Finding Magic in the Bayou

Maddy’s big sisters have warned her about going to Grandmère’s home deep in the Louisiana bayou. It’s boring, they say; there’s no TV, no mall, no microwave, and no indoor plumbing. Not only that, Grandmère’s a witch. Ten-year-old Maddy has a mind of her own, though, and anticipates adventures far from the glass and concrete world of New Orleans.  Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The magic begins on the car ride to the bayou. When a firefly perches on the rim of the car door, Maddy’s imagination is fired; surely it’s some kind of sign.
Grandmère doesn’t look like much of a sage. She’s tiny, “bird-boned,” with “bright-white curly hair, luminous like the moon.”  Maddy and her grandmother settle into a cozy routine of humming together, collecting eggs from the hen, doing dishes, and sitting on the porch. As the days pass, Grandmère tells Maddy stories about her ancestors and teaches her important principles such as … respect yourself … pay attention … and leave space for imagination. Under Grandmère’s guidance, she will, over the course of the summer, discover her own power, her place in a long line of Lavaliers, and an enchanted land replete with helpful fireflies and mermaids.
Maddy gets to know the neighbors and makes herself at home in Bayou Bon Temps. “Folks, all colors, live in the bayou,” she muses. “Some are red-haired, some blond or brunette. A stew. They all feel like kin to me. Like a family I didn’t know I had.”
Perhaps best of all, she meets a wiry, energetic boy called Bear, and the two form a strong bond as they run around, get dirty, and explore the bayou together. Her adventure, or at least her imagination, takes off the day she sees a mermaid rise from the dark waters.
At first, Maddy reveals her secret to no one but Grandmère, who believes the girl has encountered the legendary Mami Wata, who followed imprisoned Africans forced to cross to North America in the dank holds of slave ships. Later, as an environmental disaster endangers the Bayou Bon Temps, Maddy calls upon her own powers, as well as help from fireflies and mermaids, to rescue the community she cherishes.
Middle-school girls with a fanciful flair will snap up this novel imbued with magical mystery and a young heroine’s hopeful imagination.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

Don’t miss Jewell Parker Rhodes’s thoughtful comments on diversity in children’s literature.
And see my previous post on Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, and check out the author’s Coretta Scott King honor book, Ninth Ward.Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes


Sugar Finds a Way

Slavery has technically ended, but 10-year-old Sugar is not free to be a child. Her mother, who worked in the fields, has died, and her father was sold away before slavery ended and has not been seen or heard of since. Sugar knows firsthand that the business of harvesting cane is far from sweet: “Cane is all I know. Cutting, cracking, carrying pieces of cane. … I hate, hate, hate sugar.”Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The endearing, intelligent child has no relatives left, but the Beales, a kind elderly couple, look after her. She loves listening to Mr. Beale tell humorous old African folktales featuring tricky Brer Rabbit, who survives by his wits and his speed. The Beales are two of the former slaves who have stayed at Mr. Wills’ sugar plantation on River Road, along the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Now they get paid, but, as Sugar observes, “Dollars won’t last long. After we buy cloth, seeds, lamp oil, and chicken feed, we’ll be just as poor as when we were slaves.” No wonder so many, including the Beales’ own grown children, have left in hopes of creating a better life in the North.

The changes keep coming, though, and the former slaves who work for Mr. Wills fear the Chinese men he brings in to work alongside them. With her usual curiosity and warm heart, Sugar befriends the Chinese workers and in time, helps the others see they have more in common with the immigrants than they ever would have imagined.

Not only that, Sugar and Billy, the owner’s sweet son, become dear friends, despite the rules society devised to keep them apart. While at first it appears the grownups will succeed in separating the two, illness intervenes. Sugar insists on remaining at his side, and his parents begin to treat Sugar and the others more humanely.

The threat of violence persists, though, even after Mr. Wills fires his cruel, racist overseer, a man who will wreak vengeance upon those who remain on the land from which he’s been banished.

Rhodes, the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Jane Addams Peace Association Honor Book, has created a touching portrait of a spirited child growing up during Reconstruction, trying to find her way to a more fulfilling life. With its natural-sounding dialogue, appealing protagonist, and lively plot, this novel is superbly suited for reading aloud or for using in literature circles. It’s a great choice for nurturing discussions on Reconstruction, the nature of friendship, and the inevitability of change. Recommended for grades 4 through 6.

