Book Highlight: part 5

The fifth installment of our six part series on the 2014 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Ceremony features the introduction given by Member of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards Committee Lani Gerson for Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, named the winner in the Books for Older Children category.


Introduction by Lani Gerson:

It is thrilling to be here today, introducing Jewell Parker Rhodes and her gift to us – Sugar. Sugar, the title of this winning novel is also the name of its ten-year-old heroine. And, Sugar is a great heroine – a spunky, inspiring role model for today’s young readers. Jewell has succeeded in writing a finely tuned historical novel about a time and a place that many don’t know much about. Set in Reconstruction-era Louisiana on the banks of the Mississippi, this story takes the reader through the cycle of seasons in the planting, growing and harvesting of sugar cane.

Left behind by the more able-bodied, who have moved on into newly found freedom, Sugar, alone, without parents, has stayed on in a former slave enclave with the old and the infirm. Her mother is dead; her father was sold away from her years before. Cared for by an older couple, Sugar joins them in the arduous work of the fields, but she yearns for more.


The plantation owner, worried about his dwindling labor force brings in a group of Chinese workers from Guyana. And, in many ways, the arrival of these strangers from another part of the world opens up dreams and possibilities of a better future for Sugar. Through her friendship with Bo, the youngest of the newcomers, a tenuous bridge is built between the two oppressed communities. Sugar’s one other friend and playmate is Billy, the white plantation owner’s son. Although it is a friendship fraught with ups and downs and met with general disapproval, the friendship nevertheless points to a better future when such friendships might bring understanding and healing.

By weaving together allegorical images as well as folk tales from both the African American and Chinese traditions, Jewell has added texture and depth to the painful stories of hard times in this novel. The novel is filled with life, with facts of history seamlessly told in Sugar’s voice with sadness, realism and humor.


Author Jewell Parker Rhodes is the Piper Endowed Chair and founding artistic director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She is an award-winning author of numerous books for adults and for children. These include a book entitled Ninth Ward, an earlier JACBA honor book for older children. Somehow Jewell also makes time in her productive life to travel throughout the world, teaching creative writing to middle, high school and college students.

Thank you, Jewell, for your fine book, Sugar, published by
Little, Brown and Company. It is my honor and pleasure to introduce you
as the winning author of this year’s Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
for older children.

Acceptance Remarks by Jewell Parker Rhodes:

I am so honored by the Jane Addams Award. Thank you committee members. I am also honored to be sharing the company of so many esteemed authors. Today is an absolute thrill.

I’ve chosen to forget most of my childhood, but I haven’t forgotten all the wonderful teachers and librarians who fed me books. I was often a sad young girl—abandoned by my mother, raised in poverty. I preferred books where animals or people were rescued and overcame challenges. The story of the horse that didn’t become dog stew or the abused dog that found a loving home or the Little Princess who went from rags to riches, all appealed to me. I also remember vividly reading a children’s book about Hull House and wishing Ms. Addams would come to my neighborhood, too. (Little did I know I’d be accepting a book award in her honor!)

As a child, books saved me, kept me alive emotionally and spiritually.

My family called me the” little professor” because all I ever wanted was books—for my birthday, for Christmas, for every day, books and more books. Never once did I dream that I would actually become a professor.

It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I discovered black people wrote books. Within a day I switched my major to English/Creative Writing. Curriculums with non-diverse books had limited my dreaming. But at Carnegie-Mellon University, it felt as though the librarian had placed a book right near the entrance just so I could see it and affirm my right to become a writer, to tell culturally inspired stories.

As a young woman, I discovered my true love, my husband, Brad, who for thirteen years put up with my whining—“I’ll never be a published writer” –until my first novel for adults was published.

Now here is the truest secret—I ALWAYS wanted to write for children. That was my highest aspiration. I needed every book I read as a child to keep me kind, loving, and more humane. While the children’s authors I read didn’t provide a mirror of me, they did provide a window into a wider, better world.

So, I wrote nine books for adults practicing, getting ready to give my best effort to youth—for they deserve it. Now I am living my truest writing life—it took me six decades to achieve it. What I like best about Sugar is her resilience and spunk. (I used to hide in the closet. I’d wait for my Grandmother to call—and once feeling affirmed that I had been missed me, I’d exit from beneath the piles of winter coats.)

Sugar, literally, appeared to me. One day I was doing dishes and I turned around and there she was!—this beautiful black girl—hands on her hips, demanding, “How come I have to work, how come I can’t play? How come I’m not free?”


Special thanks go to my editors—Allison Moore and Liza Baker. And special thanks goes to Victoria Stapleton, Director of Little Brown School and Library Marketing. Victoria puts Sugar into the hands of teachers and librarians who will feed Sugar’s courageousness and love of adventure to kids. The Jane Addams Award closes the circle. The award makes it more likely that the child who needs to read Sugar will receive it and be reminded to be resilient, that the world is a good place, prejudice is wrong, and that friendships can thrive across cultures.

Thank you for the splendid honor of the Jane Addams Book Award for Older Children.


Since 1953, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award annually acknowledges books published in the U.S. during the previous year. Books commended by the Award address themes of topics that engage children in thinking about peace, justice, world community and/or equality of the sexes and all races. The books also must meet conventional standards of literacy and artistic excellence.

A national committee chooses winners and honor books for younger and older children.

Click here to read more about the 2014 Awards.

This concludes our fifth installment of the six part series leading up to the announcement of the 2015 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Winners and Honorees.

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