Reviews: Bayou Magic

Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, Expected Publication May 2015)

Ten-year-old Maddy knows how to make a good jambalaya.  She knows how to cook with her heart, adding just the right amount of spices, rice, meat and vegetables. Like Maddy,  I suspect Jewell Parker Rhodes has been “cooking” with her heart in creating this story of family, magic and the world of the bayou.

Maddy is the youngest of four sisters and this summer it is her turn to go and spend time with Grandmere in the bayou.  She’s nervous about going, but excited too.   But she’s her Grandmere’s child, and magic runs in Maddy’s veins that connects her to the bayou.  It’s a wondrous time, full of discovery, friendships, good food and stories, but there’s trouble coming.  Grandmere knows it, and Maddy can sense it–and she’ll have to be strong to help save the bayou from what’s to come.

Jewell Parker Rhodes has written a richly evocative middle grade fantasy adventure.  With Maddy, readers will recognize a strong young heroine who is just beginning to step into her power while  getting to know her Grandmere.  She’s still a child, and her apprehension of the future is very real, but so is her passion and empathy for others.  Maddy isn’t merely learning to take the path her grandmere has taken, but to forge her own way, with her own set of abilities.  And sometimes what she chooses to do goes against the conventional wisdom of the adults around her.  Maddy has her own gifts and strengths, and, in the end, they’ll have to be enough.

The author brings the flavors, sights and scents of the bayou into the reader’s imagination, making it not so much an exotic land of gators and witchcraft as a green and growing land of rich diversity.  Environmental themes fall naturally into play with older myths of water spirits and mermaids.  I was delighted with the fact that the author has given the mermaid legend new life here in the bayou,as an African water spirit that traveled with the slave ships to this new land.   Mermaids are not usually a favorite myth of mine, but Jewell Parker Rhodes has convinced me that maybe I simply haven’t been reading the right kind of mermaid stories.

This is a story, not so much of small magics, but of regional ones–less concerned with the workings of good and evil and more invested in the land and the people that inhabit it.  There’s a fierce love here, and a wonderful sense of family and familial roots.  What child hasn’t sought to find who they take after in the family?  Where they belong?  Young readers just beginning to get into richer fare are the perfect audience for this contemporary fantasy.  Maddy is a younger heroine that they’ll quickly identify with and root for.  I’ve already passed this onto a few of my young  and hungry readers who devoured it–and loved every minute!

Maddy’s amazing summer is full of joy and sadness, but it is so rich and lovely that when she leaves, I can’t help but hope for a story of her next summer visit.

Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.

Publisher: Little Brown Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: Expected Publication May 2015

ISBN13:    9780316224840

Recommended for grades 3 and up.

Flashback Fridays: Inside my bones, inside my meat, inside my heart, inside my FEET! . . .

You’re a youth who lives with his parents in a house near the edge of a dark forest.  You’re nearest neighbor is miles away, so when there’s  a knock on the door in the middle of the night, it’s not likely to be a good thing.  But when the door is opened, all that’s there is a pair of giant leather boots . . . and nothing else.

Do you remember:

Inside My Feet by Richard Kennedy, illustrations by Ronald Himler (HarperCollins 1979)

I’m rather thankful to Jim Trelease and his Read-Aloud Handbook.  My mother had a copy of this book when we were growing up in the 1980s and she used it in making many of her read-aloud picks for us.  I’m pretty sure this was one of the titles included on the list–for I’m not sure what other reason my mother would have found to read us this slim but spooky read.  Because the handbook has been updated over time with more recent titles, I’m not sure the latest editions of this read-aloud guide would have this title, but I’m very glad my mother’s copy did.

Our protagonist is also our narrator, and tells his tale to the readers. I don’t believe we ever catch the young man’s name, but he’s a lad with a good bit of sense and wisdom, even when the worst and most bizarre things happen to him.  One night, there’s a strange knock on the farmhouse door in the middle of the night, when his parents go to investigate, they find a pair of boots on the doorstep.  There’s no one about, just these gigantic boots.  But they bring the boots inside.  Later, they hear the boots clomping downstairs. Father goes to investigate, but instead of shooting at whatever intruder is in their house, he is rapidly carried away before either mother or son can see his abductor.  Then the boots reappear.  And mother is also carried off.  Now, it is our young protagonist’s turn, and he knows whatever carried off his parents will be coming for him . . . but he won’t be caught unawares.

This is an undoubtedly odd story–which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read other stories by Richard Kennedy.  It takes twists and turns that ignore the expected route, but nevertheless create a satisfying story.  I just started reading this tale to my son and it made me realize that this  71-page tale packs a wallop.  The first thing you notice is that the author makes no attempts to talk down to his audience in this story.  Right on page 2 we have our narrator relating a childhood fear. “Underneath my bed was a large and cold hand that also watched, and waited for me to dangle a naked arm or leg over the side so it could drag me screaming into that dark pit where it would rip and smother me until I was dead, and torment me afterwards.  But there was nothing unusual in that.  It had been waiting since I was five.”  The description caught me be surprise, I’d forgotten how vivid and spooky this tale was.   Kennedy doesn’t pull his punches or soften his words.    It’s a book where not only do monster plainly exist, but the main character actually reflects that he’s never asked his mother if she’s killed anyone.  But the narrative doesn’t feel out of place, instead sense and the supernatural weave together on the edge of  civilization giving the book a solid sense of place and time despite the fantastic that creeps into it.

