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Professor's book featured on 'The Today Show'

Book cover of Jewell Parker Rhodes new children's book, "Ninth Ward."
August 08, 2010

Selected as August read for Al's Book Club
Sept. 17 appearance on the Web

Books taught Jewell Parker Rhodes to hope for something better. 

As a self-conscious little girl who “sometimes hid in the closet,” she found refuge in the stories on their pages. 

“I would read these stories of all these wonderful people and wonderful worlds,” said Rhodes, the Piper Endowed Chair and artistic director for global engagement at ASU's Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. “If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I would’ve been able to imagine a future that went beyond the bounds of my small and segregated neighborhood.” 

Rhodes, now an award-winning author, offers a similar inspiration for children with her first novel for young readers, “Ninth Ward.” The book’s heroine is 12-year-old Lanesha, a New Orleans orphan who, despite “hope and a big heart,” is an outsider because of her ability to see spirits. Though her peers taunt her, Lanesha’s own spirit won’t be broken. “I don’t try to be invisible,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of me.” 

Much like Rhodes, Lanesha finds solace in academics, losing herself in math problems and new words. When her teacher defines “fortitude” as the “strength to endure,” Lanesha takes the phrase to heart, remembering the words when Hurricane Katrina hits days later. Through the ferocious storm and the ensuing levee disaster, Lanesha is pushed to come into her own as she takes charge of her survival, along with that of her caretaker, Mama Ya-Ya, and a neighbor boy, TaShon. 

“Lanesha is the character I would’ve loved reading about,” said Rhodes, who first felt Lanesha’s voice creeping into her head in 2008, as Hurricane Ike threatened the recovering city of New Orleans.

“I had always wanted to write a children’s book, but it wasn’t until this story came to me, until Lanesha came to me, that I knew what I wanted to talk about. I’ve been trying to grow up to be a children’s book writer," she added, laughing.

Modesty aside, Rhodes has accomplished a great deal. A professor in ASU’s Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Rhodes’ honors include the Pen Oakland Award for Outstanding Writing, American Book Award, National Endowment of the Arts Award, Black Caucus of the American Library Award for Literary Excellence and two Arizona Book Awards. Her work has been published in Germany, Italy, Canada, Turkey and the U.K. “Ninth Ward” will be her first book published in Korea. 

Rhodes penned the story in about three months, drawing on an already extensive knowledge of New Orleans and its history. The city continually resurfaces as a backdrop for her characters’ adventures, such as in her historical novel “Voodoo Dreams” and her popular mystery trilogy, comprised of novels “Voodoo Season,” “Yellow Moon,” and the forthcoming “Hurricane.” Rhodes describes New Orleans as “a magical, mystical place” with a mixed-heritage culture and a strong spiritual life. 

“Ninth Ward,” published by Little, Brown and Co. Books for Young Readers, will go on sale Aug. 16, roughly two weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Katrina disaster. Even before the book’s release, the Parents’ Choice Foundation chose “Ninth Ward” as a recipient of its Gold Award, declaring Lanesha’s journey “believable and beautiful.” The School Library Journal gave it a starred review, complimenting the “inventive storytelling and the author’s ability to bring history to life.” The story also received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the American Library Association chose the book, designated for children ages 10 and older, for the August cover of Booklist magazine. And, the Today Show’s children’s book club — Al's Book Club — selected “Ninth Ward” for its August read. 

Though appreciative of the formal recognition, Rhodes is most eager to see how young readers respond. 

“This is for the children who need a book that mirrors back to them how beautiful they are,” she said. “I wanted children who have to handle tough situations to be able to have a role model, to be able to say, ‘I can survive. I’m resilient.’ And, like Lanesha, ‘I love me.’”

Written by Maria Polletta (

Carol Hughes,
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences