Bayou Magic

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!

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

A word to the wise: Don’t stay up late reading a Neil Gaiman book and expect to get any sleep. I’m dragging today after finishing The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but it was worth it.

If you’re at all familiar with Gaiman’s work, you probably already know that this book, like so many of his others, is creepy, magical, strange, and thought-provoking. It’s written for an adult audience, but there’s something childlike about it as well. It explores the fears of a young boy and how he views the terrifying world around him. Did everything happen just as he remembers? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. In my opinion, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, while delving into one man’s memories of his childhood, also explores the themes of hope, facing one’s fears, accepting help, and believing in magic.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins with a man returning to his hometown for a funeral. In an effort to escape all of the condolences being offered, he decides to explore the area once so familiar to him. He goes past where his childhood home once stood and makes his way to the lane leading to the Hempstock farm. It is here that he begins to remember the events that took place when he was just seven years old.

When he was seven, he met Lettie Hempstock, a girl who seemed larger than life and who believed that the pond at the end of the lane was an ocean. Lettie, her mother, and her grandmother were all wise, magical, mysterious, and somehow timeless. They knew things that no normal person possibly could. The boy didn’t know quite what to make of these ladies, but he intrinsically trusted them.

Following the death of an opal miner, a strange darkness entered the world. The boy looked to Lettie Hempstock to beat the darkness back, but it somehow found a way into his life–into his very body.

The seemingly impossible events that followed shook the boy to his core and terrified him completely. The darkness that plagued him took human form and threatened every aspect of the boy’s life, even the sense of safety he should have felt in his own home, with his own family. How could he possibly fight something that scared him so deeply? Where could he look to for help?

Only the Hempstock family had the power and knowledge to help the boy. But how? What could these women possibly do to rid his world of this ancient evil? What would have to be sacrificed to save his life? And would that sacrifice ultimately be worth it?


I’m still pondering some of the mysteries in this book. Gaiman, a master storyteller, doesn’t give readers all of the answers. Some things are left to our imaginations (which is awesome).

A few unanswered questions:

  • What is the main character’s name? We never know his name or the names of his family members. Only the Hempstock ladies and a couple of other memorable characters are named outright.
  • Who died and precipitated the main character’s visit home? We know it’s not his sister, as it’s mentioned that she’s waiting on her brother. Is it his mom? His dad? Who led him home?
  • What’s the deal with the Hempstocks? Are they three incarnations of the same person? Perhaps some version of the Triple Goddess–the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden? I honestly don’t know, but this seems the most plausible explanation given the events of the book and what we learn about this family.
  • Why does it take revisiting the “ocean” to jump-start the main character’s memories? One would think something so traumatic would have been impossible to forget. Also, what exactly is this ocean? Where did it come from, and what’s the source of its power?
  • Did the events he remembered really happen? Were they the imaginings of a child to cope with something he couldn’t understand? Or is it the adult who forgets in order to cope with something that should have been impossible? How does the man as an adult explain what happened?

Maybe you’ve figured out the answers to all of these questions. Maybe not. As for me, I’ll be thinking about these things–and a few more–for a while.

Like I mentioned before, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is written for an adult audience, but some teens may enjoy it (particularly if they’re already Neil Gaiman fans). It’s deep, intense, and it does play with your mind a bit, but give it a whirl if that’s your kind of thing.

For more information on this book and others by Neil Gaiman, check out the author’s website.

All the Answers

I’m a world-class worrier. I can obsess over the smallest thing and make it into a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. This has been a skill of mine for years (and still drives my mother crazy). I have to force myself to stay away from things like WebMD because a cough is never just a simple cough. In my head, it’s always much, much worse.

No one–including myself sometimes–really understands why I worry so much, so it’s often refreshing for me when I encounter someone–real or fictional–who “gets it.” A couple of days ago, I finished reading a book about a character who definitely “gets it.” In fact, she may worry more than I do. The book is All the Answers by the always entertaining Kate Messner, and the character is young Ava Anderson.

Ava Anderson knows what it means to be anxious. She worries about everything. She panics before every test, and this morning is no different. She’s got a big math test today, and Ava knows she’s going to flub her way through it. She knows the material, but when tests roll around, Ava’s anxiety always gets the best of her. This morning, however, is going to be a little different…

It looks like an ordinary pencil, the kind someone would pick up at a conference or something, but this one turns out to be very different. When Ava grabs it out of her parents’ junk drawer, she has no way of knowing that this pencil is going to change her life.

Ava uses the pencil during her dreaded math test, and, wonder of wonders, when she presents questions to this strange pencil, it gives her the answers! For the first time in forever, Ava feels great about how she performed on a test. But does this magical pencil only work on math questions? Well, Ava and her best friend Sophie are about to find out…

Ava and Sophie soon realize that the special pencil will only answer factual questions, and it won’t answer anything with free will involved. The girls decide to use their new “power” to get some important information. For instance, which boys at school have a crush on Sophie? (This information leads to some rather sticky situations, as you can imagine.) They also use the pencil to figure out what would make Ava’s grandfather and his friends at the nursing home truly happy.

One day, though, Ava asks the pencil a question, and the answer rocks the girl’s entire world. This information has the power to change Ava’s entire family, and Ava can’t stop herself from worrying about what it could mean. Is Ava strong enough to handle what is coming, or will panic take over?

As Ava deals with everything revealed by this mysterious pencil, she begins to wonder if having all the answers is really so important. Does knowing so much make things better, or does it give people even more to obsess over? Can Ava put her worries–and her pencil–aside and finally trust in her own strength? And will that strength get her through the tough times ahead?

For the answers to these questions and many more, read All the Answers by Kate Messner.

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All the Answers, which will be released on January 27th, is a definite purchase for any libraries serving upper elementary and middle grade readers. Many readers will surely identify with Ava’s test anxiety and her worries about navigating the perils of school, friends, and new experiences.

While being a thoroughly entertaining (and totally relatable) book, All the Answers also delivers an important message. Having all the answers may sound awesome, but it’s not the most important thing in life. Yes, a magical pencil like the one in this book may sound appealing, but it could also be a crutch, something that one learns to rely on instead of developing his/her own inner confidence, strength, and faith. (This was really brought home for Ava when she discovered her grandfather’s history with the pencil. It definitely opened her eyes a bit.) There’s nothing out there that can magically erase anxieties, but, like Ava discovered, there are some strategies that can make it easier to deal with.

As I wrap up this post, I’d like to thank NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read another book that I’ll be adding to my school library as soon as it’s released. I’d also like to send my heart-felt gratitude to author Kate Messner for writing another story that so many students will enjoy. I wish I’d had a story like this when I was younger. It would have helped so much to read about a girl who worried about stuff like I did.

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Happy holidays to all of my friends out there! Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts about books this year, and I hope you’ll follow me into next year. I’ll be taking the next couple of days off to bake and spend time with my family, but I’m always reading and looking for more awesome books to share with all of you. So…merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a wonderful winter solstice, and a fun Festivus for the rest of us! (And if you choose not to celebrate any winter holidays, I hope you have an excellent time as well!) Happy reading!