Teaching Guide: Bayou Magic

Download the Bayou Magic Educator’s Guide for your classroom! You will find curriculum resources for fairy tales & folklore, environment, and family for ages 8–12 and up.

Educator’s Guide prepared by Betty Carter, an independent consultant and professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

Little Brown and Company


Jewell Parker Rhodes on Diversity and Character-Driven Stories

Award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes (Bayou Magic) kept booksellers at last week’s Children’s Institute 3 spellbound during her closing keynote, “Diversity and Character-Driven Stories,” about the next civil rights frontier: diversity. “[Diversity] isn’t about political correctness,” she said. “Nor is diversity a passing fashion; rather, it is a significant struggle to see if America can fulfill its civil rights promises of inclusivity —of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Below is the complete text of her speech, which drew a standing ovation from the crowd. The speech is reprinted with permission of the author.

I was born in a ghetto on the North Side of Pittsburgh. I was born as Emmett Till was dying and the civil rights era was being born.

I was lost, waiting to be found.

My mother abandoned me as an infant. Some say she left with another man; some say she was in prison for drugs. Family stories rose to the level of myth, with varying versions containing differing levels of truth and lies.

I grew up feeling “less than.” I was the sad, shy child hiding in the hall closet beneath coats. I’d wait for my grandmother’s voice to call—“Jewell, Jewell.” I was lost, waiting to be found. I thought being found, I’d be happier, better.

All the while I read stories. Stories with both truth and lies. Little Women, Black Beauty, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Nancy Drew.

I didn’t see me externally, but I felt me, my humanity.

I lived in a hyper-segregated community, and I didn’t see white people until I was five and was taken by bus [across the bridge] into downtown Pittsburgh. I had no experience with diversity. I’d only seen white people on book covers.

I inhaled books. I loved Classics Illustrated comic books. These were books that I could afford to buy after I turned in pop bottles for change. The Prince and the Pauper, Robinson Crusoe, A Journey to the Center of the Earth. Male narratives filled with adventure and self-discovery. I loved, too, the comic strip Prince Valiant, and when I was older, I read the Arthurian legends. Still I loved Prince Valiant the most—I wanted to be “valiant.”

While the books I read as a child lacked diversity in the strict sense, they didn’t lack values. Reading, I didn’t see me externally, but I felt me, my humanity.

Empathy during plot-driven conflict, struggle, and resolution can affirm and help break perceived barriers of race, class, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Imaginative literature allayed my bitterness and anger and kept my imagination alive.

What is America if not an act of the imagination? Together, we shape, continue to shape, a narrative about a continually improving country trying to live up to its founding ideas.

However, I do believe not seeing myself in books, not reading books by people of color, that I almost missed my calling to be a writer. A frightening thought.

my family’s lies were just more stories.

I was a junior at Carnegie Mellon when I saw, on the library’s new fiction shelf, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. Black women wrote books? It was a revelation. I switched my major the very next day. In my creative writing class, I was the only person of color. My classmates would say, “Why didn’t you tell me your characters were black?” “Why didn’t you tell me yours were white?” But truth be told, the experience confirmed that I, too, “read white” unless an author told me differently.

“Write what you know,” my instructor intoned. I wanted to write what I could imagine. I grabbed a Time-Life cookbook on Creole and Acadian cooking, and in the text it mentioned Bayou Teché, “Fais dodo” (a lullaby), and Marie Laveau. I stayed up all night writing a story that would become the seed for my novel Voodoo Dreams.

Only later, deep in my writing, did I realize that my grandmother was a natural-born storyteller, a master of the African American oral tradition, and it was this tradition that was calling and informing me. Only later did I realize that my family’s lies were just more stories. It took a decade before I became empowered to write from my culture and share it as any other writer would.

Grandmother migrated from the South, and besides being a Christian, she was a hoodoo woman. (Oh, the stories I could tell!) She’d come north to help my father raise his two small kids, and my aunt raise her three (her husband had been killed in a bar.) Grandmother took care of five kids under five. She died while parenting another generation of kids.

This is what I was told: Grandmother had been in the park with three little ones and had a heart attack or stroke—it’s not clear which. There were two hospitals, one on either side of Allegheny Commons and Riverview Park. There was Mercy, a cash-strapped Catholic hospital that had been one of the first to allow privileges for black doctors, and the more modern Allegheny General. Allegheny might have had in its first-floor ER the lifesaving equipment she needed; at Mercy, I was told, she died in an elevator. (I used to think Grandmother was so old; she was only 62.)

Grandmother died the spring I decided to become a writer. At Yaddo, writing chapter one of Voodoo Dreams, I felt her presence with me, directing me toward a deeper understanding of my heritage and the cultural and spiritual gifts she’d given me.

I remember Grandmother’s dream interpretations. Her stories about spirits and signs. Her sayings:

“Jewell, child, wear clean underwear. Always.”

“Do good and it’ll fly right back to you.”

“Everything of value can’t be seen.” (How true.)

“Jewell, child, there’s nobody better than you, and you’re no better than anyone else. We’re all a mixed-blood stew.”

