Jewell Parker Rhodes's Blog
December 9, 2012
Click on the link above for more info on my newest book, SUGAR! Like in NINTH WARD, SUGAR celebrates a spirited girl who through her courage and resilience, thrives and makes the world a better place.
I haven’t been blogging lately because I’ve been busy writing and traveling. But today, I’m celebrating what is to come—SUGAR, and I’m also reminding myself that a “writer writes.” Which is exactly what I’ve been doing! I’ve been writing about “Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson. Maddy, for short.”
It’s so lovely having characters live in the world. Lanesha in NINTH WARD is more relevant than ever before given Hurricane Sandy. (During disasters, children are called upon to be brave and strong, too.)
My heroine, Sugar, is getting ready for her literary debut. She can barely contain herself! She’s funny, spunky, and smart.
And, dear Maddy is just being born. Each day I’m discovering more and more about her. She’s tiny, eight going on nine. She has “bird bones,” her mother says. But like a bird, she soars. Literally! There’s magic in her heart.
So, dear readers, look for more posts to come. More writing news. I’ll be blogging about why boys are so important in my novels, sharing my writing techniques, and exploring more children’s historical fiction. Send me comments, questions, and, by all means, your advice on what books I should read.
Happy, Happy Days to Come!
October 3, 2012
The Mouse of Amherst by Elizabeth Spires
Below I’ve written a critique of this wonderful book. I am always interested in the relationship between children and works of art. The essay below is thick on the scholarly stuff, so proceed at your own discretion! (If you haven’t had any coffee yet, you might want to come back later.) For an example of really amazing children’s literature scholarship, check out David Beagley’s podcasts (ITunes U) on ITunes! He discusses everything from the origins of children’s books to its genres. I talked about him before, when I put up a post on historical realism. I’m also mentioned in an article at LaTrobe University!
Not A Creature Was Stirring…
Some novels are so wonderful they remind me why I write in the first place. The Mouse of Amherst, by Elizabeth Spires. Her children’s book (beautifully illustrated by Claire A. Nivola) tells the story of a little white mouse who takes up residence in the wall of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom! While there, she and Emily strike up a correspondence, passing poems back and forth. The story of their connection mirrors the experience of the writer’s connection to the reader.
I argue that The Mouse of Amherst is not only a wonderful children’s book, but also a work of literary criticism that interprets Emily Dickinson’s poetry as commentary on the nature of literature. So far, my argument goes like this:
1. The purpose of literature to pass culture, tradition, compassion, and knowledge from person to person; and from one generation to the next. The first time I read Emily Dickinson, I was in college. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul– I felt like I was reading a message from a fairy godmother. Emily was reaching out to touch my hand. It was exhilarating. I was alone, spending my nights studying beside the window with a little lamp on. She was alone, too. Life and death were always on my mind. Life and death was on her mind, too. Ah, Emily Dickinson, Patron Saint of Graduate Students!
2. We write to find kindred spirits. Even poor Emily, all alone, was connecting with something as she wrote, some vision or dream that inspired her. She was writing a letter to someone–maybe herself. Or perhaps she really was corresponding with a gentle mouse. She was certainly corresponding with all the American poetic tradition that anchored her (and which she electrified). Written words are whispered secrets. Books whisper secrets to us.
3. We write for children to help them find their kindred spirits. Do you know a little girl who would love Anne of Green Gables? Do you have a child who lives for Harry Potter? Of course, these are children’s books; Emily Dickinson writes pretty serious poetry.
With that awareness, Elizabeth Spires delivers the little mouse as our avatar. We watch her writing notes to Emily, while Emily returns those notes in kind. The little mouse brings us one step closer to an understanding of Dickinson.
4. Children’s literature began with Robinson Crusoe, say some. Yet Robinson Crusoe was written for adults. Children’s books these days are easy, sometimes even facile. We have to remember that children can, and should, be challenged by the classics; these classics make up our culture and help us understand the world. Children can come in contact with the great adult writers of our time. Maybe they will find themselves in Flannery O’Connor; maybe Twilight. But they should try everything, and wander into every room.