You have to love a good self-sufficient protagonist.  When his parents get stolen away, our young protagonist doesn’t go and hide, but takes his father’s 8 gauge shotgun and rigs a set of wires to the door so that he can open it while sitting a distance back, ready to shoot.   He doesn’t deny he’s afraid, but he refuses to sit and wait for the inevitable helplessly.  And it’s this  that really makes him stand out.  Our hero could have simply been a story character that things happened to.  Instead, he fights for agency despite every scrap of childhood fear he owns.  I don’t know that I’d be as brave if my mom and dad got spirited away in the middle of the night.  But it sure as heck made an impression on me.  I’ve remembered this strange little book across the years until a copy fell into my hands again.  Now I’m sharing it with my son.

Richard Kennedy is also the author of another odd fantasy for kids called Amy’s Eyes (which is exceptionally long for a middle grade novel).  And he’s written a picture book fairy tale story I’ve encountered called The Dark Princess which is about as dark as fairy tales get in some ways.  Writing this reminds me that I’ve really got to get ahold of Amy’s Eyes and give it a read sometime!

If you can find this, I highly recommend it for a spooky story to be shared over several nights.

Comments welcome!

A Tuesday Ten: Sick and Tired

I’ve been butt-kicked by a rather nasty cold this past week and it made me consider that an interesting theme for this Tuesday might be illness in SF and Fantasy.  Let’s see what we find!


The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine (Eos, c2001)

Addie has always admired her older and more adventurous sister Meryl, but when Meryl falls ill with the dreaded Grey Death,  it’s Addie who must go on a quest to find the cure for her sister.  This is the first book that occurred to me when creating this list mainly because it’s a classic quest plot motivation.  When someone you love is ill, you’ll go to the ends of the earth to find a way to cure them.


Wish Girl by Nikki Loftin (Razorbill, February 2015)

In this book we have Annie Blythe who calls herself a “wish” girl.  In reality, she’s a “Make a Wish” girl–she has cancer and is facing the choice of a risky procedure to try and stop it.  So Annie’s weeks in the Texas Hill Country are something she’s determined to make special.  With the help of a magical valley and a troubled boy named Peter, she finds both the courage and strength she needs.  This book doesn’t have a magical happily ever after–but it does have a hopeful one.



The Water Castle by Megan Frazer Blakemore (Walker Children’s, 2013)

When Ephraim’s father has a stroke, the Appledore children move to their ancestor’s estate–an ancestor who is rumored to have discovered the fountain of youth.  Now Ephraim’s on a quest to see if this is really true and if he can find a cure for his father!


The Wizard’s Dilemma by Diane Duane (HMH Books for Young Readers)

When I think of illness in a fantasy novel, this is still one of my most heart-wrenching reads.  Diane Duane doesn’t give us static characters that never change–but that sometimes means hard changes.  For Nita it means her mother has been diagnosed with cancer . . . and there may be no way for Nita to cure it, despite all the magic she possesses.



Skellig by David Almond (Laurel Leaf, c1998)

This powerful little story is easy to overlook on the shelves for flashier titles. But there’s a reason it’s won so many awards.  Michael’s baby sister is ill and the chaos and unhappiness this brings to his home  along with fear that she might die soon has Michael retreating to the garage.  While there he finds a strange creature, something that looks part man and part bird.  Or maybe part angel?


The Astounding Broccoli Boy by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Walden Pond Press, Expected Publication September 2015)

Rory Rooney may think he’s prepared for just about anything–but he’s not prepared for what happens when he turns green.  Completely green from head to foot.  Now he’s in an isolation ward being poked and prodded by doctors who are certain he’s sick with something.  Rory has a different theory however.  What if his turning green actually means he’s turned into a superhero? What if his change of hue has given him superpowers?


 Into the Wild by Piers Torday (Viking Books for Young Readers, 2014)

In Kester’s world, most of the animals have died off from something called Red-Eye disease.  Only a few animals are left in this dystopian nightmare, and they’ve chosen Kester to help save them, and find a way to stop the disease that is killing them all.


Grip of the Shadow Plague by Brandon Mull (Shadow Mountain, 2008)

In this third book of the Fablehaven series a dangerous plague has been released that turns creatures of light into creatures of darkness.  The Sorensons are no longer certain whom they can trust as the infection spreads among the inhabitants.  They have to come up with a way of stopping it soon before it puts Fablehaven itself at risk.


The Fog Diver by Joel Ross (HarperCollins, Expected Publication May 2015)

In this futuristic world where mankind’s technology has  left the remainder of humankind clinging to the highest points of land while the rest of the world is covered by a “fog” of nanites, Chess is one of the few who can withstand the fog long enough to dive in and bring artifacts and animals up out of it.  He is used to doing this to make a living for his “family”, but now his beloved Mrs E, the on who takes care of all of them, has fogsickness.  There are rumors of a cure for the disease in Port Oro, but it won’t come cheap.  So Chess is diving in desperate search of a score that will give them the funds they need to save her!


Briar’s Book by Tamora Pierce (Scholastic, c1999)

This is the fourth book in the Circle of Magic Quartet, one that focuses primarily on Briar.  While Briar has come a long way from his days as a thief and a kid on the street, he still keeps connection with the street kids.  When one of them comes down with a mysterious illness,  he tries to help her, only to find that the illness is soon spreading everywhere . . . and could threaten the things and people he cares for most!  A lot of this story is dedicated to describing how the mages work to fight the illness and figure out a way to stop it.

So there are my ten!  Any to add?

Comments Welcome!



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