Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes. Grades 4-7. Little, Brown, 2010. 217 pages. Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.
Twelve-year-old Lanesha has lived her whole life in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans with her grandmother, Mama Ya-Ya. Though they don't have much money and the kids at school shun Lanesha for her strange eyes, calling her a witch, Lanesha knows everything will be just fine with Mama Ya-Ya to take care of her. When Mama Ya-Ya, who "sees without seeing" predicts that a storm is coming, Lanesha's not worried. New Orleans has weathered storms before. But this storm, Hurricane Katrina, will be unlike any other, and it will put Lanesha to the test.
Ninth Ward is a book that you experience with all your senses. Over and over again, the writing evokes not just the sights of New Orleans but the sounds, smells, and tastes. Jewell Parker Rhodes paints pictures with her words.
Lanesha describes her grandmother's perfume. "Evening in Paris is in a midnight blue bottle and smells like warm trees mixed with magnolias." (page 10)
Later... "Mama Ya-Ya is outside using her senses: sniffing for sea salt, feeling hot wind, listening for the roar of water. I don't know if she can taste a hurricane. What would it taste like? Like cold, fishy, salty cotton candy?"
So Ms. Rhodes sets the tone with beautiful imagery using all of the senses and then the tension starts to build. Going into this book, you know it's about Hurricane Katrina. You know what's going to happen with the storm, the flood. But the tension is built just perfectly from the first whisperings of a storm coming to the pops and bangs of the gale itself to the dreadful realization that trouble's not done even after the hurricane is gone.
Birth and death are intertwining themes in the book. The novel starts with a birth and a death. Lanesha tells us that she was born with a caul and that her mother died shortly after she was born. Mama Ya-Ya was a midwife, the city of New Orleans (as Lanesha and her friends know it) will die and then it will be reborn. Mama Ya-Ya predicts that Lanesha will be reborn, which Lanesha doesn't understand and it happens when she's least expecting it. These themes are woven into the book with a light hand.
Ninth Ward would make an excellent addition to a unit on Hurricane Katrina. I'd hand it to kids interested in learning more about Hurricane Katrina or kids who enjoyed Keeper by Kathi Appelt for its lyrical prose and imagery.
And Ninth Ward is a Coretta Scott King honor book and 2010 Cybils Finalist. Check out Jewell Parker Rhodes's interview at The Brown Bookshelf as part of 28 Days Later, a celebration of authors of color, and an interview at The HappyNappy Bookseller.
Read more reviews at Reading in Color, Literate Lives, A Patchwork of Books, and Welcome to My Tweendom.
Ninth Ward is on shelves now!