5. “It must have been Fate that steered me to choose Emily’s bedroom for my own.” With something like faith, we discover the books that change us forever, the books that hold the key to a garden in the mind, the books and authors that form and un-form and transform us. How wonderful to have a book like The Mouse of Amherst to help children discover the wealth of Dickinson! This children’s book ushers us into the world of Emily Dickinson, and gives children the tools to understand her.
Books Like Letters to Readers
My favorite part of Spires’s book is when Emily and Emmaline, the little mouse in her wall, start to write poems to each other. Emily’s first poem goes like this:
If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain / If I can ease one Life in Aching / Or cool one Pain / Or help one fainting Robin / Unto his Nest again / I shall not live in Vain.
All writers write letters to readers. The letters are intimate and heartfelt. Emmaline’s face turns ”crimson, as if I were reading someone else’s diary.” I know that I, for one, hope to reach just one child with my books, to add hope and excitement to their world, and maybe ease their pain.
Emmaline responds to Emily’s poem with one of her own:
I am a Little Thing. / I wear a Little Dress. / I go about my Days and Nights / Taking little barefoot Steps. / But though You never notice me / Nor count me as your Guest, / My Soul can soar as High as yours / And Hope burns in my chest!
Doesn’t this poem reflect the wish of all readers to have an emotional experience in reading despite not knowing the author? To feel the impact of that letter? The intimate but anonymous relationship between reader and writer is reiterated when Emily writes another poem for the mouse, a poem that begins: “I’m Nobody! Who Are you? / Are you–Nobody–too? The writer and reader of a book are a pair of nobodies. Their identities are submerged in the poetry.
Writing back and forth with Emily, our little mouse comes to the conclusion that, despite being “a Little Thing,” “It matters what we think, / What words we put in ink. / It matters what we feel, / What feelings we conceal.
Finally, it matters what we think. Isn’t this the message we want to impart to children about reading? What has been recorded in books matters. So get reading!
For more on young readers, poetry, and Emily Dickinson check out this link.
September 25, 2012
So, the novel is done—you’ve finished the book and laid it all on the table. Given it your very best. It’s done!
Your editor has accepted the book. Yippee!
Truth is, finishing the draft means there’s a lot more work to come. Beyond my wonderful editor, Liza Baker, there is a fine team of book designers, copy editors, more copy-editors who engage you in a dance of details, details, details.
Even as the ARC (Advance Reading Copy) is being printed, you’re still being asked questions about consistency and searching for typos. The goal is to make the book as perfect as possible by the time it is published.
My manuscript was accepted in March 2012, and I just finished the last stages of proof-reading after ten drafts. I should be pleased. I am pleased.
But I am also, as always, incredibly scared. Every single time the printed text is set before me, my heart races. Stress courses through me like electricity. I am haunted by past iterations of the text. I dearly miss a character I had to cut, and I wonder if the first sentences are better now that I’ve revised, or if I’ve somehow made them worse.
Did I do enough? Explore enough? Write well enough? How will I know I’ve finally come to the end?
Your Brain on Revisions
“Okay. Take the comma out.” ”No, put it back.” ”Take it out.” Wait three days. Decide the comma stays. Catch that Sugar always says “nuthin,” so on page 245, she can’t say “nothing.” Cut a repetitive line. Double-check accuracy: is it crocodiles or alligators? (Neither. It’s “gators” in Sugar’s world.)
Reading and re-reading my words, I crawl back into the creative place. Can’t I just relax and have a cup of coffee? No, I can’t. My characters are depending upon me, even as I grow ever more neurotic. All the wonderful folks at Little Brown are depending upon me. Imaginary and real people—both grown-ups and youth—are depending upon me. Just as I depend upon them.
I sometimes think of myself as a castaway on a desert island, writing through sun and storm. My fear comes from the fact that, from the bottom of my heart, I want readers to be as moved by Sugar as I have been.
This young girl on the sugar plantation–she is about to go into the world. Once the manuscript is typeset and bound, it becomes its own creature, and must face the world alone. I hope that by the time I write THE END, the book is good enough to reach the hearts of strangers, even across an ocean of separation.
