Jewell Parker Rhodes’s “Bayou Magic” Explores
Fantasy, Folklore, and Family Ties
by Laurie Slagenwhite Walters
Nearly 10 years old, Maddy is the last of her sisters to have a “bayou summer” with her mysterious Grandmère. Though cautious at first, she soon grows to love the residents of the wetlands— human and otherwise. When Bon Temps is threatened by the Gulf oil spill, Maddy is the one who must call upon the magic of mermaids only she can see to save her new home. SLJ recently caught up with award-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes to talk about folklore, her love of Louisiana, and her new book Bayou Magic (coming May 2015).
NOTE: This editorial content was sponsored by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
You wrote award-winning books for adults before you started writing for children. What inspired you to shift your attention to a young audience? What challenges and rewards are there in writing for children?
I’ve always wanted to write for children. Writing for adults helped me practice my craft, but I never stopped studying children’s literature and exploring ideas. After four decades of serious writing and experiencing the heartache of Hurricane Katrina, I finally heard a girl’s brave voice and began writing Ninth Ward (Little, Brown, 2010). The challenge is to remain emotionally truthful. My reward is visiting schools and reading children’s letters.
Both Ninth Ward and Bayou Magic are set in Louisiana. You clearly have deep affection for the state.
In my first creative writing class, the professor said, “Write what you know.” I wanted to write what I could imagine. So, I went home, pulled my Time/Life Creole and Acadian cookbook off the shelf and, inspired, wrote a story rooted in Louisiana culture. I’m actually a Pennsylvania/California girl. But Louisiana profoundly stirs my heart, mind, and spirit.
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Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic feature such wonderful grandmother figures. Was your own grandmother an inspiration for these characters? What did she have in common with Maddy’s Grandmère?
My grandmother raised me and taught me Southern folklore and traditions. Besides being a minister’s wife, she was also a hoodoo healer. She “mothered” our entire community. Maddy’s Grandmère is most like my grandmother, and her sayings are actual quotes my grandmother spoke to me. Mama Ya-Ya (Ninth Ward) and Mrs. Beale (Sugar) are elders who honor my grandmother’s care-giving and love.
I had never heard of the Mami Wata. How did you decide to include her in Maddy’s story?
African diaspora tales are often lost or left untold. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art featured an exhibit of 500 years of Mami Wata incarnations in Brazil, the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean. Literature teaches culture. I want girls of color to know there are heroic mermaids that mirror them. I want all girls to know there are diverse, global mermaid tales that depart from the western trope of a mermaid transforming herself for a prince.
You travel all over the world teaching creative writing to students of all ages, and you teach writing at Arizona State University as well. How do you find time to do your own writing? What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
For me, consistent writing, in small doses, makes a novel. If I waited to have more time, I’d never write. It also helps that I only write stories that I feel passionate about, so I’ve never experienced writer’s block. For aspiring writers, I’d urge them to honor their voice and the process. A writer writes. Every writer’s process is different: Find yours.
Are you planning a return to Louisiana in your next book for children? I’d love to see more of Maddy, Bear, and Grandmère. What other writing projects are in your future?
My next project is Towers Falling, and it’s about Dèjà, who discovers how her life has been impacted by the 9/11 New York City terrorist attacks. As always, my writing follows my heart. I’m open to voices, characters who appear like ghosts when I’m doing the dishes or dreaming. I suspect Louisiana will haunt me again.
There is plenty of folk magic in Maddy’s story—Mami Wata and the mermaids, the fireflies—but I think the real magic of the story lies in Maddy’s bravery. What was the inspiration for Maddy’s character?
None of my Louisiana girls are based on real people—I hear a voice and I follow. The first line is very important. Maddy announces, “My name is Madison Isabelle Lavalier Johnson.” That sentence was my gateway. As I wrote, I was astounded at how different and special Maddy was—how her rhythm was slower, more thoughtful than Lanesha or Sugar. Maddy is a courageous girl. Does she exist? Of course, she does. While unique to my book, Maddy channels girls everywhere.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Piper Endowed Chair and founding artistic director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She has won numerous awards for her books for children and adults. Ninth Ward, her first novel for young readers, was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Notable Book for a Global Society, and a Today Show Al’s Book Club for Kids selection.
Laurie Slagenwhite Walters loves sharing stories with children at the Brighton (MI) District Library as a Youth Services Librarian and with her own two sons at home.