"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · poet-related · recommend · wondermous


7118768 by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Little, Brown, and Company, 2010

(hardcover) 217 pages

Twelve-year-old Lanesha lives in a tight-knit community in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. She doesn’t have a fancy house like her uptown family or lots of friends like the other kids on her street. But what she does have is Mama Ya-Ya, her fiercely loving caretaker, wise in the ways of the world and able to predict the future. So when Mama Ya-Ya’s visions show a powerful hurricane–Katrina–fast approaching, it’s up to Lanesha to call upon the hope and strength Mama Ya-Ya has given her to help them both survive the storm.

Ninth Ward is a deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family–as only love can define it. ~inside cover.

Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward is proof that working from prescribed lists can be good for you. The jacket art by Shino Arihara is appealing, and the synopsis is okay, but when I’d seen Ninth Ward on the new releases shelf in the Children’s Library I passed it up.  Don’t be the idiot I was and pass up this book.

Ninth Ward is entertaining and informative, and life-affirming. Rhodes doesn’t weigh the reader down with grim realities, though they are there, unavoidably. While Ninth Ward is a “deeply emotional story about transformation and a celebration of resilience, friendship, and family—as only love can define it,” it isn’t claustrophobic, as I feared it might be. The rhythmic prose are delicate. And Lanesha (protagonist/first person narrator) is of such a practical mind, she isn’t weighed down in pitiable states—how is that going to be helpful.

Lanesha is lovely. A girl with feet ever rooted in two worlds. Her late mother’s family is from Uptown and her father and Mama Ya-Ya is of the Ninth Ward. She sees the living and the ghosts (which would have sold me on the book had I known earlier). She is pragmatic and whimsical. She is a child to be cared for and a caregiver to the aging Mama Ya-Ya. At 12 she is on the cusp, both child/woman.

Lanesha is a strong and determined girl who’s take on the world around her is a blessing to the reader. Rhodes’ paints a vivid picture of Lanesha’s surroundings, and populates it with breathing characters. She does this with a poet’s hand, spare images, skillfully selected interactions. The 217 pages are not heavy with text or paragraphs or tiny fonts. I do not know how many words make up the story, but it is magnificent what Rhodes accomplishes in Ninth Ward.

The Reader gets to know Lanesha, the community, the neighbors. You get the backstory interwoven with daily interaction. Plenty of moments touch, and promise to linger, but the days (chapters) are progressing toward something. It isn’t just Hurricane Katrina or the aftermath…the flooding.

Rhodes skillfully relays the events leading up to the Hurricane, Mama Ya-Ya predicting the storm, the weatherman reports, the preparations, the evacuations, the fear, the anxiety of those stuck where they are… She is informative and interesting, and unyielding in her balance of parallel lines, of the preparation that goes into surviving, and not just storms such as hurricanes. That what you need is Love is not a trite statement in Ninth Ward; it is not kitsch.

The world can be a hard place sometimes, Lanesha. You have to have heart. You have to be strong. Parents want their children to grow up to be strong. Not just any strong, mind you, but loving strong. (144)

Lanesha is a resplendent daughter, a daughter rooted in the old ways but birthed in the the present; learning and becoming the signs of both. Her mother lingers, but she is raised by her community, influenced by the 82 year old Mama Ya-Ya and the young school teacher Miss Johnson; a remnant of the past and a reminder of the future.

Lanesha is a beacon, a hopefulness, an elegantly designed bridge both strong and beautiful. She is the Ninth Ward, she is a girl represented, she is New Orleans, she is all the heritage of her people past and present.

And Lanesha isn’t the only character worthy of an essay, or housing symbolic attributes.


