Jewell Parker Rhodes is a children’s book writer of uncommon compassion, whose diverse books introduce historical and cultural moments to children through the powerful lens of story. In her Louisiana Girls trilogy, she wrote about the fallout of the Gulf Oil spill within a tale of family lore, Deep South living, and African mermaids (Bayou Magic); about post–Civil War plantation life through the eyes of a curious African American girl longing to learn more about the wider world (Sugar); and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in the mystical tale of a deeply bonded girl and grandmother living in New Orleans (Ninth Ward). In her latest book, Towers Falling, a contemporary girl named Deja, struggling with life in a shelter and the nameless affliction that keeps her father housebound, learns about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and discovers the link between that chapter of the past and her own present. We had the chance to speak with the warm, wise, and wonderful Rhodes about her books, her history, and the magical things stories can do for children.
I loved Towers Falling, and I want to talk about how it’s concerned partly with when and how to present painful moments in our past to children. It joins Sugar and Ninth Ward as books that show history to children through other kids’ stories. Do you think those kind of hard issues are more digestible to kids through fiction?
I actually think they are, because there’s the literal truth—the literal, historical truth—and that has the dry facts. But what you do with fiction, or creative nonfiction, is you try to infuse emotion back into it so that not only do students understand what’s happening, but they get to feel it and they have a participatory quality. Ideally, it’s connecting the human to the human. So it’s Lanesha (in Ninth Ward) understanding how it must have felt going up in the attic during Hurricane Katrina, and Deja (in Towers Falling) trying to figure out what the suitcase mean for her dad and her life. That whole arc of them going through their rite of passage, them going through their discovery, readers get to identify with that, becoming part of the event.
So I love historical fiction because there’s a literal truth and there’s an emotional truth, and what the fiction writer tries to create is that emotional truth. And one of the things, particularly with Towers Falling, is that with iPhones and computers, kids can bring up (videos of 9/11) and they can just see it. And I don’t know about you, but when I would see that image over and over again of the buildings falling, the planes hitting them, it just rocked my world. But the resilience, the bravery, the warriors who were there, and the way in which everybody came together to help each other—that response was beautiful, it was part of our American character, and there’s no way that just the literal fact of seeing the towers fall can give children that. And I get really excited: if you think about it, I can go back to the Civil War, World War II, times when our nation has been challenged, and for fifth graders, they’re just eight years from being able to go to war, to vote, to marry. They need to know the values that we have as Americans, so that when their time comes, as every generation receives its challenges, they will know that our country can survive it
You’ve written about Hurricane Katrina, plantation life—
And the BP oil spill, too. In Bayou Magic.
Yes! I’ve heard there are mermaids in that one, so I’m like, “I’m in.”
Yes, yes, yes. And they’re really special mermaids. One of the other things I’m always looking to bring in is more inclusive narratives. In Bayou Magic, I bring in the cultural tradition of African mermaids—Mami Wata, the mother goddesses. And you know that all cultures have mermaids, but in America, Ariel is the most famous.
And she’s kind of denuded of any context at all.
Yes! And I’ll talk to kids and say, “What did she give up? She gave up her voice, she gave up her legs, and for what—to marry a prince?” And all the kids go, “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that.” So my Mami Wata mermaids are much better. But I think that’s also part of why Towers Falling is so potent: because it’s about the diversity and the inclusiveness we have as American citizens. It wasn’t just one particular group of people, one cultural narrative. It was how Muslims have been integrated into American society. How Ben can have Mexican heritage but also be Jewish. And Deja, as an African American girl, is a shining example of that in Towers Falling. I just want us to remember that inclusivity, particularly in light of the immigration debates that are going on, is in our country’s DNA. And kids know that. They’re much more open than adults. I like kids.
You started writing for adults. What prompted your move into writing for children?
Oh, I always wanted to write for children. When I was growing up, we were really poor. My mother had left and it was all a mess. So I lived in my head a lot and I would get lots of books for Christmas—from librarians and teachers—and they just fed my imagination. Fed my sense of hope. So while it’s true that you want to see all kinds of people in literature, there’s power in just including humanity. The empathy I found reading Heidi and Little Women is empathy we have as human beings that can feed all of our souls. We have our differences, but we’re all so similar in our humanness. So those stories about young girls overcoming meant a lot to me and gave me hope. My grandmother, who raised me, never finished elementary school, and many in the family didn’t graduate from high school or they ended up in jail. My sister and I were the first to actually go to college. So I wanted to write books for kids that feed them the way that books fed me when I needed that kind of nourishment. The tragedy was, it wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I discovered black people wrote books. So the plus side was I had a lot of empathetic characters that meant a lot to me; the negative side was that I had no idea people of color wrote books or could star in them. And that’s what’s scary.
