Jewell Parker Rhodes, PARADISE ON FIRE

Jewell Parker Rhodes, PARADISE ON FIRE

Bestselling novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes returns to talk about her latest book, Paradise on Fire, and the racial disparities that exist when it comes to children’s access to nature. Zibby and Jewell discuss how although the novel is intended for middle-grade readers, there is a heaviness to it that reflects the struggle we are facing in the global fight against climate change. Jewell shares how she was inspired by the late Gary Paulsen to write a wilderness survival story, why her children are outdoors people even though she’s not, and a hint about the project she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jewell. Welcome back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” I should say. Second, third time? I don’t know. I talk to you all the time. This is amazing.

Jewell Parker Rhodes: I know. I know. Whenever I think about you, you bring such a smile to my face. I’m just so happy and so proud of the work that you’re doing in the publishing industry. Of course, “moms don’t have time to read” is such an important message. Actually, I wanted to tell you, I had time to read on Monday. I just started a book, Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. Literally, I had so much other work to do, but I read the book all day long. It just so refreshed my soul. What you’re doing, “okay, moms, let’s go for it,” is so important.

Zibby: I love that. Thank you. That is so nice. You know, I actually bought a copy of Oh William! in BookHampton over Thanksgiving. Then I ended up giving it as a gift to somebody who was sick. Now I haven’t gone out and gotten another one. I should just get in touch with the publicist. It’s on my list.

Jewell: You should get another copy. You know how mothers and daughters sometimes, and mothers and sons, have special relationships? As soon as I finished the book, I said to my daughter Kelly, who has also been in Moms Don’t Have Time to Read, the first anthology, I said, “Kelly, you have to read this book.” She says, “Oh, Mom, I just bought it.” We’re planning a lunch date where we can discuss it together. One of the things about being an author, I love what I do and I love the stories that I write, but I too have never stopped loving reading. I read widely, prolifically. I read children’s literature for classes that I teach, ethnic literature, and books that you recommend. It really makes my quality of life so rich. I’m just thrilled. Thanks to all those elementary school teachers who taught me how to read.

Zibby: Jewell, you gave me a good idea. Maybe we should start a mother-daughter book club. I was just thinking when you said that, oh, my mother and I should read Oh William! because I bet she hasn’t read it yet. She would want to. There should be a mother-daughter book club.

Jewell: I think it would be wonderful. I’m not going to give away the ending, but there are ways which I think it will resonate with your soul and your mom’s and my daughter’s. It’s one of these novels that really encapsulates being an artist, being a wife, being a mom. It’s this multigenerational thing. It’s beautiful. Let’s do that, yes.

Zibby: Maybe there’s another one out there we can join so we don’t have to do all the work.

Jewell: I’ll ask Kelly. We can ask her to do it. How about moms, daughters, and also grandchildren? I once did a book club with my son. He’s thirty-two years old. He has gamer friends all over the world. We decided to do a book club. That was the best book club I have ever been in. We read everything from philosophy to science fiction to best-sellers and more commercial novels. It was so interesting. These young men taught me so, so much. I was privileged to do it. That was amazing.

Zibby: Jewell, I just literally forgot we were even doing a podcast. I thought we were just chitchatting. I could sit here and talk to you all day. I should probably ask you about your book, oh, my gosh, Paradise on Fire.

Jewell: Paradise on Fire, isn’t that a gorgeous cover?

Zibby: It is a gorgeous cover.