The pacing of the story slows, housing chapters in a day and then two. The build up to the storm sweeps you into the heart of it, but it is after the hurricane hits that another level of suspense is revealed in the creeping of the water, the waiting for rescue. The stillness in the pacing creates anxiety. The time Lanesha and other—(why would I spoil this) spend on the roof is a natural enough shift, but noticeable. If Ninth Ward would be both Realist (magical or otherwise) and Allegory, Rhodes maintains coherence in her story telling technique—despite my frustrations. I was in the latter pages, racing toward the ending, wanting to have an epilogue—what happens to Lanesha, and TaShon and …

I was running out of pages and the daylight was dragging itself out. Yes, I realize Patience is a virtue with which I struggle. Alas, the Reader has to stick with Lanesha. A peek at the ending tells you nothing.

While the pacing shifts, necessarily, the rhythmic narrative voice of Lanesha carries the Reader. The ending does not disappoint. The journey, the story from the beginning up until the end, predicts the trajectory of an epilogue (as there is no “epilogue”). Rhodes leaves you caring about the outcome, artfully instilling Hope. And Hope carries the reader into dreaming the future for Lanesha and the Ninth Ward. Hope, and the confidence that Love may actually be the key to survival. In the closing of the story, in Lanesha, Rhodes seems to say: look what love built, how can we not move forward with confidence.


Somewhat of an aside:

I’d just finished Blue Balliett’s The Danger Box and I had to smile when (in Ninth Ward) Lanesha picks up a purple pen with which to write. I thought about what Zoomy and his Gam (in The Danger Box) said about Purple, that it was the color of believing.

And like Blue Balliett, Jewell Parker Rhodes’ story relays a strong belief in the necessity of perspective/perceptions in/through her characters.

Folks say, “School gives his mother a babysitter so she can work.” I don’t believe that. Andrew is just a different smart. Like if you say, “The world is flat,” Andrew’s mind cuts it up into squares. Like the way my eyes see things that others swear aren’t there. (28).

The differences in seeing things is important to survival, to the community, to the greater world. Great things can be accomplished through the unexpected, especially when they are equipped with a loving foundation, something both Zoomy and Lanesha have. Children and Adults alike should be reading these books.


Ninth Ward is recommended starting at Age 10… I agree, not due to themes, but to comprehension and inherent value. This is a great Middle-Grade book—well-suited.

Also, Ninth Ward begs to be read aloud—all books should, but this one is particularly good for it.

check out: The Happy Nappy Bookseller’s interview with Jewel Parker Rhodes, as I plan to in just a moment…

"review" · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend

inspired by…

The Purple Quill 

Who am I? 

Blue Balliett.



“Purple is the color of believing.” The Danger Box


Blue Balliett is a fascinating and inspiring woman, and her books are great, too. Her Chasing Vermeer (2004) had an incredible, highly acclaimed debut. The books to follow in the sense of a series The Wright 3 (2006) and The Calder Game (2008) were just as wonderful.

Balliett has established herself as a truly original voice in Juvenile Fiction, especially in the Mystery genre. Much of her originality is found in her protagonists. Balliett is an example of how you need not (nor should not) depend on stereotype to develop the “right” character for the case. Her characters are “coincidently” perfectly suited to solve the mysteries at hand.

Balliett also does her research and weaves fact into the consciousness of the story. The investigators’ enthusiasm is infectious and nothing historical is dry, nor is it unimportant. Events hundreds of years past find connection in the present, and such value is significant to the story. The protagonists learn about themselves, or find validation in being unusual. Unusual reads Gifted or Meant in Balliett’s books. The stories value distinction and considering differing perspectives. The books value the mind and all the senses, and even the unexplained, the happenstance.  Balliett is for curious minds; thinkers, observers, recorders; i.e. children. “All kids can be amazing problem-solvers and powerful thinkers, no matter what they are good at doing or whether they’re successful in school. That belief is at the heart of everything that I write.”

I mentioned that in Balliett’s stories the past helps inform the present, connections are made. What is lovely in The Danger Box is that the present story, and the very present character of Zoomy help inform the past. A historical figure is made more human, drawn to be considered in a compassionate and thoughtful way, because of Zoomy, and Lorrol.

