May 12, 2015

Jewell Parker Rhodes

A magical summer in the bayou
Interview by
Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes returns to the Louisiana bayou in her magical new middle grade novel, Bayou Magic.
Share this Article:

Coretta Scott King Honor-winning author Jewell Parker Rhodes (Sugarreturns to the Louisiana bayou in her enchanting new middle grade novel, Bayou Magic. Ten-year-old Maddy is the last of her sisters to leave their home in bustling New Orleans for a summer in the bayou with Grandmére. Soon, Maddy discovers the bayou's natural beauty, close-knit community and her family's magical legacy. When an oil leak threatens the community, Maddy must rely on her strength, her smarts and the help of a mysterious mermaid. We asked Rhodes a few questions about Bayou Magic and what she loves about writing children's literature.

Bayou Magic takes a very different approach to mermaid lore than the Disney tale so many of us are familiar with. What was the inspiration for this story?
I’ve long known about different mermaid lore. I was thrilled when both UCLA’s Fowler Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art featured an exhibit of Mami Wata, “Mother Water.” I think it’s amazing that African mermaids swam beside slave ships and remained in America to comfort the captured and to remind them of their homeland. 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 tale of a mermaid transforming herself to marry a human.

You were born in Pittsburgh, but Bayou Magic and many of your previous novels take place in Louisiana. What is it about the Deep South that moves you?
My grandmother raised me and she had deep Southern roots. She believed in holistic healing and she taught me to honor the past, my ancestors and nature. Grandmother died when I was 19 just as I was deciding to become a writer. Whenever I visit Louisiana, I feel her spirit—her good-heartedness and love. I’m also enthralled by the cultural stew—the delicious food, music and people. History feels alive in Louisiana; the atmosphere encourages dreams, magic and creativity.

What do you love most about Maddy?
Maddy was a surprise and delight for me. She’s far more quiet and watchful than any of my other heroines. And she has the biggest eyes that just glow with curiosity, intelligence and kindness. To save her family, friends and the bayou from the effects of an oil spill, she overcomes her fears and swims with Mami Wata, the most powerful mermaid of all. I also love that Maddy loves and listens to her grandmother’s tales. 

Why is magic and myth such an important part of children’s literature?
The world is already magical for children. Seeing the moon, a family of rabbits, currents in the water are spectacular for a child. However, I do think children are drawn to stories in which characters perform magic. Magic can help children overcome their limitations and, like Maddy, save the day. Combine the mythic hero’s journey with magic and young readers feel empowered.

What’s the best part of writing for a younger audience?
Hugs and more hugs! Visiting schools is such a life-affirming delight. But I didn’t expect cards, letters and drawings from students. It’s very precious when a child reaches out. I keep a box filled with cards and letters. I imagine when I’m very, very old they will never fail to lift my spirits.

What was your favorite book when you were Maddy’s age, and how has it influenced your own writing?
As a kid, I read everything. Little Women, Black Beauty and Nancy Drew were some of my favorites. I could only afford to buy Great Illustrated Classic comics. I’d gather pop bottles and redeem them for nickels. I loved The Prince and the Pauper and The Journey to the Center of the Earth. But the Prince Valiant comic strip meant a great deal to me. I decided that I wanted to grow up and “be valiant.” I think my characters, the strong boys and girls, are valiant—courageous and determined.

What do you hope your young readers learn from this book?
Nature needs to be cherished and the health of animals, humans and our planet need to be balanced with energy needs. Young people today will be the stewards of the future. I do believe legends of mermaids who valued waters and befriended humanity will add an emotional resonance to sustainability issues for children.

Are you working on any new projects?
I’m completing Towers Falling (publishing Summer 2016). It’s about Dèjà, a homeless girl, who discovers how her life has been impacted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I’m also doing research for two other historical novels. I don’t know if I’ll write one or both or none. As always my writing follows my heart. I’m open to voices, characters that appear like ghosts when I’m doing the dishes or dreaming.

Get the Book

Bayou Magic

Bayou Magic

By Jewell Parker Rhodes
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316224840

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Trending Interviews