Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2010, Little Brown, middle grade on up, 217 pages) is a book that is just plain unequivocally Good, in its writing, its story, its characters, and even in the much more subjective territory of the feelings it left me with.

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.

Here's an interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes at Through the Tollbooth, and one at TheHappyNappyBookseller.

(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?)


  1. I had some of the same reactions to this book as you did, Charlotte: it is Good. It seems my favorite books are often precisely the ones that don't fit into the boxes, but that doesn't help re:the Cybils, does it....

  2. I've been thinking about this for awhile, since I do want to give Ninth Ward my Cybils vote.

    Today, I think it belongs in middle grade fiction.

    Here's why -
    The ghost in Ninth Ward aren't fantasy ghost. They are realistic possibilites.

    Ghost do exist (ghost hunters)Lanesha just happens to be a real girl with the ability to see them.

    In real life I don't think people can actually see ghost, though I do believe some people have the power to sense ghost.

    For me Lanesha's ability to see ghost falls under author liberties (Can't think of the phrase I wanted to use)

    Mama Ya-Ya's knowledge could be attributed to her age and willingness to listen and observe the signs others ignore.

    I may change my mind but for now, I say middle grade fiction.

    Though Charlotte there's that one beautiful scene towards the end that does tip this very much so into MG fantasy.

  3. I think I'm going to say MG Fantasy, Charlotte. We'll never have an MG Magical Realism section, so Fantasy is the best we can do. :)

    I do hate falling in love with characters and knowing there's a freight train bearing down on them. Yikes.

  4. I really want to read this book thanks to your review. I have seen it in bookstores, but it hadn't caught my fancy until now.

  5. Thanks for weighing in, Doret and Tanita--it's that very scene you mention, Doret, that makes me lean fantasy-ward...

    And I hope you like it, Alex!

  6. I think Rhodes is supposed to be doing a signing in my hometown sometime soon. I've been a little leery of reading this because the author's not from Louisiana, and I have not typically found non-Louisiana natives very good at portraying what it is like here. But yours is the third or fourth positive review I've seen!

  7. I hope you give it a try, Jenny--it's one of my favorite books of the year so far!

  8. Because of the magical realism elements, I'd say it belongs in Science Fiction/Fantasy, although I'd hate for the young readers who love straight-up Middle Grade Fiction to miss out on it.

    I just finished Ninth Ward last night--reading it all in one sitting. Beautifully written book.

  9. Charlotte, what a wonderful review and thought-provoking question. I think I'd have to agree with Doret, that this is presented as reality-based, not fantasy based. But then I read it focusing on the emotions, not the fantasy element. That just seemed to add a layer to her world, one that I completely accepted as her view of the world.

  10. great review and great question. I think NINTH WARD should be in the MG Fiction category, not fantasy, regardless of the lovely scene at the end. Hope this amazing book wins something next month - Newbery, Coretta Scott King, Cybil...


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