Closing the Book
Through the chaos, I must remember to be grateful, to say thank you. So, thank you, Sugar, for speaking to me. Thank you, LBYR folks who have helped shape my book down to the finest detail. (Any remaining errors are all mine.) Thank you, future readers, for being in this world. SUGAR won’t be complete until you read it.
September 16, 2012
Oh yes, I’ve been writing many years and it’s true: just as being a child is different from being an adult, writing for children is not the same as writing for adults. The literary tradition is different (Charlotte’s Web vs. Moby Dick) and thus, so is my writing style. The audience is different (8-year old vs. 40), and requires something different.
I call it The Halo.
Creative writers are benevolent beings. After all, they record the most important stories of our times, portray a diversity of life experiences, and add beauty to the world. Children’s writers also have the satisfaction of writing for these wonderful creatures–children. Trust me, when you’re telling stories for the most exuberant members of our society, you are awash in the golden glow of the Children’s Writer Halo. It is a warm caramel feeling.
But, the work is hard. If you’re writing your first book for children, buckle your seat belts and get ready for a fantastic ride.
Lanesha’s Tips for Writing Children’s Books
1. Be honest. Life isn’t always coming up roses, for them or for you. Kids aren’t afraid of the hard stories. They’re not afraid of sadness, fright, or death in their books. Don’t pretend the hard truths aren’t out there.
2. Look for beauty. Despite the hard truths, the world is a beautiful place, and kids are very aware of it. After all, everything is bright and everything is new when you’re young. E.B. White said: “All that I ever hope to say in books is that I love the world.” And of course, if the Shakespeare of children’s books did it, then you know it’s a good idea.
3. Read children’s Books. And I mean LOTS. You probably did take a children’s literature class to get that degree in English. Sadly, Children’s books are not a priority of the liberal arts curriculum. And anyway, you grew up. So many new books to explore! Close Wuthering Heights for now and pick up Peter Pan. You have some questions about how to get back to Neverland.
4. Spend time with children. Skype your six-year old nephew. Volunteer at the local library. Smile at babies. Recall the days when your children were young or stop to appreciate the days while they still are.
5. Eat chocolate. It’s okay, you’re a kid again! Writing sometimes calls for a little method acting. So spend a day sprawled on the couch with a book, oblivious to the world. Cannonball into the pool. Eat your ice cream with lots of whipped cream and sprinkles.
6. Know your character. If your character is a child, as in most children’s books, you must work extra hard to tell that child’s story. This is not the time to worry about your voice as a writer. Find the voice of your character, for only she can transport you to the world of childhood. She, not you, sleeps with a nightlight and worries about monsters in the closet. She, not you, wants more than anything to be the very best in Double Dutch! She, not you, worries about that bully at school. Whatever her hopes and dreams, they are the hopes and dreams of a child.
7. Follow the action and excitement! Camu’s L’Etranger doesn’t go over well with the under-sixteen set. Kafka’s Metamorphosis might be okay, if you trim some of that language down! Those sentences are like briar patches! For kids, cut through the winding clauses of existence. Childhood is a time for dinosaurs and space ships and action, action, action! This doesn’t mean what you’re writing isn’t profound. Let’s just say, in the world of children’s books, the most profound thoughts are often inscribed by a spider, or drawn with a purple crayon.
8. Don’t forget the dog! Is it a cliché, or an honored trope? Who cares, it works! Animals have a special place in children’s books since Aesop’s Fables. Check out my posts on the role of animals here.
9. Add humor. Humor is a weak point for me, but children’s books benefit from humor in a special way. Humor brings levity to dark events, and laughter is a huge part of childhood! Do you remember how you used to laugh until your sides split at sleepover parties? Do you remember how stairs were once meant for sliding down the rails? I’m not a naturally funny writer, but I think TaShon and his dog Spot (“why Spot?” asked the Lanesha, “he doesn’t even have any spots!”) brought a sense of the lightheartedness that marks the best of childhood, even when childhood is hard.
10. Delight in language. Turkish delight, anyone? Children’s books are full of beautiful description and language. Don’t ignore the details. Do make your words delicious. Some beautiful sentences:
“All worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.” –CS Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia.