We all bleed red.
And all good stories are, by their nature, diverse because they are about individualism, uniqueness.

Nonetheless, who gets published, what gets taught, is still dominated by an excluding narrative, a “master narrative” as Toni Morrison names it in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Vintage, 1993,) which privileges whiteness as the imaginative discourse. All of us—writers, publishers, teachers, librarians, booksellers—need to redouble, triple, our efforts so children can read and write and appreciate the diversity of their unique human selves. We must challenge the “master narrative” and replace it with true inclusivity.

Given 21st-century environmental and sustainability issues, global conflict and terrorism, lack of social mobility, and hate crimes reported and unreported, America can’t afford any child’s wasted mind, spirit, or voice. All stories have power, but that power is amplified when it mirrors specificities of race, class, religion, gender, health—physical and mental—and the myriad expressions of love and sexuality.

Without the mirror of me in Jones’s Corregidora, I wouldn’t have come into being. I wouldn’t have developed an empowered voice.

In 1845, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself was published. The slave narrative as a literary form was, unfortunately, created in America. Douglass’s autobiography, his narrative, read like fiction—vivid, concrete, and scenic details driven by his not imagined but all-too-real character.

Autobiography: autos bios graphia. It means, literally, scribing oneself into being. Rebirthing oneself.

It’s not accidental that slaveholders disallowed literacy.

Having been forbidden to read and write, Douglass tapped into what had been only an oral form, and his writing intensified his arc of empowerment. The slave narrative form begins with “I was born.” Details of one’s early life are given. Then there’s a triumphant moment when the slave becomes spiritually free. With Douglass, it was during his battle with Covey, a slave breaker. Rebelling against mistreatment, Douglass fights Covey for nearly two hours. Covey backed down. Douglass wasn’t his property. Nonetheless, Douglass had changed the narrative of a black man submitting to a white man. He declared: “I did not hesitate to let it be known…that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me.” Later, becoming physically free, while significant, was anticlimactic to that interior recognition of selfhood. The only other moment to supersede Douglass’s spiritual moment of freedom was the act of writing his story, “by himself,” for all the world to read. I am Douglass. I am Jewell.

“I am.” Being able to say “I am” is the greatest civil right for all of us. Standing on our own two feet, comfortable and free to be “I am,” will lessen, I truly believe, any urge to oppress, to make someone else “other.” This is why we need diverse books. It isn’t about political correctness. Nor is diversity a passing fashion; rather, it is a significant struggle to see if America can fulfill its civil rights promises of inclusivity—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. America’s story isn’t done. Freedom comes from empowered voices advocating for justice. Handing a book to a child, you—all of you—are influencing our country’s future story.

In children’s literature, I define diversity as the celebration of unique characters, a celebration of their heritage and culture, and their exterior and interior selves with the deepest sense of empathy and humanity.

Imaginative mirrors encourage all of us to be comfortable in our own skin. No one has to feel less than. Ever. All are included, none excluded, and everyone’s narrative is as important as any other’s. The more narrative threads we add—the rainbow threads, the diverse threads—the more American we become.

Douglass in his life’s story employed Aristotelian strategies—ethos, pathos, logos. Pivotal was his depiction of his mistress, who, formerly “kind and tender-hearted,” became under slavery’s influence cruel and stone-hearted. “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me,” wrote Douglass.

Slavery is as injurious to the slaveholder as it is to the slave. Though an African made into an African American, sui generis, forcefully through slavery, Douglass demonstrated his learning, his empathy, his American-ness, by recognizing that the nation holds together, evolves together, through common good and understanding.

Lack of diversity is as injurious to me as it is to you. Injurious to everyone.

Diversity is not a monthly but an everyday event. Kids are smart—they know it’s fairer that everyone’s stories should be celebrated all the time.

Offering a book to a child is a life-enhancing act. Booksellers, continue to offer books based upon content. The story of coming into being, “coming of age,” is as powerful as ever. This story is as old as time, but individualization makes it continually new.

Though my heritage includes Choctaw, French Canadian, Irish American, and credible evidence, on my mother’s side, of direct descent from a master who impregnated his slave. I was raised with the “narrative” of one drop of black blood. Legally, this was a test for enslavement.

I am and always will self-identify as an African American woman. (Though I can’t wait to take my National Geographic DNA test.)

My husband (we’ve just celebrated 30 years of marriage) is a six-foot-four Norwegian Scots-Irish man.

It is indeed the content of our characters that determines love. Just like having almost missed my calling as a writer, by not seeing interracial couples mirrored, I almost missed my true love.

I almost missed my children, too. I agreed to marry, but I didn’t want to have children; I couldn’t envision a world or citizenry that would welcome them.

“People are people are people,” my husband said. “We shouldn’t patronize our children to be.” He was right.

We have a wonderful daughter and son. My daughter is light, like her father. My son is brown, like me. At times I was mistaken for my daughter’s nanny. There were times when people assumed my husband had adopted his son. Too many times to count when strangers would declare our children couldn’t possibly be brother and sister. (Their features are the same; it’s only skin tone that varies.) Times when I worried one day my son might be harassed because he was dating a white woman… rather than being with his sister.

