When Hurricane Katrina strikes, one young girl in New Orleans will need all her strength to survive in Ninth Ward, a stirring children’s book debut by award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, I was transfixed by new stories and images of the survivors. I always kept asking myself, “What about the children?” I caught glimpses of them, but seldom did I hear a child’s voice.
My own family had experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake; my children were five and three. My three year old stopped speaking; my five year old, kept hiding. For a week, my husband, children, and two dogs all lived on our “big bed” in a broken house. But we were all safe, no one had died, and we didn’t have the second punch of the levees breaking after a natural disaster.
Still, it wasn’t until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening New Orleans, that Lanesha’s voice spoke to me: “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.”
There she was! An orphan, someone nurtured with care by an elder, and someone born with a caul, a sign of “second sight.” I just knew Lanesha was a survivor—a strong, resilient, and heroic child to be celebrated. With loving from Mama Ya Ya, friends, and the companionship of a dog, Lanesha would endure. More importantly, I wanted her to mirror all the children who get challenged by natural and unnatural disasters—whether it be a hurricane, poverty, or family dysfunction. Lanesha is the child who throws her arms about herself and says, “I like me.”
I was the child with far less self-esteem who sometimes hid in the closet, crying. My mother abandoned me as an infant and Grandmother Ernestine raised me. Grandmother, like Mama Ya Ya, was a conjure woman, believing in ancestors and holistic healing. She was the community griot, telling stories to heal us all. Grandmother’s love eventually did heal me. But I was less cool, less smart, and less creative than Lanesha. Lanesha, though, is the character I would’ve loved reading about!
Ninth Ward has sad moments but it isn’t a sad story. Just as Mama Ya Ya dies, my Grandmother died. Just as the levees break, life sometimes seems unbearable. But just as Lanesha shares her story to inspire others, I’ve found storytelling to be my passion.
I was born in Pittsburgh but my very first adult novel, Voodoo Dreams, was set in New Orleans and honored its mixed-blood stew of social and spiritual traditions. I’ve been writing about, visiting New Orleans ever since. I think I might have lived there in another life.
My entire life has been about getting ready to write Ninth Ward. Lanesha is a girl with hope, a big heart, and the belief that “Always, eventually, the universe shines down with love.”
Last week, I toured schools in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi. I met hundreds of children who all gleefully loved books and wanted to be writers. It was an amazing experience and I felt uplifted. I felt that my dream to one day become a children’s book writer was indeed fated to happen. I am still holding the smiles of the children in my heart.
Here is a video clip of me on the TODAY SHOW speaking with children interviewing me about Ninth Ward. Imagine those wonderful kids multiplied and you’ll have a sense of what it felt like for me all last week visiting schools.
“Absolutely exquisite . . . both timely and unforgettable.” – Patricia Reilly Giff
“A story told with gritty poetry.” – Richard Peck
Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Piper Endowed Chair for Creative Writing at Arizona State University and the Artistic Director for Piper Global Engagement. She is the author of the adult novels: Voodoo Dreams, Magic City, Douglass’ Women, Voodoo Season, Yellow Moon, and the forthcoming, Hurricane. Ninth Ward is her first children’s book.