Jewell: A beautiful, young, black girl. Her name is Addy. Actually, in Nigerian, her proper name is Adaugo. That means daughter of the eagles. That’s why we have the eagle here. Addy actually has the gift of aerial perception. She can think in 3D. She’s really good at maps, mazes, cartography, topography. She goes to a wilderness camp that her grandmother sends her to along with five other inner-city black kids from Philly, New York. They fly to California. Addy learns about nature. She learns about herself. She forms friendships. They get caught in a wildfire. It’s a real survival story of how Addy has to step up to save herself as well as her friends. One of the things that I love is Gary Paulsen. It was such a loss when he died a couple weeks ago. His Hatchet in particular as a survival story really stirred me. Hatchet is about a young white boy who survives in the wilderness. There aren’t many stories of young girls or young girls of color or boys of color who also survive in the wildness. I actually tried to channel the great Gary Paulsen to write Paradise on Fire and also to write my other survival story, Ninth Ward. It is interesting because Addy, unlike Brian in Hatchet, takes her community with her. She forms alliances. It’s really having to do with her gender that she cannot survive alone and have just an interior change. She is a young girl who has an interior change, and then she takes her village with her. I really, really like that.

Zibby: Wow. I have to say, I started by reading this out loud to my son, my other son, not the one sitting next to me now, who is seven. I started reading it. Then I realized that some of the characters were not going to make it. I was like, I don’t know if I should really read this to him. That was in the letter that came with the book. I stopped reading. He went to bed, but I kept reading all night. I read the whole thing. I was like, I can’t believe all this stuff. When he woke up the next morning, he was like, “Can we finish reading the book?” I said, “Well, I don’t know, I think it might be a little dark. I actually finished the book. Maybe it’s not quite right for you at age seven.” He was so mad. He got into it right away. I kind of summarized it for him. There’s loss and stress, the fire and the escape and the injuries. It’s very visual. I feel like I watched the movie of it by reading. It was so clear, all of the obstacles and Addy’s resilience and obviously her skills, but also how she feels so out of place at times and then even your letter at the end. There was something at the end when you were talking about how few people of color, underprivileged children, get exposure to the outdoors or visit. You had statistics about visits to parks and the national parks and all of that which blew my mind. I had no idea.

Jewell: It’s really interesting because I write from my life and also, then, weird things that happen to me in my life. One strange thing was that as an inner-city Pittsburgh kid, I did not know that landscapes like California, Washington State, or Oregon existed. I came out here when I was in my early twenties on book tour to Elliot Bay Books. It was like, whoa, nature. My whole life has been about getting to that landscape where I immediately felt at home. Right now, I live in Seattle. Woo-hoo! I finally made it after many, many decades. Then it occurred to me how so many of my friends, so many of my family members, we didn’t know about hiking. We didn’t know about swimming. We didn’t know about nature bathing and forest bathing, none of that. It was just sort of out of our kin. I wanted my daughter to be a Girl Scout. She became a Girl Scout so that she could go out and experience hiking and rafting, that experiential learning of what this planet of ours has gifted us with. Then about a decade ago, I was in Wyoming for a writers’ conference. I had gone there several times before. The audiences were always all white, which is fine. This one time there was a row of black kids. It was like, whoa, I have to go talk to them. They belonged to an organization called City Kids. It’s in DC. They take sixth graders through twelfth graders, and they mentor them. They send them out to Wyoming every summer. They learn about the wild and wilderness. They build skills. They have a terrific high school and college placement rate.

This all came together that I needed to write about this. How do you get kids to care for the planet, care about climate change if they don’t experience the wonders of being in a natural environment? Also, kids who are poor or of color, right now, they’re going to be even more impacted by climate change because they live in neighborhoods where there aren’t trees, where there isn’t a playground, so they don’t have as much CO2 taken out of the air. They don’t have shade, so when the heat rises, they’re going to have more heat-related deaths. Also because of the lack of trees, they have more asthma, more lung problems. This is for babies all the way to the elderly. The World Health Organization has noted for the very first time, a death by pollution. It was a nine-year-old black British girl who lived in the city. She died basically as a result of climate change. It really is an emergency. Just yesterday, I was watching PBS NewsHour. They had a crew of African Americans who were going to try to scale Mount Everest. They spoke about how they never knew people who hiked or climbed mountains. Yet they found in that world, a community that they started of hikers and rock climbers of color. Now they’re going to try to do something which very few people get a chance to do, climb Everest. Nature, our planet, it’s good for our soul. It’s good for our mental health. It’s good for expanding our horizons. It’s good for reminding us that we have to be agents fostering a better environment, particularly for your kids, my kids, everybody’s kids.