“So Lyra and her daemon turned away from the world they were born in, and looked toward the sun, and walked into the sky.” –Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass.
“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” –Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting.
Well, that’s all for now, folks. There are no hard and fast rules for writing in any genre, but these are some of the useful tips I picked up while writing and preparing to write my first book for kids. Now I have a few questions for you:
1. What tip might you add to the list about writing for children? It may be something you’ve learned from reading or from writing. In any case, I’m eager to hear about it!
2. How many readers out there are currently writing for children, or interested in doing so? I ask because I’d like to know what content will be most useful to you on this blog! I can talk about writing till the cows come home. I’m also happy to talk about more amazing children’s books! In any case, thanks for reading Lanesha Says.
September 14, 2012
Hello everyone! Lanesha (or rather her online avatar, me) has created a Listmania! list on Amazon dedicated to the books discussed on this blog. I love the Listmania service on Amazon. It’s a great way to get information about people’s favorite books. There are a number of lists dedicated to Amazon user’s favorite books from when they were children, which is a testament, I think, to the power that these books have over us our entire lives. You can find the list here: http://www.amazon.com/lm/R35OO6ZBVVHY9N/ref=cm_pdp_lm_title_1, or search for “Lanesha Books: Children’s Historical Fiction” in the Listmania search box. I’ve only listed books that this blog has covered or discussed in-depth. I’m excited to see the list grow!
Keeping Lists and Virtual Book Shelves
The truth is, I love lists, and the internet is a great place to keep them. After many moves, I don’t have the luxury of seeing my favorite books on a physical shelf anymore. I’ve donated many of them or had to send them to Goodwill, so that my house doesn’t crumble or disappear into bookish dust. I also own a lot of new favorites in digital formats like Kindle. My daughter loves her Kindle, which is lucky since she lives in a 365 square foot walk-up in New York City (oh, to be young!).
I like to look back on what I’ve read on Goodreads. If you don’t have a shelf on Goodreads yet, I highly recommend it! You will find a wonderful community of readers in your favorite genre there, too.
September 12, 2012
I too was moved to write about the hurricane. I was glued to my television when the levees broke. The home of my imagination, of so many of my books and characters, was under water. I wanted to save the city I knew from the flood. Many of the Katrina books for children that I have written on previously reference its music (the young boys play horns, clarinet or trombone), its food (gumbo and sweeter things!), and the magical influences of creole and the diaspora.
These books also reach out to the children–whose faces one could glimpse on the television but were never featured. These children, like the students of Biloxi, harnessed great strength to survive. I watched the footage and saw that this hurricane shaped the history of America. It spoke of our values and our injustices. At the same time, it spoke of personal heroism and the power of place. Though Louis Beach Armstrong wonders if New Orleans is gone forever, there was never any danger of this. New Orleans lives forever. Its culture survives in part because New Orleans is the sort of place that moves musicians to sing, dancers to dance, and writers to write.
Narrative helps us understand our lives. My narrative flowed from my character, Lanesha, and her vision. But I was also greatly inspired by Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, the story of a young boy who must survive alone in the wilderness after a plane crash. Like the I Survived series, I wanted to write a story about an individual’s struggle, because historical fiction only draws us in to show us, teach us, and heal us if we connect on an emotional level. Lanesha was my connection to the hurricane. I hope those who read the book feel connected to the children of New Orleans through her.
What sets my novel apart from the wonderful books I’ve read about Katrina is that it is a ghost story.
Lanesha sees ghosts.
She sees the ghost of New Orleans past, but she also sees her mother. With help from her mother, and Mama Ya-Ya’s wisdom, Lanesha takes strength from the past to fight for her future. Ultimately, my story is a coming-of-age, the classic story of middle-grade fiction folded into this disastrous event. It was also my first book for children. Why?