When Rodney King was brutalized, our family drove up the coast of California searching for refuge. Both of us were terrified at the thought that our three-year-old, grown strong and tall, might one day be seen as a threat.

Still, my husband and I worked hard to allow our children the right to define themselves. My daughter identifies as a black woman. My son, who has heard the “being safe while black” talks, doesn’t choose any race.

The world has changed, and my children and their friends are breaking barriers, prejudices. It’s the evolving story of our country. Events I couldn’t believe I’d ever see have come to pass because of fellow citizens living new narratives of what makes family, a good society.

Today, I am more convinced than ever that as adults we sometimes get in our children’s way. We have too much conflicted history, too many worries and wounds. We forget that our power (and that of the community around us) is not to give up, not to quit—to unlock our children’s full potential as citizens.

I’ve been to all-white schools, all-black schools, and mixed-race schools and have seen illustrations of beautiful black and brown faces of Lanesha’s Ninth Ward world taped to the walls. There’s recognition of race, but the discussion is always about how strong, how brave, how spiritually and math smart, how rich in love Lanesha is. Kids search for what’s relevant, what connects with their life… NOW. They know bad things happen, like Hurricane Katrina. Through character-driven stories, they explore what it’s like to survive, thrive, and become more themselves.

For me, I must admit it is extra sweet when a brown girl whispers, “Lanesha looks like me.” Or says, “Mama Ya Ya is like my grandmother.”

In Sugar, an ex-slave child wonders: If I’m free, why can’t I play with the former master’s son? Or be friends with the Chinese? Why does society still divide us?

Kids know it’s more exciting being friends with everyone. And though my jacket covers only show girls, my stories are always about a strong boy-and-girl friendship. (As I am mother to a son and daughter, how could they not be?)

In Bayou Magic, I wrote about African goddess-mermaids who accompanied slaves to America. Recently, in Minnesota schools, I talked with girls about how the African descendent mermaids were preferable to the Western Ariel, who changed her identity—inside and out—to marry a prince.

Booksellers, children’s booksellers—every day you are on the front lines, informing parents and teachers.

When a parent says about a book, “That’s not my child’s world,” remind her or him of the future. Social fluency will be the new currency of success. Not experiencing diversity challenges our kids’ future in the global workforce. It handicaps them from making America and the world more livable and just.

When a teacher says, “I don’t feel qualified teaching this experience,” remind them that they have a human heart and that the writer is their partner in connecting stories to kids.

Encourage your favorite writers to write more-diverse books. Humanity and empathy qualify us all. Perhaps as a ’60s legacy, some folks feel they can’t write about ethnic cultures. Hogwash. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, don’t stereotype. Do research and write with empathy.

Booksellers, your greatest power is that you select and arrange on your shelves which stories should be offered to children. How cool is that—how powerful is that! Continue to fill your shelves with diverse literature, know those stories, and help children make connections. Connections not just ruled by characters’ exteriors but by their interior selves, their journeys, and the novels’ themes.

Diversity in books is a civil rights frontier. As a nation, we’ve made progress. My life’s story bears witness to that. I am optimistic about the future. We all should be. We’re united by our humanity, united by stories.

I celebrate each and every one of you as booksellers, as parents, grandparents, as uncles, aunts, as individuals. Thank you for fulfilling the sacred trust of handing a book to a child.

April 30, 2015
Publishers Weekly

Resources: Ninth Ward

Hurricane Katrina Before and After
Here is an interesting look of New Orleans during the hurricane vs. how it looks now through pictures. Via MSNBC.

Rising from Ruin
A special report by MSNBC that chronicles the rebuilding process of two Gulf Coast towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina, including profiles of town residents and their stories. Via MSNBC.

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
This is a film by Spike Lee Information on a documentary about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. This film won the Orizzonti Documentary Prize and one of two FIPRESCI awards. It won three Emmy awards. Via Wikipedia.

The Real Ninth Ward

The Ninth Ward or 9th Ward is a distinctive region of New Orleans, Louisiana that is located in the easternmost downriver portion of the city. It is geographically the largest of the 17 Wards of New Orleans. The 9th Ward neighborhood was thrust into the nation’s spotlight during Hurricane Katrina. Much of the 9th Ward on both sides of the Industrial Canal experienced catastrophic flooding in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The majority of the damage was caused by storm surge. There were multiple severe levee breaks along both the MRGO and the Industrial Canal.

A house sits on top of a car in Ward 9, New Orleans, 21 days after the hurricane.

Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans over a year after Katrina, showing the remaining devastation.

A chair sits in front of what was a home in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana. This is about 1/4 mile of where the levy broke. Essentially a river of water hit this house destroying it. This photo was taken about 9 months after the storm.

How I Came to Write Ninth Ward

By Jewell Parker Rhodes

I wrote my first children’s book, The Last Scream, when I was eight years old. It was a very thin book, bound in yellow construction paper, and illustrated by me! I read it aloud to my Homewood Elementary School classmates and thought I was in heaven.

