Lanesha has lived all her twelve years in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans secure in the love of Mama Ya-Ya, the wise old woman who was the midwife at her birth. Her seventeen-year old mother, rejected by her well off family after she became pregnant, died giving birth to her...but she hasn't quite left her daughter. Her ghost still lies there on the bed where, still and unresponsive, still waiting for her baby to be born safely into the world.
Her Mama is just one of many ghost that Lanesha can see. Mama Ya-Ya has raised Lanesha in world where ghosts are just one fact of life, and everything around them--magnolia flowers, birds, numbers--has a meaning that transcends the quotidian. Despite being as poor as can be money-wise, Mama YaYa given Lanesah a childhood that is just about the warmest, most tenderly-drawn fictional childhood I can think of. Lanesha's suffered through a lot of teasing--crazy, spooky, and witch are some of the things she's called by the other kids. But when it gets too much, and she hides in the bathroom, she thinks of Mama YaYa's words--"'You are loved, Lanesha,' she always says. 'Lanesha, you are loved'" (page 22).
Lanesha might not have any friends at school, but she loves it all the same. She learns everything the teachers can give her (she dreams of being an engineer, and designing bridges, and her teacher, incidentally, is a gem). This school year looks like it might be different, though--there are promising signs that Lanesha will make friends, with both a neighbor boy, TaShon, and a girl in her class. All seems to be going gloriously well.
But reading this happy part of the book, and falling hard for Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya, and their diverse and vibrant community, brought cold chills, and made me want to cry for the pity of it. Because I knew it was all a fragile soap bubble, about to pop-- it is late August of 2005, and Hurricane Katrina is forming off to the east. The Ninth Ward is doomed, and the courage and determination of Lanesha and TaShon are about to be put to a test that no child should have to undergo.
Now the book becomes a gripping story of children on their own, facing the possibility that there will be no rescue, facing the reality that they will have to save themselves. The great adventure-type of story, where ordinary kids are heros, and must do extraordinary things...
Gosh, it was a good. Brilliant in its characters, vivid with regard to place, gripping in its story. It's my pick for the Newbery this year.
(And now I am wondering the following. This book deserves to be nominated for the Cybils Awards. The choice is straight middle grade fiction, or fantasy. It isn't straight middle grade fiction--Mama Ya-Ya has uncanny knowledge, and there are ghosts, one of whom plays an important part in the story. But it isn't fantasy either--there are ghosts, but that's just part of everyday life for the characters, and it is the here and now that is at the center of the story. "Magical realism" might be the most accurate descriptor, but doesn't help with my need to put the book into one of two boxes, neither of which is quite the right fit....
If you've read this book, in which category do you think it would be happiest?)