Title: Ninth Ward
Author: Jewell Parker Rhodes
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Genre: Magical Realism
Themes: family, natural disasters, strength, survival, friendship
Age Range: 4th-7th Grade
Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. She doesn't have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya's visions show a powerful hurricane—Katrina—fast approaching, it's up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm. (From Goodreads)
When a humanitarian tragedy as large as Hurricane Katrina occurs, often adults struggle to find ways to discuss the horrors of the situation in a way that is at once truthful and comforting. As the sixth anniversary of the hurricane that devoured New Orleans approaches, Jewell Parker Rhodes gives us a stunning example of how we as adults can harness the fear and sadness and turn it into something that kids can not only understand, but learn and grow from.
Lanesha is about as self-assured a character as you'll find in children's literature. Despite her unusual birth, living situation, and gifts, Lanesha is almost completely comfortable with who she is. Much of this can be chalked up to Mama YaYa, the midwife who raised her after her mother died in childbirth. Lanesha's "Uptown" family wants nothing to do with her, and leaves her in the Ninth Ward with Mama YaYa. In fact, the only thing that seems to bring sadness to her life is the desertion of her Uptown family-the wealthy family that never gave her a chance because of her mother's indiscretion with a low-class Ninth Ward boy. Lonely as she is, it isn't until she makes friends with a girl named Ginia, a boy named TaShon, and a dog named Spot that she realizes what she's been missing-friends.
Having lived through the lead up to and aftermath of Katrina, even from a distance, I didn't need much help imagining what the Ninth Ward was like during the hurricane. But Parker Rhodes' descriptions bring home the chaos and fear caused by the storm, and the desperation as the water flooded in afterwards. As an adult reader, I had a context for the references to the Superdome, but I can see how building background knowledge before reading this aloud or having your students read it would be important. I am thinking of using it as a read aloud during a unit in natural disasters. Sadly, what happened in New Orleans may be America's equivalent to the sinking of the Titanic (certainly, as many people died), or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Unlike those events, however, this one is still unfolding, as New Orleans continues to try and rebuild.
Education World Hurricane Watch Lesson Plans
Jewell Parker Rhodes Webpage for Ninth Ward