Book review: Hurricane Boy and Ninth Ward

As my heart breaks watching coverage of Hurricane Harvey pummeling Texas–and I hold my breath that its impact here in New Orleans is minimal–I can’t help but remember that today is the 12-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a tense time of year for New Orleanians, especially those transplanted to places affected by the current storm. Even if we’re not directly impacted, a lot of us may deal with various forms of PTSD. To the degree that we’re able, we need to take care of ourselves. Then we can reach out to help those in need.

If you’re in a place where reading a good, escapist book would help, allow me to recommend some terrific books for kids or for adults. If you, or kids you know, would benefit from stories of uplift and survival after hurricanes, read on.

I recently enjoyed two excellent middle-grade novels featuring children from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes and Hurricane Boy by Laura Roach Dragon. (Full disclosure: Laura’s a lovely member of my SCBWI writing group.)

In Ninth Ward, Lanesha is a bright, funny 12-year-old girl who sees ghosts. Some talk to her or reach out for high-fives. Others ignore her, like her mother’s ghost. Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who cares for Lanesha, says she has the Sight, and that it’s a gift. Lanesha’s not so sure, until the day Hurricane Katrina hits.

Suddenly her mother’s spirit is brighter, and Mama Ya-Ya seems paler. It’s up to Lanesha to protect her tiny family–Mama Ya-Ya; classmate TaShon, who can’t find his parents; and TaShon’s little dog Spot–in the home they’re unable to leave despite the oncoming disaster.

Lanesha’s earnestness and resolve make her a heroine readers will root for. Despite the supernatural elements, the fact-based events of Lanesha’s story are portrayed realistically, although child-appropriately. Lanesha’s intelligent, resilient character is believable, if a bit young-sounding at times. Her harrowing experiences in the attic and on the roof, surrounded by water, are suspenseful, and her story ends on an uplifting note (with a few loose ends). I appreciated the author’s note with facts about Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent floods, and continuing efforts to rebuild New Orleans.

In Hurricane Boy, clever, responsible 11-year-old Hollis must help his family of five climb to the roof through the attic when his Ninth Ward house is inundated with swiftly rising water. In their rush to escape, the family leaves everything–including his grandma’s insulin–behind. Surrounded by water, four children and an elderly woman wait for days on the roof, without food, drinking water, or medicine, while helicopters fly overhead, sometimes shining lights and TV cameras on them.

When neighbors a few blocks away need help, Hollis and his older brother swim over. Hollis returns, but his brother doesn’t. When a boat finally arrives, it can take only their grandmother, who needs medical attention. The three remaining children–Hollis, his 9-year-old sister, and his 5-year-old brother–are left alone.

Whereas Lanesha’s story ends with her rescue from the roof, Hollis’s continues after a helicopter rescue and his eventual arrival in a West Virginia emergency shelter. Life in the shelter is confusing but mostly safe; they meet other kids separated from their caretakers and form friendships as they work through a variety of challenges.

Despite the heavy situation, Hollis remains thoughtful and hopeful, relying on his cleverness to protect the people he loves and to find those separated from him. A funny, but realistic, turn of events brings a happy ending, though I would have liked a little more closure.

Both Ninth Ward and Hurricane Boy introduce amazing kid characters who represent the strength, resilience, and positivity we all need to survive disaster. May they offer hope for those recovering right now.