Jewell Parker Rhodes, a Coretta Scott King Author Award Honoree, shares insight into her middle grade book Bayou Magic, set after the BP oil spill

jewell-rhodesI’ve always loved Louisiana—its people, culture, and landscape. I’d just finished writing Ninth Ward, a novel about the human and environmental disasters caused by Hurricane Katrina and the levees breaking. To my horror, the evening news was filled with images of the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion—flames leaping, fire boats spraying water, plumes of black smoke, and crude oil falling like rain and spreading over the Gulf waters. Eleven rig workers died in the explosion and more than two hundred million gallons of crude polluted the environment. To date, the Deepwater Horizon Spill is the worst oil disaster in history.

Researching Bayou Magic was hard. Traveling to the Gulf, I could see firsthand how fisheries and animal habitats were deeply scarred and ruined recreational visits to the Gulf as well as hundreds of local businesses.

bayou magicI wanted to create a heroine who uses her intelligence and magical powers to rescue her community from environmental catastrophe. Madison Isabel Lavalier Johnson (Maddy, for short) was born. Maddy is a symbol of hope and my personal praise-song for all the young people who care about being good stewards of our air, land, water, and the Earth’s natural resources.

Louisiana, in particular, has always been subject to severe weather and environmental damage.  Natural disasters are unavoidable but human-caused disasters may be more easily averted if we learn from the past. You, dear reader, and your generation will have the on-going challenge of balancing the use of natural resources with safety for humans, animals, and the planet.

For me, the legend of Mami Wata was a perfect counterpoint to the oil spill. Mami Wata,  “Mother Water,” was the name given to African water spirits in the pidgin English slave traders used. There are countless folktale variations regarding the spiritual powers and gifts of half-fish, half-human Mami Wata.

Mermaid legends abound throughout all cultures. For me, this tale spoke of such love, loyalty, and community. Symbolically, too, it affirmed the cultural contributions, present and future, that Africans would make to American culture.

It is remarkable and wonderful that in a time of need—to save the Bon Temps community and its environment—Maddy calls upon the grace of mermaids, her spiritual ancestors.

In Maddy, I poured all my love for young people who seek, each and every day, new and better ways to care for our earth.

I encourage each of you to honor your folktales and myths. I know there are thousands of other cultural stories that inspire loving care for our planet. Use and retell those stories like Maddy did. Spread the word. Caring for our earth is a sacred trust.

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of six adult novels and several books for young readers. She has received many awards for her work, including an American Book Award and the Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award for Ninth Ward. Jewell is also the Artistic Director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Her awaited middle grade title is Towers Falling. Learn more at


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