Jewell Parker Rhodes

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: People Issue: October 2011

What does the Coretta Scott King Award mean to you?
It means everything in the world. Writing a good children’s book was literally my goal when I started as a writer. This is a lifelong dream come true. Books were so important to me when I was growing up. I came from a poor family and lived in a poor neighborhood. For me the book became a source of hope and affirmation and also opened up the idea that there was another world for me to live in.

What were some of your favorite books while you were growing up?
I loved Heidi, Black Beauty and Little Women. I liked books that were about animals, and that were about overcoming injustice. I also loved the illustrated comics. I identified with Prince Valiant, and I decided I was going to try to live my life valiantly. I read anything and everything, and my family called me the little professor. I’ve never stopped reading children’s books and young-adult books.

You published two novels about Katrina in 2011, Hurricane and Ninth Ward. What do you want people to know about Katrina and its aftermath?
Because I’ve been writing about New Orleans for such a long time, I wanted to stress how Katrina and the levees breaking disproportionately affected the poor – not just the poor African-American communities but the poor communities in general.

I also wanted to say New Orleans is a very special place. It is the most American of cities. As a place that speaks to all the promise and glory of America, New Orleans is it. So the idea that we’re going to literally kick the ground out from people’s feet is, to me, horrific. And all the people who have not returned to New Orleans is, to me, horrific. If we can preserve a historic building, to me it’s even more important to preserve a historic landscape that nurtures a uniquely American blend of cultures that’s fueled jazz, fine cooking and the idea that people of multiethnic cultures can get along and blend and merge. I wouldn’t want America to lose New Orleans.

Which would you rather hunt – vampires with Abraham Lincoln or zombies with Jane Austen?
I’d want to slay vampires with Abe Lincoln! I wouldn’t just slay the Dracula-inspired vampire but the wazimamoto vampire, too. As I’ve written in Moon, Dracula may steal your life, but the colonialism-inspired wazimamoto steals your cultural identity. Much more horrifying – especially for a president trying to forge an American identity that included justice and humanity for all. I am partial to zombies – but they’re a bit pathetic and passive. In Season, zombies are created by using the paralytic gills of a puffer fish (an old folk recipe). But Austen will have to handle her own invasion. Me and Abe will be busy!