Zibby: You’re so right. It’s funny you say that because it’s mid-December in New York City, and today, for whatever reason, it’s sixty degrees. I was like, why? My assistant Diana who sits across from me just said in a very matter-of-fact way, “Because the Earth is dying.” We all kind of laughed. Way to bring us all down, Diana. It was very depressing.

Jewell: We laugh, too, because we’re uncomfortable with it. Our spirits recognize that there’s a truth to that. It really is depressing. That was one of the reasons why I wrote Paradise on Fire, encouraging kids of color to try to get out into nature. Right now, the National Park Service, less than five percent of the people who visit our national parks, our nation’s parks are people of color. That has to change. Every child should have access to our national parks. I wanted to say that when I was thinking of Addy and she just popped in my head, I was looking for an African name. I wanted her to be African and African American. In all my novels, I try to do different ethnic groups, Vietnamese, Creole, Native American. I’m trying to mirror everybody that I can in a book. I went down the list of Nigerian names. I came upon Adaugo, daughter of the eagles. One thing that you won’t know from reading the book is that in Nigeria, they used to have a festival of eagles. The brown eagle is one of their nation’s most-prized birds. Because of climate change, they no longer have a festival because the eagles no longer come. I like that connection that climate change is affecting Nigeria, affecting the world, and then connecting it to the West and America’s bald eagle. That was a global connection that I knew that I wanted to make but doesn’t come out in the book. Yes, it’s a problem.

Zibby: It’s a problem, yes. Coming from New York City myself, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with hiking or mountains or any of that. I once tried to hike with my husband Kyle. We started walking. We passed a man. My husband’s like, “Oh, hey. How are you?” He’s like, “All right. You know, the rattlers are out today, so make sure you pull this stick down like this and bang it on the ground.” I was like, “Okay.” He walked by us. I looked at him. I was like, “Turning around. Turning around right now.” We walked all the way. I was like, “I am not doing that. I am happy to walk up a hill on a sidewalk.” That said, I see the value.

Jewell: I understand. Actually, Zibby, I am still the same way. I will kayak, but I’m not that outdoor person in terms of hiking and doing all of that stuff either. My husband laughed because I said, “I’m doing a book about this.” He says, “Are you kidding me?” I had to learn all of that stuff. I married a man who is at home in nature. I remember when he said, “Let’s go camping.” I said, “Sure, the Ritz-Carlton.”

Zibby: Yeah, that sounds good.

Jewell: I did ask him to teach our kids this. It made a difference. When the Girl Scouts had their overnight camping trip, Dad went rather than Mom because I’m still uncomfortable. I still can’t even swim, Zibby, because I never learned when I was a child. When I get in the water now, I have to have my life vest even though I’ve taken lots of classes. I have to hold my husband’s hand. I still get panic attacks. My kids are wilderness kids. I was watching people leave Miami on the highway trying to get away from a hurricane that was coming. The cars were just stuck in traffic. One of the things that Kelly said was, “You know what? I’d just strap my baby to my back, and we would hike out of there.” That’s the Girl Scout. That’s the wilderness person. It would never occur to me to hike out of there. Yet that sense of experiential learning is so important to all kids. In schools, I’m sure for your children, they assess math. They assess language.

There actually are kids who have other skills, such as thinking in 3D, that they can use in more experiential learning. We don’t talk about that as genius. Actually, that’s what Addy has. She is a genius at visualizing. She should be an engineer, climatologist, a topographer. She’s just absolutely amazing. One other thing about the story, she has a secret that she doesn’t know the answer to. When she was four years old, her parents died in a house fire. Somehow, she survived. She’s haunted by that memory because she can’t figure out how she escaped. She nonetheless draws maps and mazes. She’s always looking for a way out. Then that becomes a real superpower for her. The novel starts with her on an airplane. She’s trying to draw a map for how she could get off the plane in case it falls. The kid next to her, Jay, says, “You know, you don’t survive a plane crash.” Addy says, “I will.” I love that about her. I love Addy.

