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Find more The Inside Story
As part of our Middle-Grade Mania promotion, we’ve resurrected a retired Book Links feature called “The Inside Story,” which provides a children’s book author space to elaborate on their process. Here, acclaimed novelist Rhodes reflects on writing for middle-graders and the difficult words she thinks it’s so important they hear.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is an award-winning author of novels aimed at middle-school audiences. Her popularity lies in her easy rapport with young readers: she unerringly creates memorable, diverse casts of characters who come across as authentically believable individuals. She also confronts difficult subjects head-on, be they 9/11, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or ongoing racial violence, especially as it affects young African American males.In interviews, Jewell readily admits that writing books like these is not easy. She cites the pain of revisiting personal memories and facing her own fears, plus the obligation of getting it right when portraying these sensitive topics to students in the middle grades. She has discovered via her numerous school visits that often her books are a first introduction to 9/11, Katrina, or the legacy of Emmett Till, for example, as these events are not usually taught at the middle-school level. She has also stated that she feels she has the responsibility, as should we all, to share these events. She feels strongly that kids have the right to know.This respect for her audience is again apparent in her willingness to present multiple viewpoints through her characters. She lays out the complexities of human interaction, interweaving perceived differences in race, religion, age, and social strata. Whether it’s recently emancipated slaves and their former masters learning to forge a future that includes newly immigrated Chinese field hands, or three middle-school classmates in New York City (an African American homeless girl, a new Muslim student from Turkey, and a boy who’s a white Jewish military brat) trying to understand the aftermath of 9/11, or a black kid in Chicago waking up to find that he’s now a ghost and the only person who can see him is the daughter of the white cop who shot him, Jewell’s characters stumble and learn in ways that middle-schoolers can relate to and recognize. Not only do readers see themselves mirrored in these books but many will find themselves facing similar situations. Jewell’s books speak about empathy, insight, communication, and compassion. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Jewell deliver the ending key note address at the annual Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME) conference. She is a wonderfully vibrant, engaging speaker who got us all up and out of our seats, celebrating our commitment to staying unified during difficult times. In the following essay, she shares additional thoughts about writing for middle-school audiences. —Kathleen McBroom
From Jewell Parker Rhodes:
In my youth, I experienced many traumas: poverty, segregation, a dysfunctional family, and emotional abuse. Although I always wanted to write for youth, I didn’t know I was writing middle grade when I began my children’s literature journey with Ninth Ward (2010). I thought I was writing YA. Little, Brown editors helped me to understand my fictional voice and affirmed my calling to middle-grade students.I now believe that I write about the middle-grade years because they were among my most unhappy. Books consoled me—Little Women, Secret Garden, and Charlotte’s Web, among others. Though such books didn’t mirror my external reality, they mirrored my inner humanity and gave me hope. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until college that I realized Black women wrote books. But once I did, I nourished the dream that I could write for youth and mirror their humanity as well as their diversity. Adult novels became a way to practice and deepen my craft while I waited for the day when a child’s voice would resonate inside my head and heart. It took decades for me to hear that voice. It came with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the levees breaking in New Orleans. Lanesha, my heroine in Ninth Ward, spoke to me, and my long-awaited career as a youth writer became an actuality. It seems as though my talent is to tackle tough subjects and still be able to affirm life, family, friendship, and love. Most significantly, my heroes and heroines are able to celebrate themselves—their resilience, intelligence, and self-love. Is it any wonder that it took me a lifetime to have the faith to know that, despite hard times and personal and national tragedies, hope is renewed through kindness, empathy, and the power of language?My Little, Brown editors asked me to write Towers Falling (2016) and Ghost Boys (2018). Can you imagine? I never would have picked 9/11 or the death of Emmett Till and other children of color. Both times I said, “No. Too hard emotionally. Too hard stylistically.” But after months, each story worked its way into my heart and consciousness. Why? Because of our youth, and my desire not to patronize them. Children will become our future citizens and will shape our world. They need safe home and school environments where they can discuss tough subjects and become the empathetic, critical thinkers our society so desperately needs. The worst that could happen is that I would fail to write a good book. If so, it wouldn’t be published. But kids deserved that I try. So, I tried.Ghost Boys, because it was so personal, nearly broke me. I’d write for a few weeks then have to stop writing for weeks . . . On and on went this pattern as I tried to bear witness. I was alive when Emmett was murdered, and it angered me to know that, 65 years after his death, boys of color were still dying because of racism and racial bias. I had also raised a son who, because of his skin tone, experienced fearfulness and hatred from some.Most of my characters are inspired by the students I meet in schools. They are loving and lovable. Sometimes they whisper to me their struggles. Sometimes they ask outright, “Do you still experience prejudice?” “Did you ever give up hope?” “You were raised by your grandmother, too?” “How can I become a better writer?” and in their questions, they reveal themselves.Not only is my work inspired by today’s students but I believe a work of art isn’t a work of art until it’s communicated to an audience. Just as writers communicated to me as a child, I am ever so grateful and honored that kids are reading my stories. They, in turn, I hope, will write their own stories. In the meantime, any reader who likes my work is a kin of mine. Together, we are both gifting and receiving moments of understanding and common humanity. We are interdependent. Communicating.I had to wait a long time to hear a child’s voice breathe life into my fiction. I didn’t know that my youthful characters and the youth I’ve met across America would help heal me. The memory of the sad, lonely middle-school girl I used to be has completely disappeared. Thank you, readers. We are family.Sampling Rhodes Bayou Magic. 2015. Little, Brown, $17 (9780316224840). Gr. 4–7.Ghost Boys. 2018. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316262286). Gr. 5–8.Ninth Ward. 2010. Little, Brown, $15.99 (9780316043076). Gr. 5–8.Sugar. 2013. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316043052). Gr. 3–5.Towers Falling. 2016. Little, Brown, $16.99 (9780316262224). Gr. 4–7.Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book; Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Peace Association book award; Bayou Magic; and Towers Falling. She has also written many award-winning books for adults.Kathleen McBroom is the School Library Media Practicum Coordinator for the Wayne State University School of Information Science.
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