Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

“The TV says the governor has asked the president to declare a state of emergency.  The National Guard has been called up.  Now the breathless weatherman is saying the hurricane will hit Mississippi and Louisiana. Both.

I’m feeling ANXIOUS: FULL OF ANXIETY. GREATLY CONCERNED, ESPECIALLY ABOUT SOMETHING IN THE FUTURE OR UNKNOWN.

I’m feeling more anxious because I looked up unfathomable in my pocket dictionary.  UNFATHOMABLE: BEYOND UNDERSTANDING, IMPOSSIBLE TO MEASURE.

In math, I learned everything can be measured.  Air, water, wind. Volume. Velocity. Depth.

So why not a hurricane? There, I’ve said it.”

Lanesha lives with her adoptive grandmother, Mama Ya-Ya, in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.  The pair may not be blood relatives, but are closer than any family-they are all each other has in the world.  Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya also share powers: Lanesha can see ghosts, and Mama Ya-Ya gets visions about the future.   When Mama Ya-Ya’s dream visions predict a hurricane, Lanesha tries hard to prepare for the coming storm.  She’s nervous, though; Mama Ya-Ya can’t fully understand the end of her visions about the storm, and the news anchors say it will be the worst they’ve had in decades.  When Hurricane Katrina finally hits the city, Lanesha has to be brave in order to protect everything that she loves.

I’d been wanting to read this book for so long, and it was even better than I expected!  Jewell Parker Rhodes’ depiction of the love inherent in Lanesha’s assembled family is so tender.  Mama Ya-Ya, Lanesha, and later, a stray dog and TaShon, Lanesha’s first real friend, are warmly devoted to each other, despite the stresses of their lives. Lanesha herself is a brilliant young woman; she’s compassionate, inquisitive, and wants to grow up to become an engineer.  I especially loved her passion for science and mathematics; she’s advanced enough that a teacher of hers gives her the teacher’s edition of a pre-algebra textbook for her to work through independently. It’s great to see a female character excelling in math, especially when presented in such a natural way.  Way to defy a stereotype!

And really, that is what this book is about-we all were exposed to so much press about the violence and poverty in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina that an untrue and unfair depiction of the city’s poor developed.  Jewell Parker Rhodes gently dismantles this image.  For example, Lanesha has the ability to see ghosts. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a ghost story, and the ghosts are benign or helpful, so younger readers are still good to go with this story.)  At school, she sees the ghost of an older classmate, one who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a gas station robbery-a subtle reminder that assuming all shooting deaths are gang-related, and that poor people are violent is just that, an assumption, and not true.  The inhabitants of Lanesha’s poverty-stricken neighborhood are humanized in this story; they look after each other and share their few resources.  This Ninth Ward isn’t ridden with senseless violence, neither before, nor after the hurricane.

The magical realism in this story (Mama Ya-Ya’s visions and Lanesha’s ghosts) is seamlessly integrated with the actual events of the hurricane, and it gave it another layer of appeal.  It also kept the book from being just a recounting of the storm.  I loved how it was used to connect Lanesha with her mother, who died in childbirth. This is just a lovely book, on so many levels.  Not only does it give some good perspective on the hurricane’s devastation, appropriate for a younger audience, it also demonstrates the legitimacy of non-traditional families and deconstructs stereotypes about young women and poor minorities. Rhodes tells us a story about the strength of love, even amidst destruction, and it is absolutely beautiful!

Happy Reading!

Rhodes, Jewell Parker.  Ninth Ward. Little, Brown: New York, 2010. 217 pp. Ages 10-14.

Author’s website: http://jewellparkerrhodes.com

Normally, when I’m reading, recommendations just come to me and I feel what books would be similar.  However, I don’t know of others so much like this, though I wish I did, and I’m getting ready to explore.  Zora and Me, is a wonderful one that I have read, a former winner of the  Coretta Scott King award.  It has the same feel of warmth and family-love, but it is set in the deep south during the Jim Crow era, so it is more historical.  We could also try Turtle in Paradise or Three Times Lucky.

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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

“You aren’t allowed out of the graveyard…because it’s only in the graveyard that we can keep you safe.  This is where you live and this is where those who love you can be found.  Outside would not be safe for you.  Not yet.”

In the dark of night, a man named Jack waits in the shadows and efficiently kills an entire family–all but the toddler, who had crept out of his crib during the night.  The man desperately needs to kill the toddler; his fate rests on the death of the boy.  However, the little one wanders away into the night, and into a nearby graveyard.  When the spirits of his parents cry out to the ghosts of the cemetery and beg for them to protect him, they accept.  Thus, Nobody Owens becomes a ward of the graveyard.

He’s raised by ghosts and learns their ways, including feats like Dreamwalking and Fading.  They bring him books and food from the outside world, and warn him (just like normal parents) not to talk to people he doesn’t know.  See, the man who killed his family is still alive and hunting for him.  He’s only safe within the confines of the graveyard.

The story proceeds in episodes; each one can stand alone as a great short story, but they can also be woven together into a captivating narrative.  While reading it, I kept thinking that the tone of the book reminded me a little of Eva Ibbotson, with a playful eye towards subjects like witchcraft, and a little like Audrey Niffenegger, with her stories about crumbly, mossy graveyards.  It’s a really distinct voice; a little dry humor mixed with some elements of the underworld.  Love it, love it! I can’t wait to share this book.

I learned that Gaiman was inspired by his own son, as he pedaled his tricycle around the cemetery.  He said he started writing chapter four, and that the rest of the story took almost a decade to be born.  I really think born is the right word here, too, because while you’re reading, you are coming across all of these sort of unrelated-seeming tales, and then they all wind together into this perfect ending.  When you get to the ending, you see how everything was leading perfectly to the conclusion, and it seems so holistic and perfectly formed.

Oh, and pictures! Did I mention the illustrations?  The book is interspersed with the black and white illustrations of Dave McKean.  It’s a touch that reminds me of the Harry Potter books, a nice surprise waiting for you between the pages.  Everything combines into something really special, which is why it’s not surprising that this book won the super trio of a Newbery and Carnegie medal, plus a Hugo award.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website:  http://neilgaiman.com/

Gaiman, Neil. The Graveyard Book. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.  307 pp. Grades 6-9.

I mentioned them in the post, but if you like this book (and you’re a fan of books for middle schoolers), try any of Eva Ibbotson’s stories, such as Which Witch or Island of the Aunts.  They’re fun, have an irreverent and light tone to them that’s similar to this one.  For adults, try Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I read that book before I started blogging, but it’s a ghost story about twin girls in a haunted flat in London.