Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jewell Parker Rhodes: A True Gem

I met Jewell Parker Rhodes at the NCTE expo hall in November.  I had read her first YA novel, The Ninth Ward, and loved it.  Her publisher was giving away advance copies of her new book, Sugar.  So I grabbed a copy, gathered my courage, and approached Jewell (I will forever classify myself as shy).  She immediately put me at ease with her huge smile and enthusiastic greeting.  She happily signed her book and we struck up a conversation about how much kids at my school loved The Ninth Ward and how I looked forward to sharing Sugar with them.  Jewell beamed and explained that her greatest hope was that children would enjoy her work.  I told her I'd share the book with our students and suggested that she could talk with them about it.

I walked away from that table thinking about how nice she was to talk with me, but I couldn't imagine that she would actually talk with our students once they had a chance to read the book.  This is a BUSY woman we are talking about.  You can read all about her on her website or her blog.

I think I read the whole book before I returned from the conference and knew our students would love it.  One of our 4th grade sections began reading it as a read-aloud, and, as predicted, they loved it. 
So... I sent an email to Jewell--a busy professor and working author--who emailed me back the same day!  After quite a few email exchanges we chose a date for the Skype.  The students prepared by illustrating passages from the book, discussing what they liked about the book, and writing questions to ask and comments to share. 

The Skype...

At 2:00 on Monday (11:00 in Arizona) we began the Skype.  Jewell began by reading a few pages from Sugar, and she explained that she'd never read this book out loud to a group--we were her first audience!  The book is set in Louisiana on a sugar plantation during Reconstruction. All of the former slaves who did not leave when they were freed remained to work on the plantation.  The protagonist, Sugar, a young girl whose mother died on the plantation, longs for freedom and adventure. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Billy, the son of the plantation owner, and together they set off to explore "far away places" on the river.  Their friendship, needless to say, is a dangerous secret. Sugar also pursues a friendship with the Chinese laborers who come to work on the plantation to increase productivity.  

Each student in the class had a chance to ask a question or make a comment to Jewell about her book. We learned about how long it takes her to write a book, how she researches her stories, how she feels about her characters, and most excitingly, what she's working on now.  She asked the kids for suggestions about her new characters, Madison and Bear.  She welcomed their ideas and told us she'd put a dedication to Flint Hill Students in the new book! She also promised to send each student an autographed copy of Sugar and a copy of The Ninth Ward.

Thank you, thank you, Jewell Parker Rhodes for an unforgettable experience!

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