Dr. Jewell Parker Rhoades- 1999
Dr. Jewell Parker Rhoades
Author of six books for youth including the New York Times bestseller Ghost Boys
Writing Towards an Inclusive Future
By Ngoc Truong (Kaylie) (Biology, Class of 2024)
Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is a pioneering creator in her content for children’s books. Despite writing literature targeting a young audience, Dr. Rhodes’s books hint at and raise awareness on bigger and more controversial matters – namely – the issue of social inequality. Her works are valuable to the movement to end racism because they successfully target young readers – a non-judgmental population – with youth-friendly language and their ability to raise awareness on social inequality.
To begin with, I believe Dr. Rhodes’s choice of audience - younger readers – is the first step that makes her successful in her content. As Dr. Rhodes said, “I see [children’s] love. I see [children’s] empathy, their compassion for one another… Remember what you were like when you were fifth graders.” Younger readers have no bias or preconceptions, and therefore would respond to the social injustices in her books without judgment or second thoughts. Adults who read her works might not respond in the same way, having been exposed to common sense, or implied societal practices that they grew up with.
Another reason for Dr. Rhodes’s success in delivering social equality messages is her writing style that targets her young audience. Dr. Rhodes’s books are characterized by its use of folksy and simple mundane vocabulary, which allows children to understand her books more easily. For instance, instead of the words “Grandma” and “Mom,” her characters used the words “Grandmère” and “Ma”. Her writing sounds like spoken language, has abundant dialogue, follows no rules (sentences begin and end spontaneously), and sometimes overlook grammatical conventions (lacks subjects and objects, contains dangling modifiers and run-on sentences…). If considered from a child’s standpoint, it would be similar to reading a diary of another child – the narrative sounds young, and her protagonists give simple, brief, and ordinary summaries of their moments, what they were doing, and provides instinctive insights on the social situations they face. This simple writing allows younger readers to understand and relate more easily to the complex ideas of race, class, discrimination that Dr. Rhodes introduce, and is what makes Dr. Rhodes such a valuable content creator. Furthermore, her novels layer mystical and fantastical elements such as mermaids (in her book Bayou Magic), ghosts (in her book Ghost Boys), and seers (in her book Ninth Ward), which are highly captivating details in the eyes of children and makes it more likely for them to finish reading her books. In an interview with Reading Rockets, when asked about her writing style, Dr. Rhodes shared that “[she thinks her] secret weapon is writing in the African-American oral tradition … [she thinks] of a voice that [she hears] … thinking of someone telling the story. And [she thinks] these are ways in which it makes [her stories] immediate and intimate and compelling.” This ingenious writing style coupled with the occasional addition of fantastical elements allows her to successfully approach her younger audience and raise awareness on social equality.
Lastly, Dr. Rhodes’s works are essential to addressing racial inclusivity because they raise awareness on the topic of discrimination and hint at hopes for change. For instance in “Black Brother, Black Brother,” Dr. Rhodes illustrates discrimination through the way Donte and Trey were treated in response to the color of their skin. Darker-skinned Donte would constantly get into trouble for doing nothing, while lighter-skinned Trey was considered a good kid and was popular at school. Donte was arrested after throwing his backpack on the ground in response to white kid Alan’s constant belligerent harassment. With this context, Donte’s headmaster called the police, Donte was handcuffed, taken away in a police car, while Alan the actual perpetrator got away unscathed. In another instance, her black protagonist Jerome in “Ghost Boys” was summarily shot dead by a police officer while playing with a toy gun. Jerome, just on the basis of his skin color, was deemed “dangerous” (in the eyes of the police officer) and did not get a chance to protest or notice his aggressor before he was killed. These examples show how Dr. Rhodes’s books illuminate the contrasting treatment and implicit bias Blacks receive as opposed to their white peers. Complex social interactions like these allow young readers to learn about people outside of their own experiences and inspire discussions on the controversial topic of discrimination. As Kirkus Reviews observed, Dr. Rhodes’s books “offer a deeply critical insight for young readers … [and challenge them] to pursue their own self-definition.” The essential discussions and introspection on social equality – a usually avoided and difficult topic to talk about without making people defensive or offended – were successfully evoked through the stories that Dr. Rhodes portrayed with her characters.
Nevertheless, instead of anger and bitterness, Dr. Rhodes’s works instill compassion, understanding, and hope for an “all-embracing” future. Like how her deceased protagonist Jerome said in “Ghost Boys,” “Only the living can make the world better. Live and make it better,” Dr. Rhodes believes that “… given history, [children] can somehow then move forward and make a difference. That they don’t have to … cauterize this pain, that they can instead say, ‘That’s not right. I’m going to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.’” White protagonist Sarah, daughter of the police officer who shot Jerome in “Ghost Boys,” grew up to fight for social justice, while black protagonist Sugar in “Sugar” embodied social inclusivity through her friendship with her plantation owner’s white son and her plantation’s Chinese immigrant workers.
