Jewell Parker Rhodes has a way of drawing me in completely when she writes. It’s not just that her characters vibrate with life, it’s that you can practically smell the air, feel the heat, see the brackish waters of bayou. I picked summer books to fit the mood of August, but you could read this one on the coldest day of the year and be transported.
I knew I would like this book almost as soon as I opened it, after all, how can you dislike a book that declares “women are strong” in the third paragraph. It’s not that there are no male characters in this, there certainly are, but this is a book that will show readers (regardless of gender) that women are strong, tough, smart, imaginative, resilient. It doesn’t narrow the range of things that girls can be, it expands it.
Each summer one of Maddy’s sisters has been sent down to the Bayou to stay with Grandmere, their grandmother. It’s Maddy’s turn this year and she soon settles into a rhythm in the bayou, feeling a strong connection both to her grandmother and to the land. Her days are filled hanging out with her friend Bear, cooking, exploring, listening. She learns about her history all the way back to when Nature cried because Africans were captured and enslaved. She learns that she’s not the only one in her family who sees things that might not be there, dreams things that have not yet happened. She becomes stronger for knowing her history, sensing her future.
But this isn’t just a book about lazy summer days in Louisiana. Bear’s father works on an oil rig out in the Gulf and it if you’re familiar with the BP spill, it won’t take you long to realize where Bayou Magic is headed. All the premonitions in the world can’t stop the rig from going up in flames and the oil from destroying the environment. Maddy helps every way she knows how, from washing birds covered in oil to calling on Mami Wata, a powerful water spirit for help. Blending realistic environmental response with magic and legend allows Bayou Magic to wrap up on a positive note.
Although Bayou Magic can be heartbreaking at times, Jewell Parker Rhodes infuses her book with hope by incorporating African water spirits to assist in salvation, as well as relying on the strength and caring of communities to work together for the greater good. The end result is a book that repeatedly sends the message to readers that they are not too young to do good in this world. That they do matter. That they have power, just by being themselves.
Age Recommendation: Grades 4+. This would work well for Middle Grade students who like their fantasy on the realistic side. I also love it for kids interested in the environment.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – None.
Profanity – “hell”
Death, Violence and Gore – A boy catches a fish and guts it so they can eat it. A man threatens to tan Bear’s hide. A man lost a finger to a gator and sliced another on fishing wire. There are mentions of the beatings slaves suffered. A character causes another physical harm. Someone intervenes, kicking the person doing the harm. The situation would qualify as child abuse. A fire kills many. A character’s father dies. Animals are suffering due to an oil spill. Some die. One dies in Maddy’s lap.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – A character has a drinking problem.
Frightening or Intense Things – Madison’s sisters try to make her scared to go visit her grandmother. A boy’s mother has left and they don’t know where she lives. There is some description of the journey from Africa while being enslaved.