It was a conscious lack of awareness of that possibility?
Yes, and I discovered that I was reading white. And when I started writing in college, my classmate said, “Why didn’t you tell me your characters were black?” And I said, “Why didn’t you tell me your characters were white?” That led to the awareness that I think the characters are white unless I was told they’re not. And that’s so sad. I almost lost myself, lost my calling, because I didn’t understand there were these other voices.
Can you talk more about the importance for a child of seeing their possibilities legitimized on the page?
If you don’t see it, you don’t know it exists. I was in a highly segregated community in Pittsburgh on the North Side. I didn’t even know white people existed until I was in the fifth grade—other than these characters that were in books or on television. For me to discover there were other worlds, other ways to live, other kinds of people, allowed me to dream. When we cut away possibilities from children’s lives, what we’re really doing is cutting at their soul and their capacity to dream. The world is changing so rapidly, we can’t afford to have somebody who’s thinking the world is just a square block. In terms of children’s education, in terms of their mobility, in terms of their economic survival, they have to understand the interconnections.
I recently went to an elementary school in Treeport. It was in a segregated community, and they told me the students in general stayed in the community. It was just—segregated off. And a third grade boy literally asked me—and I think it was because I’m an author of color—he asked me, “Why do white people hate me so much?” This is for real. About six weeks ago. I was shocked, but I understood it. I expected the teachers to say something, but no, they left me on my own. But his world is so tiny that at third grade he’s already picked up values that limit his choices, that will limit his interactions or possibilities. What if he wants to go to a college, how does he deal with the integrated community? It was awful. And of course, I say, “No, not everyone hates you. That’s not true.” But I tried to also put it into historical context, that there has been slavery. And the next book I’m writing about is actually the murder of young black boys and Emmett Till. There are elements still that carry the stereotypes that caused us to be enslaved. But the world has changed, it is changing, and you can be part of that change. You shouldn’t assume everybody that’s white hates you. But I thought that was tragic. You’re talking about an eight-year-old.
Did you feel like what you said got through to him? Did you feel like you got to a place where you expressed what you wanted him to feel?
I think I did. I did spend a while, everybody was hanging on my words. And I can’t remember all of what I said, but I felt as though I said the right thing. And at the end of it, when they were waiting for their little buses, he came over and gave me a really big hug. I think that’s the danger of not sharing stories: not only do kids’ eyes become limited, but they get preconceptions about who does or does not like one another. The segregation gets reinforced, and that’s antithetical to what we’re supposed to be doing as a country. In general, if a school asks me to come, whether or not they can afford it, I just go. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that. I remember I was in Mississippi, and we were talking about ghosts and the mother’s ghost (in Ninth Ward) and why she’s still there. And one little kid says, “My grandmother died and I think I still see her. Am I crazy?” And it’s like, “No, you’re not crazy.” I was able to say that in African American cultural tradition, there’s this idea that “every goodbye ain’t gone.” That the spirit is so beautiful, it doesn’t disappear. So I said that if you’re feeling your grandmother’s love, or your spirit is reaching out to her, that’s part of our culture. That’s part of our heritage. And he was comforted by that. And someone that was from a different culture might have said something else, and that’s good, too. But it’s all of us saying different things, for different cultural heritages, and there are always going to be kids that need to hear that.
Can I tell you something else? None of the kids are based on me. Most of my childhood, I’ve sort of blanked it out. It was really bad. And I think, in a way, that through my writing—besides wanting to always write for children because I think they’re our best audience, they deserve our best, they need our best—I think I’m writing stories for the childhoods that I want them to have. In terms of their personalities, there’s hard things, whatever, but like Mama Ya-ya (in Ninth Ward) says, “Always, eventually, the universe shines down with love.” So today might be a hard day, next year might be a hard year, but always, eventually, the universe is going to shine down with love. So in Towers Falling, no matter what, you’re going to be a citizen. You’re going to have friends and family and community even though something horrific has happened. So I think in a way, I’m making a childhood for myself through books, “this is how it should have been.”
I really liked—you see this a lot in YA but less so in middle grade—I liked that Deja was allowed to be angry. She was’t just prickly, she had anger and she was able to express it. Why is that something you think kids should be exposed to?
I think it’s fine to validate strong feelings. And I also think that strong emotions, strong passions, make change. To be passive in what she wants out of her life means that she’s just going to give up, she’s going to despair. So even though she has to come to a greater understanding about why her life circumstances are the way they are, anger compels her to change. Anger makes her think of other dreams. She says, “I want my own house. I want to grow up and I’m out of here.” And I think that’s very, very healthy. Anger—any human emotion—we shouldn’t be fearful of it, especially if it causes us to do action that serves a greater good. Her anger doesn’t have her bullying someone, hitting someone, despising someone, or hating herself, she’s using it to discover herself. To say, “I want a different future.”
