designed the jacket art and the visual look of the overall book and its' pages. It's Alison's vision and attention to aesthetic detail that makes Ninth Ward so stunning. I think Alison understood the book perfectly and she helped me, too, in her splendid visuals, to understand the calming power of the tale.
Please send along my thanks to Shino Arihara and Alison Impey for such beautiful work. The cover is the customer’s first impression of a book. As a bookseller it makes my job easier when it's not only good but memorable.
Do you plan on writing any more children's books?
I have written a draft of a YA book and I’m just starting a new middle grade book. If I could write just one book that touches a child’s heart and mind, just when they need it most, I would be ecstatic. Growing up, books were vital to my life. Though I didn’t experience a hurricane, I experienced other kinds of emotional storms. Reading always helped me believe in my own possibilities, other imaginative and concrete horizons, and that there were good people in the world ready to help a child grow.
I am so happy to hear the answer is yes. Ninth Ward was such a beautiful book. Though this is a story about a tragic event, Lanesha, Mama Ya Ya, and Ta Shon are at its core. That's one of the many reasons why I loved it. There's so much beauty, possibly, strength and love to take away from it.
Ninth Ward's only been out since August but is already 2010 Parents Choice Gold Medal Winner. Congratulations, I hope its the first of many wins.
Thank you so much for letting me do this interview. I feel very honored.
Thank you for sharing a little of your time with me, and for writing such a wonderful story. The honor is all mine.
This originally ran on my personal blog in September.