See also …
Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker RhodesZora and Me by Victoria Bond and T.R. SimonMighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis


Holly Schindler on Imagination’s Power

Today’s post offers a double feature. First, let me tell you about Holly Schindler’s charming new middle-school novel, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky. Then, check out the author’s insightful thoughts about class differences and the imagination.Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler
Beauty comes in all shapes, shades and sizes, as Schindler (Playing Hurt, 2011, etc.) demonstrates in her debut middle-school novel The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky.
-year-old Auggie lives on the poor side of a town in Missouri with her grandpa Gus, a trash hauler who can “take something broken and worthless and turn it into a fold of green bills in his pocket.”  When the House Beautification Committee threatens the modest community with fines, Auggie and her grandpa get inspired to renovate their property at the corner of Sunshine and Lucky. Leftover cans of paint of many colors, bits of broken stained-glass from their storm-tossed church, and old car parts all play a part in the humorous transformation of their home and, ultimately, of the neighborhood. Auggie designs a growing crop of metal flowers and clever sculptures with moving parts, all welded by hardworking Gus. Will their creative sculptures win over the committee and save the neighborhood from being razed?
The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky offers a gentle, inspiring story of economically disadvantaged people uniting to assert their right to define beauty on their own terms. (Reprinted with permission of New York Journal of Books)

Holly Schindler has kindly offered to discuss class differences and the imagination as they relate to her work:

Holly Schindler photo“If necessity is the mother of invention, I often think that lack of fancy new doodads is the mother of imagination. 

When Auggie wants to renovate the exterior of her house, she doesn’t have the option of heading to the hardware store to buy gallons of paint or new plants for flower boxes.  She’s got to use what’s available to her: the junk that Grampa Gus hauls. 

Sometimes, though, I think that not having access to the fancy and new means you have no other option but to tap into your imagination.  It’s happened throughout our own lives, in a hundred different ways.  Ever been in the midst of a blackout?  How’d you entertain yourself without the TV—maybe by making up your own stories?  Ever been camping?  How’d you enjoy music in the middle of the woods—surely by singing songs yourself. 

I’ve long been going to auctions—first with my folks, and these days, with my brother, an antiques dealer.  (It was how I initially got the idea for reinventing junk, actually—farm auctions are always full of needlework on burlap sacks or stools made from old Coke crates, etc.)  One of the coolest things I ever saw at an auction was a little boy with a black plastic trash sack.  He was at the auction with his parents, and didn’t have the distraction of any kind of screen—no iPad, iPhone, etc.  He had a black bag.  And every time I looked at him, his bag was doing something new—it was a cape, a magic carpet, wings.  I’ve honestly never seen a little boy have more fun.  He spent the entire day imagining new things to do with that bag—he even got other kids at the auction in on his adventures. 

But with a tablet computer?  That little boy would have sat alone, staring, mostly likely not having nearly as much fun.

Maybe, if Auggie had grown up in a fancier neighborhood, if she had always had access to new things, perfect things, she would not have developed her imagination to the point where she could create sculptures out of junk. 

…And maybe that’s the key for the rest of us—maybe we become better brainstormers, better problem-solvers, better storytellers if we get away from our screens and force ourselves to rely on our own imaginations…”

Thank you, Holly, for generously sharing your thoughts on socioeconomic status and the power of the imagination to enrich life at both the personal and cultural level. And bravo for creating such an appealing novel featuring folks who might not have much money but who have considerable inner resources and generous spirits.Sunshine and Lucky
Upper-elementary kids, especially creative girls, should snap up The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, now available in bookstores and libraries.
You can follow the author at Twitter: @holly_schindler, Facebook:, or you can check out her web site at

Josephine Sizzles

Just in time for Black History Month, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a vibrant biography of a woman who defied society’s stereotypes and restrictions as she danced around the world.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby PowellWith lively free verse that evokes the Roaring Twenties ragtime that Josephine Baker reveled in, the author crafts a story worthy of such a unique artist. Ms. Powell’s use of  quotes gives young readers a feeling for Josephine’s energy, drive, and creativity. This, for instance, is how the bio begins: “I shall dance all my life. … I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”

She also varies the typeface, font, and size of some of the words: “She flung her arms,/she flung her legs./Like she flung her heart and her soul./’Cause DANCIN’ makes you HAPPY/when nothing’ else will.”

We follow Josephine as she leaves the slums of Saint Louis to join the Dixie Steppers in performing for audiences as far south as New Orleans, “where signs for one latrine read WHITE ladies/and another, COLORED women, where a white person wouldn’t sell you/a cup of coffee./Because you were/NEGRO.”

From there, Josephine Baker made her way to New York and finally to the City of Light, Paris, where, she recounted, “For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.” She was all the rage, and, unlike in segregated America, people tried to dress like her, arrange their hair like her, and tanned to look like Josephine. She would stride down the Champs-Elysees with her pet leopard, Chiquita, “each wearing a diamond choker–/as REGAL as a queen by day/as WILD as a leopard by night.”