Zibby: That was also a very harrowing memory that kept coming back to her, the trauma of that fire and then being in the fire and smelling the smoke. Oh, my gosh, there was a lot. This is beautiful. It brought up so many issues and covered so many emotions. Again, it was such an immersive experience to read this book, and so different from Black Brother, Black Brother. I’m just loving reading your stuff.

Jewell: When I write, I really write to experience different lives. They guide me. I don’t fence either, but I wrote about fencing in Black Brother, Black Brother. It’s just really amazing. As a writer, I feel as though my life is getting bigger. Through my characters, I’m leading all these different lives. Also, I think you know that I started as a drama student. I went to Carnegie Mellon for drama. I literally act out all the parts. Because we’re all human, we can act and imagine anything. I’ve enjoyed writing different books. When you talk to actors or other artists, they don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. There are things that I do that are in my wheelhouse that are familiar to me, but I like choosing other topics. I do seem to fall within environmental stewardship novels or social justice novels so far. Right now, I’m working on an adventure, a real adventure, and a retelling of children’s classic which I can’t tell you about, what it’s going to be. They’re hoping to make a book and a film out of it. It’s really different. I will tell you one clue: skateboards. I don’t skateboard either.

Zibby: Skateboards, all I think of when you say that is Back to the Future.

Jewell: That’s true. I was in New York doing research. New York and skateboards.

Zibby: Wow. I’m going to put my thinking cap on and try to figure it out.

Jewell: It’s coming out next year. We’ll talk about it then. We live in such a great moment of, so many writers’ voices are being opened up and shared with the world. I feel very lucky that I’m where I am in my life right now. When I was a little girl, I didn’t have any books by people of color. I didn’t even know people of color wrote books. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college. I think of the work that you do, the work that I now do, the work that our teachers and librarians do, that we are making a different society by giving our kids and adults access to a wider variety of books.

Zibby: I love that. I just love it. Then think about all the writing that comes out of that as a result of the reading. It’s even better.

Jewell: Yes, it’s absolutely fantastic. There is this movement now in children’s literature of the upper-middle-grade novel. Technically speaking, I would call my book, Paradise on Fire, an upper-middle-grade novel simply because of what you said about the intensity of it. It does get very real and very frightening. The characters are fourteen. I actually have advocated us saying, it really is for an older group rather than the fifth grader that might normally read my work.

Zibby: Don’t tell anyone that I read it to my first grader. Bad mom award of the night.

Jewell: No, no, no. When I do things like that, I do what you do. You summarize.

Zibby: I was like, all right, time to stop. I have found that reading any of the books I’m doing for my podcast, especially the ones just for grown-ups, put my son to sleep faster than anything else. Not yours though. It had the opposite effect.

Jewell: It is my best wishes. You should let me send you Sugar. Sugar is about a ten-year-old. It’s right about the era after slavery where some people still stayed on a plantation and worked and how Louisiana and Mississippi brought in Chinese workers to work the plantations. The Chinese workers were treated as if they were slaves. It’s about a white kid, a black girl, and a Chinese guy who come together to form harmony and to break down stereotypes and discrimination, but it’s funny. It’s trickster.

Zibby: I’ll get that one next.

Jewell: My little character tells jokes, Br’er Rabbit and Chinese tales. He might like that one. There’s a fire at the end, but nobody dies.

Zibby: All right, Sugar is now on my list as a more age-appropriate book. However, this was great. It’s always such a pleasure. Thank you for coming back on. I can’t wait to see what else comes out of you. Skateboards R Us.

Jewell: I adore you and wish you continued success. Thank you for having me and for supporting my work. It means the world to me. Next time I’m in New York, I’m going to come see you. I’m going to give you a big hug.

Zibby: Please do. I can’t wait. I’m excited. Happy holidays, Jewell.

Jewell: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Jewell Parker Rhodes, PARADISE ON FIRE

PARADISE ON FIRE by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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