Read a Sample: Ninth Ward

I press the power button and the screen lights up, and there he is, the sweaty weather man.
Mama Ya-Ya sits up further. I sit beside her, a pillow behind my back. At the bottom of the bed, Spot is lying on his back, his belly up. If we were watching Oprah, we’d be having a good time.
The weatherman says, “Katrina is headed directly for New Orleans. If you haven’t gotten out, buckle down. It’s going to be a wild ride. Perhaps devastating.”
I go to Mama Ya-Ya’s window. Peek between slats. The sun’s gone.. The moon is yellow. The wind is whistling.

“It’s coming,” I hear Mama Ya-Ya say,
I shiver. Tell myself not to be afraid. We’ll survive the hurricane.
Ghosts told me so.

I must’ve fallen asleep, because when I wake, Mama Ya-Ya has her hands thrown over her head and she is sleeping deeply. The lamp on the nightstand makes the room glow, seem unreal. Nothing’s moving. No mice—they skitter at night. Not even fat water bugs that come out when you turn down the lights.
Nothing. Silence, inside and out.
I swear I can’t hear a thing. No one’s having a party. No fighting, laughing, singing. No words drifting up from the porches. Nothing.
The quiet makes me think I’m going to die. Like Mother Nature has sucked up everything—all sounds, winds, human talk and cries. A VACUUM. ABSENCE OF MATTER.
I worry I’ll be sucked up, too.
But the silence doesn’t last.


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.

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