Later, when France entered World War II, Josephine Baker joined the Red Cross and spied for the country that had given her so much. She also showed her brave, generous spirit by adopting 12 children of various races from nations around the world. She “felt the whole world was represented in her family. She called them her RAINBOW TRIBE.”

Divided into six acts, or chapters, this biography vibrates with Christian Robinson’s spirited illustrations done in acrylic paints. The abundance of bright two-page spreads will keep many a reader engaged and longing for more.

This is one DAZZLING tribute to one sassy woman. Highly recommended for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

And don’t miss:

My post on Carole Boston Weatherford’s Freedom on the Menu
and my post of the Coretta Scott King winner, Bryan Collier.

Words Worth Chanting

If you’re looking for a beautiful, soulful, abiding children’s book, consider What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings by the extraordinary poet Joyce Sidman. What the Heart Knows by Joyce Sidman

Winner of multiple awards, including this year’s NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry, Joyce Sidman is one of my favorite poets writing for children. People of all ages, however, can find much to treasure in her work, especially her latest title.

In her introduction, Sidman notes these poems are about “repairing friendship, slowing down time, understanding happiness, facing the worst kind of loss. They are words to speak in the face of loneliness, fear, delight, or confusion.” She explores such universal hopes and worries with fresh imagery and the kind of repetition, alliteration, and emotional heft you expect to find in prayers or sacred poetry. In these decidedly secular poems, however, she honors the feelings we so often ignore.

Dividing the book into four parts: Chants & Charms, Spells & Invocations, Laments & Remembrances, and Praise Songs & Blessings, the poet explores a range of experiences. The first poem, the triolet “Chant to Repair a Friendship,” will speak to many readers:

“Come, friend, forgive the past;
I was wrong and I am grieving.
Tell me that this break won’t last–
take my hand; forgive the past.
Anger’s brief, but love is vast.”

She ends by repeating the poem’s first two lines. Who hasn’t experienced a relationship that needed such healing words?

In other brief, pleasing poems, Sidman explores time’s slippery nature, as when she laments the loss of a teddy bear, “I thought I didn’t need,” or highlights such ephemeral delights as building sandcastles or watching a curled-up cat. One of the pleasures of these poems is how she uses such common subjects to ponder deeper truths. “Blessing on the Curl of Cat,” for instance, turns out to be about the writer finding her place in a shifting world. And “Come. Happiness” describes the emotion not as “some flashy friend” but as one that is “more like a raindrop,/governed by mysterious principles.” She concludes that poem with this surprising request: “Bathe us with your cool spray./Fill us with your splendid breath./Help us do your work.”

Heightening the beauty of What the Heart Knows is the fantastical artwork by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Pamela Zagarenski. Her bright, whimsical images, rooted in fairy tales, grace each poem and inspire readers to think more deeply about these lovely poems.

Middle-schoolers and older readers will be fortunate if this book happens to fall down the chimney. Who knows where that might lead? They might discover poetry has the power to help us make sense of a bewildering world.

For excellent tips on using this remarkable little book in the classroom or library, see Sidman’s guide.

Looking for more ideas for great gift books? See my posts A Time for Peace and Christmas in the Country.

A Squirrel With a Poet’s Heart

“There is just no predicting what kind of sentences you might say, thought Flora. For instance, who would ever think you would shout, ‘You’re going to vacuum up that squirrel!’?”  Flora & Ulysses

Despite Flora’s warning, the next door neighbor did indeed swallow a squirrel with her powerful new Ulysses 2000X vacuum cleaner. That bizarre accident serves to launch a unique novel—and to transform its characters’ lives.

The acclaimed author of beloved children’s books (The Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn-Dixie), Ms. DiCamillo once again serves readers a rich banquet dripping with choice words, seemingly random combinations of outsider characters, wise asides, and an irresistibly endearing animal.

In Flora & Ulysses we meet a ten-year-old self-proclaimed cynic who is on guard all the time; after all, the unexpected could happen any moment. In the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, Flora retreats to her bedroom, where she can revel in her beloved, predictably thrilling detective comic book series, The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto!

As a result, Flora knows superheroes “were born of ridiculous and unlikely circumstances: spider bites, chemical spills, planetary dislocation, and, in the case of Alfred T. Slipper, from accidental submersion in an industrial-size vat of cleaning solution called Incandesto!” She is thus equipped to handle the case when the squirrel she saves (in a hilarious scene in which she administers CPR to the rodent) somehow transforms into a super squirrel.

She arrives at the perfect name for her new companion: Ulysses. The squirrel shows himself to be super strong—he lifts the vacuum cleaner to devour the crackers! He can fly! He can even understand what Flora says to him.