For me, Lanesha’s coming-of-age echoed the events. The ghosts of the city were flooded over, their structures destroyed; but their wisdom remains, and propels the city towards a renaissance that continues today. Lanesha wants to be an engineer. She wants to build bridges. I hope her voice is a bridge across which children can walk into the lives of those less fortunate, into the lives of the people of the Ninth Ward, or simply into meaning. When I heard her voice, it began to structure for me (though I didn’t know this at the time) a way to cope with the trauma of Katrina. On the other side of the novel, I realized that I was also writing about my own family’s experience in the 1996 Northridge earthquake.
Before Mama Ya-Ya passes, on the night of the hurricane, she predicts that Lanesha will face great trials. She must escape from her attic, and then find a way to save herself and TaShon. She sees a rowboat tied to a house. She has to get the rowboat! With courage I can only dream of, she dives into the dark and murky water to umoor it.
We write books when we dream of courage. We read books when we need courage. I hope Lanesha brings a warm light to all those who find her.
To My Readers…
I am so lucky to have written a children’s book! The children’s literature community is one of the most welcoming and wonderful communities in the world.
And then, of course, there are the children, who are the very best readers an author could wish for.
My advice for new writers of any genre: write a book for children. Listening for the quiet, child’s voice, and trying to reach out to the child’s heart is an experiment in empathy from which everyone can learn.
Thank you, everyone, who has supported Lanesha and Ninth Ward.
September 4, 2012
Based on True Events!
When you know that something is “based on true events,” as the movies and the covers of books sometimes tell us, it lends a certain authority to the work of historical fiction. But we have to remember the work is still fiction. These true events are still being interpreted!
I want to nod to two books from this specialized strain of the historical fiction genome. The first is a better fit for young adult and adult readers. Last Bus Out: The True Story of Courtney Miles’ Rescue of Over 300 People in hurricane Katrina’s Aftermath is gritty, full of adventure, and definitely, verifiably true. And yet, the story of Courtney Miles, though more carefully documented, is not so different in essence from the middle-grade books that feature kind people venturing out in lifeboats to rescue people and animals. Their lesson and their tribute is the same.
Another true story that I highly recommend if you love cats and dogs (like I do!) is Two Bobbies: A True Story Of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship, and Survival. This is a beautiful picture book by Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery, and its use of animal protagonist will help younger children understand, in smaller terms, what happened during the storm. You may even have seen the two bobbies (one cat and one dog, both called Bobby) on CNN. They became representatives of the trauma suffered by animals and animal lovers, when pets couldn’t be taken to the Superdome, or were too much trouble to evacuate. From the Afterword of the book:
Like thousands of others, the Two Bobbies lost their family and everything dear to them when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. After they came to live with Melinda and Gus-Gus (their adoptive parents after the storm), their veterinarian discovered debris and grit deep inside Bob Cat’s ear canals. His right eardrum was broken. Did Babby snatch Bob Cat from the dirty floodwaters that had filled New Orleans? No one will ever know. But it is very likely that a blind cat like Bob Cat would not have made it without Bobbi’s protection. In turn, Bob Cat’s friendship may have made the Bobbies stronger and giver her a reason to go on.
Bobbi and Bob Cat survived hurricane Katrina.
They did it by lending each other a paw.
Where Truth is Made
As the authors makes clear in the afterword, though this story is based on true events, it required an act of imagination to bring those events to life. The story chronicles the trials of the cat and dog and everything they face together during the storm, even though there is no way to know what really happened to them. To me, this is the perfect object of historical fiction: to imagine what we can never know is deeply satisfying, and often gives meaning to tragic events. Animals are wonderful, because we must use all our empathy to guess what their experience may be.
The practice of empathy is good for the soul and good for the novel. Dogs and cats are the voiceless. Because much of history is also speechless, unless we give it voice, animals make natural characters in historical fiction. I’ve always wanted to write a book with animal characters–but I’ve never done it. In fact, I think it is extremely difficult to narrate those lives in a way that seems not too saccharine or precious, but truthful. I will save that challenge for my twilight years…
August 31, 2012
The I Survived series for the middle-grades takes a child’s perspective on disasters like the Titanic, The Shark Attacks of 1916, and, as I read recently, 9/11. The question raised on the back of the book is: Do you have what it takes to survive?
