Teaching Guide: Towers Falling

Download the Towers Falling Educator’s Guide for your classroom! You will find curriculum resources for lessons on history, social studies, and prejudice for ages 8-12 and up.

This guide was prepared by Erica Rand Silverman and Sharon Kennedy, former English teachers and co-founders of Room 228 (www.rm228.com), along with Kelly Hoover, a Colorado elementary school teacher. Erica and Sharon were teaching in NYC on September 11 and feel honored to have worked on this guide.

Little Brown and Company

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


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.

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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