I was the kid who preferred books to dolls. I was the kid they called “little professor” and the one always asking, teachers and librarians, “More, please.” Books were better than food.

It’s taken me forty years to be ready to write Ninth Ward, my second children’s book. Why so long? I was waiting for the magical moment when I felt the right story call to me.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, I was transfixed by new stories and images of the survivors. I always kept asking myself, “What about the children?”

My own family had experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake; my children were five and three. My three year old stopped speaking; my five year old, kept hiding. For a week, my husband, children, and two dogs all lived on our “big bed” in a broken house without utilities. But we were all safe, and we were all together—I couldn’t imagine the trauma of dislocation and death Katrina caused to Louisiana families.

Still, it wasn’t until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening New Orleans, that Lanesha’s voice spoke to me:

“They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove. My mother died birthing me. I would’ve died, too, if Mama Ya Ya hadn’t sliced the bloody membrane from my face.”

There she was! An orphan, someone nurtured with care by an elder, and someone born with a caul, a sign of “second sight.” I just knew Lanesha was a survivor—a strong, resilient, and heroic child to be celebrated. With loving from Mama Ya Ya, friends, and the companionship of a dog, Lanesha would endure. Lanesha is the child who throws her arms about herself and says, “I like me.”

With that voice, I knew I had my next story.

I was the child with far less self-esteem who sometimes hid in the closet, crying. My mother abandoned me as an infant and Grandmother Ernestine raised me. Grandmother, like Mama Ya Ya, was a conjure woman, believing in ancestors and holistic healing. She was the community griot, telling stories to heal us all. I was less cool, less smart, and less creative than Lanesha. Lanesha is the character I would’ve loved reading about!

Ninth Ward has sad moments but it isn’t a sad story. Just as the levees break, life sometimes seems unbearable. But Lanesha shares her story to inspire others—I think it’s a story of triumph—a particularly New Orleans triumph.

I was born in Pittsburgh but my very first adult novel was set in New Orleans and honored its mixed-blood stew of social and spiritual traditions. I’ve been writing about, visiting New Orleans ever since. I think I might have lived there in another life.

My entire life has been a journey on the way to writing Ninth Ward. Grandmother, my community, and teachers and librarians showered me with guidance and love. They all gave birth to Lanesha. A girl with hope, a big heart, and a firm belief that always, eventually, “The universe shines down with love.”

Trivia Questions: Ninth Ward

1. What was Lanesha born with that gave her “the sight”?

A caul

2. How old is Lanesha at the start of the book?


3. What happened to Lanesha’s mother?

Died giving birth to her

4. How old was Lanesha’s mother when she gave birth to Lanesha?


5. Which Shakespeare play is mentioned several times in the book?

Romeo and Juliet

6. Besides Lanesha, Mama Ya-Ya, and Spot, who else stays in their house?

Her mother’s ghost

7. What color is Lanesha’s room?

Different shades of blue

8. Mama Ya-Ya says numbers have meanings. According to her, what is the meaning of the number 3?


9. How was Jermaine killed?

In a drive-by shooting

10. What kind of work did Mama Ya-Ya do?


11. Which school subject does Lanesha try to help Andrew learn?


12. Who does Lanesha save from the bullies Max, Eddie and Lavon?


13. What does Miss Johnson think Lanesha should be when she grows up?

An engineer

14. Lanesha lives in the Ninth Ward with Mama Ya-Ya. In which neighborhood does her biological family live?


15. Where do Ginia and Lanesha go after school?

The grocery store

16. Where does Mr. Ng’s daughter live?


17. Which state did Hurricane Katrina hit first?


18. What does Miss Johnson give Lanesha before she evacuates to Baton Rouge?

A teacher’s edition math book (pre-algebra) to practice problems

19. Where do TaShon and his Dad go before Hurricane Katrina hits?

The Superdome

20. What does Lanesha draw pictures of?


21. What does Pastor Williams tell Lanesha about her mother just before the storm?

That she wanted to have Lanesha very much and/or that she came to his church

22. Why does Lanesha choose to make chicken, rice and beans before the storm? (and not other kinds of food)

They are foods that will last a long time before they spoil, in case they lose electricity.

23. Why don’t Lanesha and Mama Ya-Ya evacuate before the hurricane?

They don’t have enough money/any way to leave

24. Where do Lanesha and Mama Yaya hide during the storm?

In the tub

25. On what day of the week does the storm start?

A Sunday

26. How does TaShon get to Lanesha’s house after Hurricane Katrina has hit New Orleans?

A woman (looking for someone named Lyle) gives him a ride

27. Why does Mama Ya-Ya tell Lanesha to move up to the attic when the storm is over?

She knows the flood is coming

28. What does the flood water smell like to Lanesha?

The Mississippi River

29. Why did TaShon always keep quiet around other kids?

A tree trunk (or math)

30. What do Lanesha and Tashon use to help them knock the rowboat free? (bonus point suggested for two answers)

A tree trunk (or math)

BONUS: What is the difference in Mama Ya-Ya and Lanesha’s ages?