Lorrol (yes, Laurel “misspelled” ) aka Firecracker girl, is the impetus behind The Gas Gazette: A Free Newspaper about a Mysterious Soul, whose issues you will find throughout the book in thoughtful and chronological progression. Lorrol and Brain boy/Zoomy share facts/trivia and quotes via a series of first person statements, followed by a “Who am I?” and a thought-provoking (thematic) question. Would love to see this inspire Elementary School classrooms. They are marvelous, and not the least frivolous. I love Balliett’s creativity.

That Balliett places her stories in real places with real mysteries are inspiring. “My dream is that one of the kids who reads The Danger Box really will find this missing treasure one day. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…” I love who Balliett imagines could find the missing treasure in The Danger Box.  “It seemed like seeing wasn’t a big part of this, because so many things looked like one thing and then turned out to be another” (271).

I enjoyed every one of Balliett’s previous three novels. The Danger Box surpassed them all. Perhaps that is not a fair statement. While fans of Balliett can be assured that The Danger Box is certainly her work, the new characters have shaped a new adventure, and a different way of approaching the Mystery.  While I believe, Balliett has offered a fresh approach/voice to Juvenile Mysteries with her previous three, in The Danger Box she is again pushing boundaries in offering a new perspective.

“The idea that so-called weaknesses can become strengths-that intrigues me. Are there also times when a physical disability can allow a person to accomplish things that others might not? I think this is an exciting question."

Protagonists or deuteragonists with disabilities are good, and are hopefully becoming more available. (I know there are people who follow this, feel free to chime in, or read the book and come back and comment.)  The question Balliett asks is exciting, “Are there also times when a physical disability can allow a person to accomplish things that others might not?” Her answer in the way of The Danger Box is compelling. What better setting for a question like this than a story involving Charles Darwin, evolution, and the book’s opening game with an eye on ‘survival of the fittest’?

Besides merely giving characters physical disadvantages, she gives them social/cultural ones as well. The Danger Box is a good book for a diverse audience, but will prove quite valuable to the “majority”; no one should be underestimated. Balliett spurs critical thinking, while convincing the reader of the value of it.

Balliett is fantastic with the descriptors, and her charm in the application of them, much of this has to do with the first person narrator Zoomy and his youthful take on the world:

Stick your finger straight out from the tip of your nose: That’s how far I can focus clearly. To see farther, I have to put on my glasses, which are heavy. The lenses are about as thick as a homemade oatmeal cookie, and the frames are brown. With glasses, you can see my whole eye and I guess it looks far away, like it’s maybe in the next room." (20)

I’m shorter than other kids my age, and I have thick hair that grows north, south, east, and west, even after a buzz cut. Gumps, who doesn’t have much hair, says I’m lucky to have it.

I have veins that don’t look blue through the skin on my hands, and I don’t’ get sunburned like my grandparents do. We all think I have more practical skin than the other Chamberlains. (21)

Slap, whack, smack—rubber beach sandals on a marble staircase can sound like firecrackers. (67)

Balliett has offered the Reader great characters, setting, and a nicely paced plot; as well as thought-provoking questions that the Reader can take home with them. So be careful. The book isn’t just called The Danger Box, it is one.


The Danger Box by Blue Balliett

Scholastic Press, 2010.

Hardcover, 320 pages

Recommended ages are 9-12; Seems reasonable.

A boy in a small town who has a different way of seeing.

A mischievous girl who won’t stay in one place.

A mysterious notebook .

A fire.

A stranger.

A death.

These are some of the things you’ll find within The Danger Box, the new mystery from bestselling author Blue Balliett.

note: Chasing Vermeer, The Wright 3, & The Calder Game are all Scholastic Press as well. And should be read; their trade paperbacks @ Powells books are embarrassingly affordable.


Yesterday’s quotes in the post “inspired” can be attributed to these sites: Blue Balliett’s Bio @ Scholastic Press, including the pop-ups: Author’s Note, Q&A on writing, and Blue’s Favorite Books; and Blue Balliet’s Website, mainly The Danger Box page. Do check them out. 


I was made aware that Balliett had The Danger Box out via “Welcome to My Tweendom,” her review