Lanesha lives with her elderly caretaker Mama Ya-Ya in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Just before Hurricane Katrina hits the Gulf Coast, the intuitive Mama Ya-ya dreams of the destruction heading for New Orleans. Lanesha is bright, studious, and equally as intuitive as her Mama Ya-Ya . Lanesha uses her special sight and intelligence to survive the storm and the wreckage that followed.
Some readers may have a different experience based on their knowledge of Hurricane Katrina–as for me, I picked up this book knowing what would happen in terms of major conflict. Even with this knowledge, Ninth Ward surprised me page after page. Lanesha has a great many challenges in her life–she’s been orphaned, she’s bullied and she is quite poor. Through all of this I found it impossible to take pity on Lanesha because she is so strong and resilient. The pity I might have felt for her is replaced with a faith that she will persevere and a curiosity about how she will do so. Jewel Parker Rhodes paints a portrait of Mama Ya-Ya that is crystal clear to the reader. We are made to understand her physical appearance, her smell, her movement and her essence as she guides Lanesha through life. We become attached to Mama Ya-Ya through Lanesha’s undying devotion to her caretaker. Perhaps Rhodes’ greatest triumph in this book is overcoming the reader’s existing knowledge of the storm and making this story fresh and brand new.
As a reader of Children’s and Young Adult Literature I have to remind myself that the majority of the adult population does not usually read books targeted at tweens. I also have to use my “everybody should read this book” statements sparingly. That being said, I think anyone from age ten to one hundred and ten will gain something by reading Ninth Ward.