82-12= 70 years

FAQ: Ninth Ward

You’ve written other books that take place in New Orleans and write with such affection for the characters if the Ninth Ward. Your connection to the South seems to run deep. Can you talk a little about that connection?

My Grandmother Ernestine who raised me was a southern girl. She’d migrated North seeking a better life for her children; but I always sensed that our urban ghetto didn’t compare to the beauty of the South. Grandmother, never finished elementary school, but she was a terrific storyteller and a gifted healer. She practiced her “rootwork” on us, kids, by insisting on our daily dose of cod liver oil and using herbs for healing burns, cuts, and colds. Grandmother, like Mama Ya-Ya, also believed in signs. For her, numbers, colors, dreams, all had meaning. She’d also told us that we had to burn the leftover hair in our brush, because if we didn’t and a bird found a strand and used it for its’ nest, our hair would “fall right out.” Grandmother was also the wife of an AME Methodist minister and, as in New Orleans, blended African-based spirituality with Christianity.

So, short answer: I’m not a southern girl but I was raised by one. My upbringing provided the perfect entry to understanding the complicated, magical, and mystical world of New Orleans!

Within the first few paragraphs of Ninth Ward readers know that the relationship Mama Ya-Ya and Lanesha have is special. The details the girl shares about Mama Ya-Ya tell us so much about the woman, the child, and their life together—and your dialogue is pitch-perfect. Do your characters speak to you first, or do you visualize them, then give them voice?

I need to hear my character’s voice before I can write about them.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I was transfixed by new stories and images of the survivors. I kept asking, “What about the children? Still, it wasn’t until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening New Orleans that Lanesha spoke to me. I wrote furiously, trying to honor Lanesha’s voice. As I wrote, Lanesha became more real—became a lively, wonderful three-dimensional girl.

Mama Ya-Ya’s voice is based upon my memory of my grandmother’s voice. However, Mama Ya-Ya’s vulnerability surprised me. She becomes quieter and quieter as the storm approaches. I think children are shocked when grown-ups are confused and don’t know what to do. I was shocked by Mama Ya-Ya’s silence. Eventually, I realized her silence became a “sound”—a cue for Lanesha to grow up.

While Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Ninth Ward form the backdrop of your book, you tell that story through individualsMama Ya-Ya, Lanesha, and TaShon (and his dog, Spot)all of whom possess unique abilities or characteristics, and all described as abandoned, lost, or as orphans at some point. Tell us a little about them.

Everyone knows the story of Hurricane Katrina but we don’t know the particulars. I wanted readers to see themselves in my characters and to connect with their humanity.

All children should have a loving elder, like Mama Ya-Ya. And every child, like Lanesha and TaShon, should develop a bond with someone they didn’t see, at first, as a potential best friend. Add experiencing a pet’s love and perspective, and, I think, you have the recipe for a very good life.

Still, my characters are all damaged in some way. Spot has been abandoned and abused; TaShon is the alienated, short kid, not quite nurtured enough by his hard-working parents; Mama Ya-Ya has lost her fiancé and her community’s faith in her midwifery; and Lanesha has been orphaned. When I was writing the story, I didn’t think of these “damaged” connections and interconnections, they just happened. I think I must’ve been echoing the losses in my own life. My mother had abandoned me as an infant and I often felt isolated and rejected. I didn’t have a pet though I wanted one. And my grandmother wasn’t perfect but often frazzled and harried caring for five grandchildren and cooking and cleaning for a large extended family. And yet—my childhood was good.

So—what does this mean? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe all along I’ve been trying to say that perfect families and perfect lives don’t exist. Nonetheless, we can create, if need be, alternative families. We can have friendships without betraying our sense of self. We can care and love an animal that in turn cares and loves us.

To me, Ninth Ward is a joyful book. Lanesha is the child strengthened by love and friendship.

Early in the book, before the storm is arrives, Lanesha remarks about her day, “I thought this day was going to be ordinary. But it was full of surprises.” To me those lines say so much about her incredible strength and her positive outlook. Where does this strength come from?

Lanesha’s strength comes from Mama Ya-Ya’s unconditional and abiding love. She lives in a neighborhood that despite poverty, provides her with a sense of family.

Lanesha also has wonderful teachers who challenge her mind. When rational thought is needed, she is capable of solving real-life problems using her math skills. She also has vocabulary words such as “fortitude” that help her contextualize her experience. Education gives Lanesha a measure of control over her life. She also loves to read to find out things (from her home Encyclopedia Brittannica) and to feel emotions garnered from stories like Romeo & Juliet (using film and books from the public library). Lanesha also draws strength and optimism from her creative life. Her colored pens allow her to reaffirm her self-love. “I [heart] Me.” Her puzzle pieces allow her to see beauty and imagine new landscapes such as Paris. Lanesha draws strength, too, from being able to paint her bedroom blue. She’s learned that she can complete projects on her own.

