As I continue making my way through the nominees for the 2017-18 South Carolina Children’s Book Award, I have to commend the SCCBA committee on this list. I’ve read sixteen of the twenty titles so far, and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. Even the book with the dog on the cover–something that I usually avoid–is good. Many of my young readers will have a tough time choosing their favorite nominee when we vote in February. (Click here if you’d like to see a promo video for the SCCBA titles.)
I tell you all of that to introduce my latest read, another SCCBA nominee, Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This book is a spell-binding, compelling read that takes place in the Louisiana bayou in the summer of 2010, right around the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The story revolves around Maddy, a young girl learning about her heritage, what it means to be a friend, and the magic that lives within her.
Like her older sisters before her, Maddy is spending the summer with her grandmother in Bayou Bon Temps. There will be no phones, no Internet, no television, no air conditioning. Just Maddy, her grandmère, and a rather simple life on the bayou. Maddy soon learns, however, that her summer here will be anything but simple.
Grandmère sees something in Maddy that her sisters didn’t possess. Maddy has a love for the bayou, its mysteries, and its people. She’s in touch with the magic of her ancestors, those who traveled from Africa in the most horrible of circumstances.
Grandmère teaches Maddy to read the signs around her, and soon Maddy can call fireflies, sense when danger is coming, and perhaps even communicate with an ancient mermaid. Maddy is the only one who can see this strange being, known as Mami Wata, so can she possibly be real? Both Grandmère and Maddy’s new best friend, Bear, seem to think so. Sometimes a person just needs to have a bit of faith.
As Maddy becomes more sure of her newfound abilities, she realizes that something bad is headed for the bayou. She can’t stop the event–a catastrophic oil spill–from happening, but maybe she can do something about the impact of the spill on the bayou.
Calling on her mermaid friend, Mami Wata, Maddy uses her magical heritage and everything Grandmère has taught her to protect Bayou Bon Temps and all who call it home. Will it be enough? Will this disaster touch this place and its people in some other way? Whatever happens, can Maddy be a true friend and hero in both good times and bad?
Bayou Magic is an enthralling book that showcases the beauty of a simple life, exploring nature with friends, finding solace in silence, and getting to know the people and environment around you. (I must admit that I’m okay with the silence part, but I’m usually not one for getting to know nature or other people. Also, I’d probably go crazy without WiFi.) It also emphasizes spending time with elders, learning from them, and respecting one’s cultural traditions.
If I have one issue with this book, it’s that the ending feels a little rushed. Maddy’s journey back home from her bayou summer is rather abrupt. I’d like to know more about what happens between the book’s major culminating event and Maddy’s trip back to New Orleans. All in all, though, that’s a rather minor complaint for what is otherwise an excellent book.
Bayou Magic is a wonderful work of magical realism, but this story is also about courage, friendship, family, faith, protecting the environment, and honoring one’s culture. All of these things combine to make a truly magical book. I hope my students agree.
Bayou Magic is a great fit for upper elementary and middle grade readers. It’s accessible and easy-to-read, and it features a dynamic African-American protagonist, something we need much more of in children’s literature.
If you’d like more information on Bayou Magic or other works by Jewell Parker Rhodes, please visit her website, Facebook, or Twitter. You may also want to check out the awesome book trailer for Bayou Magic below. Enjoy!