Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2010.
MG speculative fiction, 218 pages.
Lexile: HL470L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: 3.3 (worth 4.0 points) .
Twelve-year old Lanesha is different from her peers in one major way: she can see ghosts. And several minor ways: she was raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who birthed her, but without the formality of kinship or an official foster care relationship. She loves to learn, tackling difficult math problems and learning new words with glee.
The book covers nine days directly before and during the events of Hurricane Katrina over 14 chapters. Within the chapters the text is further broken into sections, and the sentences tend to be short. Although Parker Rhodes doesn’t shy away from challenging words, they are decipherable with context clues if not defined in the text. These explain why this has a low reading level, but it’s not meant for very young readers. Children closer to Lanesha’s age would be a much better fit, because the novel does include deaths, extreme peril, hunger, destruction, and family rejection.
The story starts slowly, establishing Lanesha’s character, neighborhood, and routine before tearing everything apart. It’s a first person novel, and Lanesha is smart, independent, and loving. She’s in an unofficial kinship situation with Mama Ya-Ya since her mother died in childbirth without revealing her father and her mother’s family refuses to accept or acknowledge her.
Parker Rhodes writes about the feelings that accompany this with heartbreaking accuracy. The first chapter is about Lanesha’s birthday, a special day but different from the extravagant celebrations many Americans are accustomed to and marked by the absence of her mother’s family who she desperately wants to know. Yet at the end she states “Who cares about a stupid Uptown family?”
It was surprising (but wonderful) to see her even clarify the relationship on page 84/5:
“I’m lucky to have her raising me. After all this time, I sometimes forget that she’s not my blood relative.
In the Ninth Ward, some folks claim grandchildren when their parents are dead. Or if their parents are missing, like in jail, rehab. The government can give grandparents money for food and health. But Mama Ya-Ya’s not a relative. And Mama Ya-Ya never went to court to be my foster mom or legal guardian. She feared a judge would say that she’s too old; or worse, send me to relatives who didn’t want me.”
I’d like to write an essay on this, but will limit myself here to stating this also plays out in the families Lanesha sees around her in the community, and Mama Ya-Ya’s fears as a non-relative caregiver are not unfounded.
Even if you’d barely heard of Hurricane Katrina, this novel still works. Readers who know what’s coming next will be held in suspense about who survives, but readers who don’t will want to know what happens. Mama Ya-Ya’s abilities are different from Lanesha’s – with effort she can communicate with ghosts, but her major talent is prediction. Well before the weather forecasts and evacuation warnings, Mama Ya-Ya knows there will be a major hurricane, but they will be okay. Yet at the same time, she’s having foreboding dreams of great disaster. She’s frazzled and confused by these conflicting messages.
Meanwhile, Lanesha is coming of age, dealing with more prosaic problems like trying to make friends and saddened by a favorite teacher leaving while finally embracing her ghost-communication abilities and confronting her mother who appears but will not speak. The subplot with Lanesha’s mother was frustrating – the resolution not entirely satisfying.
Although race and class are never explicitly covered, Rhodes still manages to eloquently express how they impact the lives of Lanesha and those around her. In particular, that affected whether someone was likely or able to relocate or stay home, and who ended up at the Superdome.
I’ve reviewed the first (by internal chronology) book in this series, Sugar, which I liked but didn’t love. My review ended “Based on the description, I think Ninth Ward will be a better fit for me.” This was one of the best children’s books about Katrina that I’ve read. Yet I suspect that the next one, Bayou Magic, will be even better. I prefer outright magic to magical realism, and the preview suggests that the next book moves in that direction.
Highly sensitive children could be deeply affected by some of the events of this novel (although they are based on reality). Although the reading level is low, I wouldn’t recommend this for early elementary because the plot requires more maturity to understand. It hits the sweet spot of middle grade read, and I’d recommend it for high/low collections also. The format also makes for a great read-aloud and Ninth Ward is sure to spark conversations!