Faith also supports Lanesha’s positive outlook. Her perception of the world isn’t static. There are things seen and unseen. Good and bad can ebb and flow. She is not afraid of ghosts, of death. In her world, the human spirit doesn’t die. Most significantly, she’s been taught, always, eventually, “the universe shines down with love.”

Lanesha was born with a caulwhat’s the significance of her caul? Several characters in the book see ghosts and ghostsboth neutral and benevolentare a real presence in the book. Can you talk about them. What is it they are looking for?

Lanesha, when she first spoke, told me she was “born with a caul.” A caul is a portion of the amniotic sac that sometimes forms a veil over a newborn’s face. In folklore, this means the child will have “sight.” By announcing her gift, Lanesha was heralding her southern heritage. She was telling me, matter-of-factly, that she accepted and experienced mysteries.

It’s impossible to live in New Orleans without experiencing remnants of the past. The architecture, the churches, the above ground cemeteries, and even the music, all incorporate ghosts and echoes of slavery and French and Spanish colonization. Particularly, for African Americans, New Orleans is where African-based spiritual beliefs blended with Catholicism. It is the birthplace of ragtime and jazz, rhythms inspired by African drums. It is a place where medicinal healing by slaves and native peoples produced a “roots” based, holistic tradition. In New Orleans, many African Americans do not believe the dead are accessible. It is not uncommon for someone to talk about receiving comfort and guidance from their ancestors. Dreams, spiritual visitations, and talking with the dead are all part of folklore and cultural and religious traditions.

The ghosts in the book help, I think, to deepen the “sense of place.” New Orleans is a uniquely American city—a mixed-blood stew, historically, and in the present.

Most of the ghosts
aren’t ready to move on. They feel comfortable, like Lanesha, living in two worlds, the seen and the unseen. In a sense, the ghosts are Lanesha’s alternative community.

In “coming of age,” tales, there is always a moment where the child ascends. Mama Ya-Ya is old with waning powers. Her inability to interpret Katrina’s signs is a call for the next generation, for Lanesha, to take charge. This is a natural cycle. The young with their energy and education replace elders who sustained the world as they knew it. Lanesha is getting ready to shape the world, as she knows it—and she “knows” the world as Mama Ya-Ya and her teachers have taught her. The ghosts keep silent about the impending storm because 1) they’ve seen it all, their sense of time is infinite; but their silence, coupled with Mama Ya-Ya’s silence, provides space for Lanesha to find her voice. And she does. To me, this is life. Parents, teachers, and ancestral ghosts (history, if you prefer) will ultimately give way to the next generation. Children will, one day, rule the world.

Mention of bridges appear throughout the book. Lanesha’s teacher tells the girl she would make a great bridge builder/engineer. Mama Ya-Ya says that Lanesha’s “feet bridge two worlds.” What can we hope for a bright future for Lanesha? (For New Orleans?)

Bridges kept many New Orleans citizens above water. Bridges took then to a safer place. Bridges occupy a nether world, a space that seems to defy air, land, and water. Bridges are signifiers for human ingenuity, intelligence, and interconnected-ness.

I have always thought New Orleans would thrive, no matter what. Hurricanes, land erosion, the BP oil spill have challenged my optimism. But there are thousands of Laneshas and TaShons in New Orleans who will not be daunted. As nature heals what humanity has done to it, I think lots of good people will be there, too—healing and loving a unique state back to health. It will take time. Louisianans have the requisite grit, determination, and abounding love.

This is your first for young readers. How did that happen? (& have you thought about writing others for this audience?)

I have ALWAYS wanted to write for children. My entire life I’ve been trying to become good enough, confident enough to write for children. Now that Ninth Ward is born, I feel reenergized. I’ve drafted a young adult novel and I’m starting on a new middle grade adventure.

Read a Sample: Sugar

Everybody likes sugar.
Folks say, “There wouldn’t be any good food without sugar.” Like rhubarb cobbler. Blueberry pie. Yellow cake.
But I hate sugar. I won’t eat it. Not ever.
“No sweets, just savories,” I used to tell Ma. “Corn bread. Grits.” Even nasty okra and green beans are better than sugar.
There’s all kinds of sugar. Crystals that turn lemons into lemonade. Syrup that cools into taffy. Or pralines, brittle. There’s even sugarcane you can suck until your lips wrinkle and pucker.
In the mill, there’re mountains of sugar ready to be shipped from Louisiana to the whole wide world.
Ma would say , “Most folks think sugar is something in a tin cup or a china bowl. They don’t know sugar is hard.”
“Hard,” I’d echo as she poured well water into a bowl.
“Months of planting, hoeing, harvesting. Bones aching , sweat stinging your eyes. Dirt clings everywhere.”
“Beneath nails, toes. Even in my hair,” I’d complain before splashing my face with water.
Me and Ma always smelled of sugar, sweat, and dirt.

“What did I smell like when I was born?”
“Spring,” she’d whisper, wiping my face dry. “Not Planting-Day spring. Just spring. Blooming, lemony, and fresh.”

I wish I could remember that clean smell.
When I was two days old, Ma strapped me to her back and cut cane.