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this simple series book. It was simply written, but did not exploit the disaster in any way. Instead, it did what all good historical fiction must do–create a character with whom we sympathize, whose point-of-view guides us to meaningful thought. I recommend this book especially for reluctant readers because it is action packed! Barry, the protagonist of the book, is evacuating with his family when his sister gets sick. She is too sick to travel. They go home, but are soon flooded out, washed onto the streets. I should mention that this is the scariest children’s book I’ve read about Katrina. Take, for instance, the moment water begins to flood their attic:
Dad crawled to the darkest corner of the attic. He started back with what looked like a stick. As he got closer, Barry saw what it was: an ax. “Gramps always said there’d be another bad storm,” Dad said. “He kept this ax up here for forty years. And he made sure I knew about it.”
It took Barry a minute to realize what Dad was going to do with that ax.
“Keep your heads down,” Dad said.
Dad heaved the ax over his shoulder. With a mighty swing, he smashed the blade into the ceiling.
Scary, right? But the book did its research. People in New Orleans literally had to cut themselves out of their homes. He is also threatened by a water moccasin, which Gramps always warned swam in the streets after the last hurricane. After he is separated from his family by a great wave, he clings to trees, furniture, whatever he can get his hands on. He is washed into a house, and has no choice but to stay inside. That’s where he meets Cruz, the dog his friend called a “real killer.” Except he isn’t a killer.
That dog was crazy. What if he came after Barry?
Cruz barked some more. Barry had to get out of here!
But then there was a noise–a whimpering howl. It rose above the wind, and it was the saddest sound Barry had ever heard. Sadder than Cleo’s sobbing. Sadder than the song Dad had played at Gramps’s funeral. Sadder than Barry’s own sobs…Help me please, he seemed to be saying. Help me please.
Barry and Cruz have to survive together. We are reminded of the sad truth: there were no pets allowed in the Superdome. Now, a dog also plays a prominent role in our other piece of middle-grade fiction, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach. In the eye-witness accounts of The Storm, however, a dog appears in only one recollection:
My mom was sad because a friend’s mom asked us to take her dog, but we didn’t and now he’s dead. Andy Latimer, grade 5.
In the adult world, dogs and cats mattered only so much. The Superdome only had so much food and moms and dads had other things on their minds. Children had to accept this in reality, but in fiction, they need their dogs and cats to remind them that there are creatures even more helpless than they feel. They need something to take care of. Taking care of Shadow and Cruz make both Barry and Saint Beach heroes. In fiction, it is not enough, in fact, to simply survive. One has to learn something momentous, as in the wilderness survival book Hatchet, or save someone else (a dog, a cat, a little sister). Boy (or girl) vs. nature almost always ennobles the child in children’s fiction.
As an example: in Saint Louis Armstrong Beach, a helicopter comes for Beach, his dog, and Miz Moran, but it only has room for one. Miz Moran wants Beach to go, but Beach won’t leave his dog, and sends her instead. This self-sacrifice in the face of disaster is part of the fantasy that children have of being in control of their circumstances.
We all read books to feel in control of circumstances. Fiction weaves the disparate threads of events into something meaningful. Children struggling to understand the world need this sense of meaning most of all.
Community and the Individual in Historical Fiction
Saint Louis Armstrong Beach uses the neighborhood and community of Treme to tell the story of Katrina. I Survived is a tale of individualism, man vs. nature. These are two modes often seen in historical fiction. Beach learns that New Orleans will always be part of him, no matter what destruction befalls it, while Barry learns that he has the courage within himself to weather any storm.
However, these books are kin in important ways as well. The theme of music runs deep in each: Beach is a musician, and so is Barry’s father. Familial love is emphasized. And then, there are the dogs. Both I Survived and Beach reach for the essence of New Orleans. They both refer to its song. The Storm reminds us that this song is mostly in our minds. We wrote it together to give this disaster some meaning. The song may not be real, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
This is the essence of historical fiction. We get to the truth buried in real events. We seek out desire in eye-witness accounts like The Storm. We find beauty where it seems no beauty can be found.