To sum up, with her ability to reach, raise awareness, and provoke thoughts in children on the difficult and complex topic of social equality, Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is a trailblazer in her children’s content. Perhaps, in the foreseeable future, some of the awareness these young readers gained from her books can spark movements for future change, just as Dr. Rhodes had hoped: “… by the time they move into the world as adults, they are maybe going to help us eradicate that sensibility that just because you’re a person of color, someone feels they need to call the police on you.”
“Black Brother, Black Brother.” Kirkus Reviews, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/jewell-parker-rhodes/black-brother-black-brother.
“Transcript from an Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Reading Rockets, www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/rhodes/transcript.
“Jewell Parker Rhodes with Her Dogs.” Meet Jewell Parker Rhodes, jewellparkerrhodes.com/children/meet-jewell/.
Someone Like You
By Anthony Martin
When looking for a realistic inspiration to both women and people of color, look no further than Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes. She uses her writing to solve the main issues she faced as a child. Rhodes witnessed how racism and other social injustices affected her family and other families around her. At a young age, Rhodes had recognized that the inequality she saw was based on her race. Rhodes writes for all ages of readers about people of color, especially strong Black female characters to fight against these injustices.
Dr. Rhodes’s passion for writing in this style generates from the realization she had at a young age. According to Claire Kirch, Rhodes says she “never once thought” that she could actually become a published author because she never read any books during her childhood that “had any diversity” (Kirch). This led to her drive to be an author to show kids what she had lacked in her childhood, characters that she could relate to. Between the lack of people like her in stories and the struggle she went through by living with and idolizing her grandmother, she officially decided that she must do something so the future generations do not have to face this same struggle (Porch Stories). This struggling childhood drove her to the woman she became, someone who utilizes her own experiences and social injustices to help bring everything into light. Rhodes will use her own struggles within her stories to push the characters through what she faced, such as poverty and racism (Hooper). Rather than an escape from their reality, Rhodes creates a reality that may just be just as harsh to bring light onto the hardships that people face. Although she uses realistic situations, they are not always the same or similar to the reader’s actual life. An example of this is in her book Voodoo Season, where the main character is a relatable woman, but she faces the hardships of a person of color in the south. Dr. Rhodes had used her own challenges and the challenges she saw others face, as and inspiration instead of a limitation.
Rhodes also uses her spirituality and ancestry within her stories. In some of her stories such as Voodoo Dreams, Rhodes uses some African religious beliefs and practices to correct the racist ideas in the deep south from slave times (Green). In an interview with Kevin Quashie, Dr. Rhodes stated, “Part of the mythos – and this is why I love African spirituality – is the vulnerability that we recognize as human.” Rhodes uses her understanding and love for the mythological beliefs the ancestral African tribes within her stories to show racism. This is done wonderfully in her stories that include voodoo, as voodoo is a feared belief that is deeply rooted in African culture. In many instances, voodoo is looked at as an evil magic that is typically used by black women in the south to cast curses on others. In the past, the fear of voodoo by other races have caused them to fear people of color. This is seen in her use of Marie Laveau, who is based off of a believed real voodoo priestess, to point out the racism behind the fear of people who practiced voodoo. But this leads to further discrimination of the culture of people of color.
Dr. Rhodes drive for equality is not directed to a specific age group as she writes for all ages with children’s books as well as young adult books. She assesses the issues she faced and continues to see everywhere through her stories. Rhodes also does many speeches about her writings and the social injustices on college campuses to this day. Rhodes still sees the struggles that are faced by people today through her position at Arizona State University (Hooper). She uses the fact that the same struggles she faced are still in effect today, as a driving force to encourage new, young people to take on the same role she did as voice for the future.
So, to this day Rhodes’s writings, stories, and speeches are used to show her drive and influence to face adversity and social injustices. She used her characters as a vessel for an attempt to reach new people to join in the cause of equality. Dr. Rhodes utilized female characters and people of color to span her audience as much as possible as well as to show that racism and inequality is real in basic life. The attempts to help progress the equality are realistic and commendable. Therefore, Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes is not only an influencer through writing but also a leader against injustices.
GREEN, TARAT. “Voodoo Feminism Through the Lens of Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams.” Women’s Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, Apr. 2012, pp. 282–302. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.2012.655135.
Hooper, Kaitlin. “An Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes: Social Justice and How to Cultivate It Through Book Selection.” Michigan Reading Journal, vol. 52, no. 1, Fall 2019, pp. 72– 79. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx\direct=true&db=edo&AN=140328332&authtype=sso&custid=s3915890&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Kevin E. Quashie, and Jewell Parker Rhodes. “Mining Magic, Mining Dreams: A Conversation with Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Callaloo, vol. 20, no. 2, Apr. 1997, pp. 431–440. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.3299273&authtype=sso&custid=s3915890&site=eds-live&scope=site.
KIRCH, CLAIRE. “Jewell Parker Rhodes: Living the Dream and Writing for Children.” Publishers Weekly, vol. 262, no. 15, Apr. 2015, p. 34. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lfh&AN=102125219&authtype=sso&custid=s3915890&site=eds- ve&scope=site.
Porch Stories. (2017). Retrieved January 28, 2021, from https://jewellparkerrhodes.com/adult/books/porch-stories/