Nights, we ate cornmeal cakes. Then me and Ma would lie on our hay mattress on the packed-dirt floor.
“Sugar’s hard,” she’d sigh, kissing my cheek, twice, before sleep.
Before another day tending cane.

River Road is almost nothing but cane. There’re two rows of slave shacks. Mostly empty now. There’s the big plantation house where the Willses live. The mill where cane is boiled and dried into crystals. The stable and henhouse.
The rest is cane . Growing ten feet high, row after row, as far as the eye can see. When wind blows, cane hisses, comes alive, swaying like a dancing forest. Thin, pointy leaves lick the air, flapping like streamers. It’s pretty. ’Til you get close. Then sugar gets nastier than any gator.
Sugar bites a hundred times , breaking skin and making you bleed. Each leaf has baby teeth on all its edges. Even with work gloves, tiny red pricks itch everywhere. My cheeks get smacked. By harvest’s end, my face, hands, and arms are all cut up.

Outside River Road Plantation, nobody cares who cuts cane. Nobody cares my hand swings the machete, bundles, drags stalks onto the cart.
At River Road, my hands are the youngest. Everyone else’s hands, except Lizzie’s (she’s two years older than me), are old and wrinkled. Grown hands, stiff and scarred. Sometimes the old folks put their hands in warm water with peppermint to heal. Or rub them with fatback sprinkled with cayenne.

I’ve lived at River Road my entire life. Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. My back hurts. Feet hurt. Hands get syrupy. Bugs come. Sugar calls— all kinds of bugs, crawling, inching, flying. Nasty, icky bugs.
I hate, hate, hate sugar.

During harvest, Mister Wills sets lamps so folks can cut cane all night. “Cane won’t wait,” he says. He shouts, “Cane time, cuttin’ time.” Or he snarls, “Two bits extra for the most cane cut.” Then, everybody speeds up and there’re more tiny bites. Just like teeth chew rows of corn, sugar-teeth chew on you.
Mister Wills keeps complaining, “Not enough cane workers.”
I think, Why isn’t he helping, then?
Mister Wills just walks and watches everyone work. Behind him, Tom, the Overseer, cracks the whip, spraying dirt.

Since Emancipation, there’re not enough workers. Almost everyone young enough, without gnarled, crinkly brown hands, has gone north.
“Some folks are scared to leave,” said Ma. “They say, ‘The bad I know is better than the bad I don’t.’ They don’t believe they have strength left for adventure.”
“We’re ready for adventure. We’re strong.”
“That’s right,” said Ma, hugging me close.

We waited for Pa, who was sold right after I was born, to come back for us. We were going to run away. Head north. We waited and waited. When the war started, Ma whispered, “Pa’s fighting for the Union. I just know it. Helping to free us.” We waited for him, proud, hoping. The war ended. President Lincoln won. Still, we waited. Five years of freedom and Pa still didn’t come.
Then Ma got sick and died. Her strength drained like water.
I’m ten now. ’m not a slave anymore.
I’m free.
Except from sugar.

Trivia Questions: Sugar

1. Does Sugar like her name?


2. What animal does Billy ask Sugar about in the beginning?

The hyena

3. What are the names of the older workers that take care of Sugar?

Mr. and Mrs. Beale

4. Who gets to be captain when Sugar and Billy are sailing on their river boat?

Both Billy and Sugar are captain!

5. Which character does Sugar like to tell stories about the most?

Br’er Rabbit

6. Which friend of Sugar’s decides to go north early on?


7. Who first tells Sugar that Chinese workers are coming to River Road?


8. What continent do hyenas come from?


9. Once Sugar goes off to hunt for eagles, how many trees does she climb to find them?

15 tree

10. What year in the book do the Chinese workers come to the plantation?


11. How do you say “hello” in Chinese?

“Ni hao” (pronounced “Knee-how”)

12. Why are the other workers afraid of the Chinese workers?

They are afraid the Chinese workers will take their jobs.

13. What is the first Chinese word Beau draws in the dirt for Sugar?

His name “Bo”

14. Which animal year of the Chinese zodiac was Sugar born under?

Year of the Monkey

15. What name does Sugar give to the cat?

Emperor Jade

16. What kind of food does Beau teach Sugar how to make?

Rice balls

17. What’s the last word Sugar’s mom says to her before she dies?


18. When Billy has a fever, what does Sugar practice for him?

Her whistle

19. How does Rabbit get out of the well?

He tricks Hyena into jumping on one of the buckets on the pulley, bringing Hyena down into the well and Rabbit up out of the well.

20. Does Billy continue to cut cane during harvest?


21. What color is Beau’s kite?


22. What animals do Sugar and Billy show Beau?


23. What color is the dragon in Beau’s story?


24. What is Beau’s zodiac animal?


25. Why does Sugar go into the mill when it’s on fire?

To rescue Jade

26. Who started the mill fire?

Tom, the overseer

27. When Sugar’s healing, who tells her a different story every day?

Mr. Beale

28. What does Mr. Wills announce once Sugar’s done healing?

He says he has sold the mill.