August 29, 2012
Stuff I Didn’t Know About Hurricanes
A. Over the past 150 years, 49 hurricanes have struck Louisiana.
B. The intensity of a hurricane is measured by something called the Saffir-Simpson scale. It goes from 1 to 5, and 5 is the worst.
C. The weight of a single cubic yard of water is equal to 1700 pounds. WOW!
D. The chance of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans head-on was calculated today to be only 17 percent.
–Notes of (fictional) 11 year-old Saint Beach, from the book by Brenda Woods. Data gathered from the television in the hospital cafeteria, where his mama works. He stays in Treme against his parent’s wishes, in order to save his dog, Shadow. You should also know that Saint is a virtuoso at the clarinet.
Seven years ago today one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history hit New Orleans. Issac has come around at the same time, which is something else. I hope we can think of those struggling in the present while we talk about the past.
Saint Louis Armstrong Beach: A Novel
This week, I am discussing the way literature for children deals with the event. So far, we have discussed The Storm, a compilation of written memories and pictures made by students in the Biloxi public school. We asked what sort of document this was, and whether or not it could be considered historical fiction. I believe its first mission was to record; its second, to gather compassion for those who suffered.
But fiction’s role is to bring you inside an event outside of your experience. The story transports you. The author doesn’t record an event but rather encodes it with meaning. This is the idea behind theme. Blake Snyder, an author of books about screenwriting, says that every movie is like a good argument. A question is raised: Can we trust other people? And each scene bats this idea back and forth, sometimes proving that no, people can’t be trusted, and other times showing the opposite.
I was transported, recently, by the middle-grade novel Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods. The argument she poses is an argument many had to deal with during the events of Katrina: should I stay, or should I go? When it came time to evacuate, Saint’s mom decides she must stay at the hospital to look after her patients. Saint’s father sends Saint up the interstate with his brother, Uncle Hugo. But Saint ditches them at a gas station, running all the way back to his beloved hometown, Treme. He decides to stay… he has to rescue the street dog Shadow at all costs. When he finally catches the dog, he hunkers down in an attic with a frail, diabetic woman, Miz Moran, who has refused, under any circumstances to leave her property, despite the pleading of her family.
Treme is a well-drawn town, full of wonderful characters. Saint plays the clarinet in the French Quarter, along with a host of street musicians who give him tips on how to get the music in your soul, as well as how to make money. New Orleans is the soul of this book. As a piece of historical fiction, it is a blues song played of a fictional community. Its most powerful refrains are those that show how much the characters care for each other, and the town. Indeed, though he hopes one day to go to Julliard and study music, New Orleans is in Saint’s bones:
I wondered if I’d ever see Jupi, the Tiberons, or Smoky again. Would my feet ever walk down St. Bernard Avenue, Canal Street, along Moon Walk, or through the Quarter? Maybe I’d never hop the ferry to Algiers or shovel red beans and rice into my mouth at Willie Mae’s on more time. And the way Mama and Pops were talking, we might never be able to go back to live in our house in Treme.
But even if, like some people claim, New Orleans is over–no one can ever really take it away, because New Orleans is inside of me, Saint Louis Armstrong Beach, and always will be.
The Power of Place in Fiction
I’ve been visiting New Orleans since I was nineteen years old. I’ve been both before Katrina and after. The place, with its music and energy, lives on. I’ve set most of my books somewhere in Louisiana, because the place and its history speak to me. Sometimes I am more focused on the stories of my characters, the stories of a time, the story of religion, or the story of slavery than I am on New Orleans. But New Orleans is always there, like a whispering ghost.
Like the collection The Storm, Brenda Woods demonstrates another form of historical fiction for us, in her treatment of Katrina. She writes historical fiction to capture the spirit of a place. Saint Louis Armstrong Beach is a manifestation of that place. He is also one heck of a tough boy. I sure wish my girl, Lanesha, could have known him.
Setting as Art
“In The Music Box, New Orleans Hears Hope:” check out this story about a destroyed property in the Ninth Ward that was turned into a piece of art!
Literary Question of the Day:
Can you think of any other examples of fiction (historical or otherwise) that draw their power primarily from setting and place?