I feel like you caught her at a moment where depending on her influences, she could have gone either way. It’s that perfect fifth-grade moment. But she had a great teacher and good friends.
Oh, that’s really cool. I like that you said that. But you’re right, if she hadn’t changed and gone to a new school that was so inclusive, she could have been like that young kid in Treeport, in a segregated community, and not have had a moment to grow. Oh, that would be so sad.
Did you also have great teachers?
I did have great teachers and great librarians who fed me. I don’t remember them as individuals, per se, except my fifth-grade teacher, who put on music, “The War at Sea,” and said, “Write.” But I think that’s why, in all my books, you’ll always find an elder, a community, a teacher, somebody who’s mentoring a child. But unfortunately, anything before high school, I’ve blanked it out. I don’t remember. I remember them being there. Home was not always necessarily a safe place. I had tremendous love from my grandmother, who taught me about the oral tradition. But it was not good. So sometimes, I think that’s what happens to a lot of kids. They simply repress. So when I think about it logically, the only time I was ever happy was when I was at school. The only time I was happy was when I was reading a book. So fiction allowed me to be elsewhere. I used to imagine people behind curtains and wonder, “What are they doing in there?” So I was more outward focused. And in terms of books, I identified with the ones like Black Beauty or Boxer, about abused animals who don’t become part of the glue factory. I liked the classics, like Little Women and the Boxcar Children. And I as I got older I loved Nancy Drew. She was such a wonderful empowered young girl.
In the speech you gave in the wonderful foreword to Towers Falling, you talked about your optimism for the future of diversity in literature. That was one year ago. I’m wondering if that optimism has been supported by what’s happened in the following year? And if so, do any new titles come to mind?
Sherman Alexie’s Thunder Boy Jr. I’m going to be a grandma in November, and the first book my grandchild is getting is Alexie’s book. The fact that it is so beautiful, so inclusive, about this wonderful native community, I couldn’t have bought such a book if my grandchild had been born 15 years ago or 10 years ago. I am working on a book called Me and Emmett. Emmett Till, the Civil Rights, riffing off the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Daquan here in Chicago, and trying to deal with that. I remember, I was on a British Airways flight home coming home and Prince George was being born, and the captain announced it to the plane. And this is the same day George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin, and I remember thinking at the time, “every child deserves to be born a prince.”
But even though that’s terrible, I’ll probably remain optimistic, because I can’t help it. It’s in my soul. When you have an all-white classroom in Wyoming drawing beautiful pictures of brown boys and girls and talking about how much they love Lanesha (in Ninth Ward), they talk about the characters, their souls. In integrated classrooms everywhere, they’re reacting to them as plain old people.
I’m way past my kid years and I still feel expanded by the books I read. It never stops. If you’re a reader, you’re a kid for life.
Yay! I love the fact that you’re still reading all the books. I loved being a mom because of all the books. I would have stacks of books, just waiting for (my kids). And I love that. I loved it. When my husband and I were getting married, we started buying picture books for our kids. We used to read them to our dog. We’d sit on the couch and practice reading picture books. It’s in our DNA.
I want to ask you one more question. You’ve said your depiction of Marie Laveau in your debut novel, Voodoo Dreams, became allegorical for your life. Do you feel like creative writing gives us access to parts of ourselves that might otherwise remain hidden?
Oh, absolutely. When I wrote Marie Laveau, I healed myself, which took a very long time—from when I was a junior in college until I became a mother at 33 for that book to make its journey and be published. And I remember when I got done, in my 30s, I had grown up. I had healed myself from my mother’s loss, the different tragic things that had happened in my life. It healed me. I went from being Jewell to being Jewell Parker Rhodes. My husband was sleeping in bed and I made him get up because I was finishing it. And at that point it didn’t matter whether the book was going to get published. I had set out to do something and it healed myself. And also, in Ninth Ward, the mother—my mother is dead now and my mother was gone for most of my life and when she was in my life she was very destructive—but I always wondered why did I have the mother as a ghost in the bed. But the moment when Lanesha feels, “I can’t survive anymore, I’m going to give myself over to the waters,” the mother kisses her. And I think later, “Oh, that’s that healing moment with my mom.” And each of the books have pieces still of my soul and what I’ve lived, and all the elder women honor my grandmother. Even though she died before she was barely 60, there’s a way of honoring her all the time. I think when you look back on all my fiction, you’ll see me coming to terms with life. Healing myself. And trying to send out love to every child in the whole wide world, to give them all the things that they deserve to have. They deserve our best.
Towers Falling is on sale now.