29. How do Beau and Sugar say good-bye for the last time?

They bow to each other

30. Where are the Beales and Sugar headed at the end of the book?

North to St. Louis

FAQ: Sugar

Tell us about Sugar in three sentences or less.

Sugar is about a spirited, curious girl who wants to play with friends, listen to stories, and have fun. Instead, Sugar [my heroine], an orphan and ex-slave, has to work hard, all day, on a sugar cane plantation [tending cane]. When Chinese workers come to the plantation, Sugar—enchanted by cultural differences and similarities, reaches out to the new community and discovers friendship and dares to dream a new future for herself where she can be free to explore the world and fulfill her dreams.

In both Sugar and your first book for children, Ninth Ward, you write strong, [resilient] female characters. Why do you think this is important?

Sometimes life brings unavoidable hardships like a hurricane in Ninth Ward and lingering aftereffects of slavery in Sugar. But what always matters [to me] is how a person responds—how they use love, hope, and faith to remain resilient and strong. For me, Lanesha and Sugar as characters mirror the beauty and heroism of all girls and the society (neighbors, teachers, parents, foster parents, and friends) that support them.

How did you come to the idea of writing about the post-abolitionist South?

A friend emailed me a review of Lucy Cohen’s book, Chinese in the Post Civil War South: A People Without a History. Ed knew I’d been traveling frequently to Sichuan University in Chengdu, China to teach creative writing. He also knew I’d be captivated by an American history I’d never known. I kept dreaming of Chinese and African Americans in post abolitionist South, working side by side. Then, one day, I visualized a little girl, hands on her hips, complaining, “How come I have to work? How come I can’t play?” Sugar was born.

Why is writing historical fiction for children so important?

While teaching historical facts is important, fictional techniques allow readers to empathize with characters and feel, sense the events via concrete details. Readers “know” history in a fuller, more alive sense. I do believe all of us need to understand our historical past, our nation’s historical past to better understand ourselves, our common humanity and our country.

If readers can take away one thing from this book what would you want that to be?

Young people should believe that they, like Sugar, can make their dreams come true. Being resourceful, unafraid of new cultures and experiences, opens horizons and enriches our common humanity. So to every reader, I say, ”Be bold, be brave, expand your horizons!”

Trivia Questions: Bayou Magic

1. What is Maddy’s full name?

Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson

2. What are the names of Maddy’s sisters?

Dionne, Aleta, Layla and Aisha

3. What’s the first thing Gradmere says to Maddy?

“Did my firefly come?”

4. What kind of animal is Sweet Pea?

A chicken

5. Where does Grandmere live?

Louisiana bayou called Bon Temps

6. What does Maddy tell Grandmere she wants to be when she grows up?

A hero

7. Who becomes Maddy’s friend when she first gets to the bayou?


8. Do Bear and Maddy see an alligator on the ariboat?


9. Which resident of Bon Temps rescues birds?

Old Jake

10. Does Maddy successfully call the fireflies when Grandmere asks?


11. Which water spirit did Membe’s tribe honor?

Mami Wata

12. Which plantation did Membe work on?

Lavalier Plantation

13. What does a bird with a crooked wing mean to Grandmere?


14. When Maddy dreams about the oil spill, what happens in the dream?

She sees the oil spill, and feels herself drowning in it

15. When Maddy tells Grandmere about seeing the mermaid, what does Grandmere say?

Grandmere says she hoped Maddy would see her, and that the mermaid is Mami Wata

16.Does Mami Wata pull Maddy into the water?


17. How does Mami Wata help Maddy breathe under water?

Mami Wata blows bubbles into Maddy’s lips

18. Does Maddy successfully call the fireflies when Grandmere asks?


19. What man-made objects does Mami Wata show Maddy under water?

Oil tunnels

20. What is “oui” mean in English, and what language is it in?

“Yes” and French

21. What does Maddy do to get Bear’s pa to let go of him?

She kicks him and calls him

22. What kind of food do Maddy and Bear make for Bear’s pa?


23. What kind of plant does Maddy put on Bear’s bruises?


24. What’s the oil called before it is processed?


25. What is the name of the big body of water Bear’s pa works on?

Gulf of Mexico

26. How does Bear’s pa die?

A pelican

27. What kind of bird does Maddy take to Old Jake to heal?

Maddy asks Mami Wata to call on other mermaids to help them

28. What does Maddy ask Mami Wata to do to help with the oil spill?


29. True or false: Do the mermaids make a levee to save Bon Temps?
30. What does Maddy ask her mom to promise her at the end of the book?

To promise that Maddy will be able to spend every summer with Grandmere, Bear and her friends in Bon Temps

Teaching Resources: Sugar

Listed below are some fun and educational links having to do with Sugar. Explore the Laura Plantation as it is today. Visit the sites about Br’er Rabbit’s stories. Learn more about Chinese immigrants like Beau and Master Liu.

Laura Plantation is the inspiration for River Road Plantation.

This link gives info about the Br’er Rabbit tales as America folklore.

This link is an excellent resource re: Chinese exclusion—the time period when my Sugar’s Chinese friends had no pathway to US citizenship

A graphic novel: Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America

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