August 28, 2012
In The Storm, children tell their own Katrina stories. They tell them in memories and impressions. They draw them in crayon. “My house drowned,” says Vy Pham, a kindergartener. Tanysha Hawthrone grade 3, writes
I asked my mom, “Is that a train? Why is a train running down the tracks during Katrina?” My mom answered, “Tonysha, that’s not a train. That’s Katrina! All of a sudden the ceiling caved in. Everyone started screaming, and the babies were crying!”
The Storm is full of moving crayon drawings of houses upside down, boats sunk in the water, a whole world gone topsy-turvy. The children draw their houses and trees and pets…but Katrina is coming, and she is nearly always portrayed as a dark, scrawling tornado, just at the corner of the page. The children who suffered most used the darkest colors. One of the pictures is almost completely black. You can feel the intensity with which the children made these drawings. You can feel how hard they pushed down on their crayons to color their memories out.
“Then the water moved to the stairs. And then me and my sister Tamia got scared and started to cry and cried for a long time. Also, my mother cried because she didn’t like to see us cry.” Zimyre Redmon, grade 4
Art as Healing
“We now live in a FEMA trailer. It is small and very crowded. I really do wish that everything was back to normal. I also miss my house. Then at other times I think, why did this happen? Did we do something wrong? Sometimes, I lie in the dark thinking about this, but other times when I wake up, I feel happy that I’m still alive.” Nikki Tran, grade 6
McGrath began compiling this piece as a way to ease the pain of traumatized children in the Biloxi school. She notes that they were so quiet in the aftermath, always speaking in whispers, as if they were expecting something awful to happen at any time. My own interest in Katrina came from my experience with the 1996 Northridge earthquake. It was a terrifying experience for us all. My daughter remembers only one thing about that night: her fish tank exploded, and at that moment her dad came rushing in. I saw how the disaster effected my kids, though they didn’t talk about it much. When adults declare a state of emergency, the voices of our children are lost in the hustle and bustle. We grownups are more worried about the windows–should we tape them up? The television is at a constant chatter. Government agencies swoop in and it all seems to be a very adult affair.
”When I saw all that water I started to cry.” Wendy Smith, grade 6
One of the reasons I wrote from Lanesha’s perspective in Ninth Ward is that I was curious about the trauma of my own children. I could see it. But what was their experience really like? McGrath’s book gives us a window in the worlds of the children of Biloxi, whose stories are sometimes heartbreaking, always rich, and surprisingly insightful. I don’t know if the children who expressed their traumas here were healed by art or not–but the very existence of a book dedicated to the thoughts of children on that day is a sign of such caring and compassion on the part of the author and the community of Biloxi that I myself am healed a little just by taking it in my hands.
“When we got home, the storm was over. Trash was everywhere. My brother, mom, and I walked around the neighborhood to see what we could salvage. I found a magnolia flower.” Tyler Reeve, grade 6
Is The Storm Historical Fiction?
The Storm is a unique work. It is certainly a historical document. However, there are no photographs, no facts, or dates, or names. The book is really about confusion. The children mistake Katrina for a train–they draw fish and sharks under the water–they are not concerned with fact. They are concerned with emotion and impression. As a compilation. I would not call it fiction. It is more like a work of visual art, a collage or a mural between covers. When you read it, you are compelled to touch the crayon drawings of the children, and you can almost hear their voices.
The historic Biloxi Lighthouse stood through the storm.
Compassion Coupled with Action
Nancy Hunter, an instructional trainer at the Biloxi Public Schools, writes in her afterword about the help her schools received after Katrina.
“It never occurred to us to ask for help, and we were overwhelmed at the unsolicited response from others. We learned that compassion coupled with action is a powerful combination. For the help we have received, we will be forever grateful.” Nancy Hunter, July 2006
Proceeds from sales of The Storm go to support the Biloxi school system. The dedicated teachers there worked hard to give their students the best school year possible after the great tragedy of Katrina, and Biloxi is still reaching for greatness today. You can buy The Storm here.
Now, a question for you: what is the relationship between art and advocacy? What is the role of writing in the face of a tragedy? How can art help where lives have been lost, and why do we feel so compelled to make art in response?