In charming short chapters, readers gain insight into the squirrel’s fantastic transformation. “His brain felt larger, roomier. It was as if several doors in the dark room of his self (doors he hadn’t even known even known existed) had suddenly been flung wide.”

Just how large is that rodent’s brain? Suspense builds as Flora and next door neighbor and fellow outcast William Spiver watch Ulysses in action at the typewriter where Flora’s self-absorbed mom writes her vapid romance novels.

“It was beautiful to the squirrel to see a letter appear out of nowhere.” One letter leads to another, and suddenly, the squirrel composes a funny little poem, confounding William Spiver’s expectations and confirming Flora’s assessment that Ulysses is a squirrel magnifique and a squirrel to keep, despite her mom’s disapproval.

At such key dramatic events, illustrator K. G. Campbell provides delightful, expressive pencil drawings that highlight the quirky circumstances of this high-flying fantasy. On top of those visual enticements, the novel sparkles with perfectly placed changes in fonts: comic-book–like fonts for the words of the Amazing Incandesto, an old-fashioned typewriter font for Ulysses’ poems, and numerous comic-book panels with bubbles containing dialogue in all caps.

Within the span of just a few days, Flora and the squirrel travel a great distance as the author treks those strange beating things we call hearts. Flora’s isolation and pessimism shift to a worldview where companionship and hope can enter. In the aftermath of proclaiming her mother an archenemy and announcing she wants to go live with her passive, comic-book loving father, she discovers her mother, despite her shortcomings, actually does love her.

Who would have predicted one superhero squirrel could lead a child to such crucial inner growth, to forgiveness, to hope? As Flora would say, Holy bagumba! Here’s a novel that should fly off the shelves and into the waiting hearts of young readers.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also …

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamilloTale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamilloMiraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

Do You Believe in Magic?

Known for her sprightly novels inspired by fairy tales (The Frog Princess series), E. D. Baker dips her pen into the strange Russian fairy tales of the bony old murderous Baba Yaga and brings forth a fresh, engaging tale brightened by humor and by an inquisitive, resourceful young protagonist.    Question of Magic

Twelve-year-old Serafina receives a letter from a mysterious great-aunt informing her she intends to give the girl a life-changing legacy. The unknown relative neglects to specify what she’s bequeathing or why she’s chosen Serafina instead of her two older sisters. As any spunky heroine would do, ’Fina soon sets off to claim her inheritance.

Upon arriving at the proposed site for receiving her inheritance, she encounters a bizarre environment: a cottage that can fly, a book that writes its own words, and a trunk full of squabbling skulls. Worst of all, there appears to be no way out.

Serafina quickly begins to question the value of this gift and longs to return home to her family and her dear Alek, whom she envisions marrying someday. Alas, reality has morphed: “Either she was losing her mind or all those people who had told her that things like magic and fairies weren’t real were actually wrong.”

Magic abounds in this well-paced novel. Yet Ms. Baker eschews the darkest elements of the old Baba Yaga tales: the capricious hag who kidnaps children; the hut’s ominous fence made of human bones, topped by human skulls; the woman’s ravenous appetite for tender human flesh. Nor does this author delineate a protagonist rejected by a hateful stepmother and her two heinous daughters. Instead A Question of Magic, with its vaguely Eastern European medieval setting, celebrates an unorthodox (for the era) heroine with plenty of curiosity, intelligence, and literacy, who dons the mantle of Baba Yaga and manages to help others rather than kill them.

As Baba Yaga, Serafina finds herself compelled to answer one, and only one, question from anyone who poses it. In precise detail, she is able to reveal the future, to solve crimes, or locate lost items—all in a voice that is not her own, but that of the wise Baba Yaga. Each time she responds, though, she grows a little older. Serafina cannot simply return home, as she does not know how to rid herself of this “gift” and must find a way to stop the aging before it’s too late.

The dramatic tension builds as Serafina inevitably grows lonelier, older, and with her increasing notoriety more vulnerable. She wonders if she’ll ever see her family and her beau again. If that sounds gloomy, fear not.

One of the novel’s major themes highlights the importance of helping others and helping oneself. The skulls, rather than threatening her become friendly and frequently comedic after Serafina cleans and polishes them. Her kindness to a talking cat results in her gaining crucial information; and after she befriends a giant, he returns to vanquish the enemies of her family and friends. Her ability and willingness to teach a friend to read, in turn plays a surprising part in enabling her to pass the Baba Yaga role on to another.

A Question of Magic, with its likable heroine, its swiftly moving plot, and a romantic resolution will no doubt get passed along from one preteen girl to many another.

Reprinted with permission from The New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Fairy Tale Comics: “Baba Yaga” (
and my review of The Cabinet of Earths and of Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems.

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: