By Gianna Macchia
Today we’re delighted to welcome Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes to the WNDB blog to discuss her new Middle Grade novel Paradise on Fire, which came out earlier this week!
First and foremost, for the publication of this interview, how would you like to be identified?
Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes / she/her
Paradise on Fire does a beautiful job blending topics such as race, access, and climate change. Why did you decide to write a book focusing on these intersections and what do you hope readers take away from it?
Writing about class, race, and gender grounds all my novels, and I always seek to inspire environmental stewardship. Growing up in a segregated inner city, I never experienced the benefits and pleasures of nature. Only as an adult did I find its beauty and healing power.
My hope is that Paradise on Fire draws awareness to the systemic issues we face in terms of access so that we can work towards all communities experiencing the benefits of the natural world. I hope readers will be inspired to take action to slow climate change, prevent forest fires, and seek new ways to better care for our earth.
What novels really resonated with you in high school? If you were going to thematically pair Paradise on Fire with a “classic” canonical high school text, which one would it be and why?
I would say Paradise on Fire is a survivalist companion of Brian in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Addy, too, gains greater understanding of herself in the face of survival. Yet Addy isn’t a sole survivor. She is the girl that wins the respect of her companions and fights beyond measure, to save them. In appreciating the natural world, she becomes one of its champions.
I honestly can’t think of a “classic” text that resonated with me in high school. (I mostly remember the Greek tragedies!) But throughout my childhood, animal stories which involved nature were my favorite. Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, Sewell’s Black Beauty, Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague, and others, meant the world to me in middle school. The final illustration in Paradise on Fire depicts Addy with one hand touching a horse and the other hand touching Ryder, the dog who loves and follows her. Mountains, grass, and trees surround them. High above, soars an eagle. This outdoor scene is perfect, pure happiness for me.
You are a veteran writer in the young adult book world. Was your approach to crafting this novel different from your others? Who was your inspiration for the characters? In general, are you a plotter or a pantser?
I can’t write a story until I hear the character’s voice. Sometimes the voice comes immediately; sometimes, I will wait years. Sometimes, too, I’ll see a character before they speak; but once I hear their voice, I can feel them, and I use their emotions to guide me.
I am a pantser—I never outline or know beforehand how a story’s going to end!
Crafting the novel was complicated by the fact that Addy’s voice was connected to her dreams, her haunting past. So I first heard her voice as a distressed child. However, the novel begins with Addy’s teen voice, but it is still connected to memories. Because Addy is older, she has more complicated thoughts and emotions. She has an inside voice which carries the sounds, rhythms, and images of the past and an outside speaking voice which grows in confidence as Addy matures.
Upon traveling west to the wilderness camp, the main character Adaugo (Addy) has a realization moment. She states:
“Landscapes. I’ve seen them in books, paintings. But, I’ve never felt one before. Never felt how the earth existed long, long, long before I was born. The beauty rocks me.”
Everyday we implore students to be engaged and care about our planet, but how can they build an appreciation for things they have only ever experienced conceptually? What kind of growth opportunities are being missed because of access? How can we start to tackle this problem?
There are immeasurable consequences to youth not having access to nature and wildlife. Climate change is impacting our planet in devastating ways and our next generation faces the challenge of battling global warming. Education and drawing awareness to climate justice is critical in tackling this problem.
There are many outdoor youth groups doing wonderful work to provide experiences for city kids. While I was in Jackson, WY, I met a group of students part of City Kids, a DC program that mentors youth and runs a summer wilderness program in Wyoming. I was very moved by their work, and it helped inspire the novel.
Addy is an incredibly engaging narrator. What does her character say about our backstories and overcoming trauma to reach empowerment?
Addy, like most people, suppresses her past trauma. But this trauma oozes out in her dreams, memories, and behavior. She is fascinated with escape routes, maps and mazes as a means to avoid future trauma. When Addy finally and fully confronts her past trauma, she is able to recognize the gifts inside herself which are key to her survival. Addy’s full name is “Aduago,” which means in Nigerian “daughter of an eagle.” Remembering helps her grow and reclaim her wild and wonderful, survivalist abilities.
My ARC had lots of pages with “Art to come”. It had my imagination running wild. Could you please describe some of the art you are going to include in the final copy and why you thought it was important to the story being told?
The finished book includes many wonderful illustrations by artist Serena Maylon. Addy loves maps and mazes. Her ability to see, especially from an aerial perspective and to draw in 3-D, demonstrates her natural intuitive, scientific, and geographical abilities. Readers will see this “eagle-eye” gift reflected in the black & white illustrations throughout the book. They will also see illustrations of the landscape with its fierce beauty and the destructive, maze-like paths of the forest fire.
Representation and visibility can be powerful for students who are struggling with the intersections of identity. What is one thing you hope students discover about themselves after reading this novel?
I always try to affirm children’s empathy, resilience and inner strength. With Paradise on Fire, I also hope to convey the power of community, learning new skills, and risk-taking. Kids especially want to control the narrative of their own lives and stories can affirm choices that nurture an amazing, self-loving identity.
Is there any question I did not ask, but you’d love to answer?
In all my novels, I’m mirroring a multi-ethnic world, the power of friendship, heritage and community. My characters succeed because they celebrate and claim their whole selves—mind, heart, and soul.
What’s next? The young adult world always needs more Jewell Parker Rhodes!
Thank you! I have three novel ideas in various stages of development. One, which is almost done, is a secret. Another involves slavery in Africa and America. And the third has me traveling to the Galapagos Islands next Spring.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Ninth Ward, winner of a Coretta Scott King Honor; Sugar, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award; and the New York Times-bestselling Ghost Boys; as well as Bayou Magic; Towers Falling; Black Brother, Black Brother; and Paradise on Fire. She has written many award-novels for adults, including, Magic City, a novel about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Jewell is the Virginia G. Piper Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at Arizona State University.
Gianna Macchia is a Milwaukee-based educator and high school literacy coach. She believes reading cultivates empathy, and the more educators can encourage students to read, write, think, and discuss outside of their own perspective, the more they can contribute to building a more accepting, socially aware world. She thinks we should never doubt the power of representation and visibility, especially for adolescent youth. When Gianna isn’t engrossed in YA books, she and her wife enjoy traveling, live music, hiking, cooking, and snuggling their pets Gatsby, Atticus, and Huckleberry, the literary brothers from different mothers.