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Born in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Greer, Joya Mia, and Kiki are seventh graders and the best of friends. After an accident leaves Greer's little sister paralyzed, Greer is forever changed by the experience and blames herself. Kiki and Joya Mia will do anything to help Greer let go of this emotional burden, and a plan is hatched to compete in a triathlon. Each girl will participate: Kiki will swim, Joya Mia will cycle, and Greer, if they can persuade her, will run—something she once loved to do.
Set on the Westbank of New Orleans, this contemporary coming-of-age novel is a journey of growth, healing, and difficult transitions as the girls navigate their many life challenges: family trauma, body insecurity, and the conflict between ambition and responsibility. It's a powerful and enlightening exploration of how to surmount personal tragedy through friendship and forgiveness.
WATER—BAYOUS, CANALS, EVEN NARROW ditches for rainwater—formed the neighborhoods on the Westbank of New Orleans. Greer lived in Harvey, Joya Mia in Terrytown, and Kiki in Marrero. They may never have met one another if they hadn’t attended Spanish Oaks Charter Middle School. And they may never have been friends if it hadn’t been for the Hurricane Project. The assignment required them to interview family members and friends about their experiences when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Their history teacher had said, “It’s an awesome idea since the majority of you were born that year, 2005.”
Most of the class didn’t think it was such an awesome idea. They whined about their assigned partners, but not Greer, Joya Mia, and Kiki. Their own personal hurricane stories were completely different from one another’s, but somehow the differences felt like puzzle pieces connecting perfectly together. They were unique from one another too—Greer with her serious single-minded focus on track, Joya Mia’s direct remarks, and Kiki’s never-ending big ideas.
But the girls shared similarities. They thought The Diary of Anne Frank was the most important book ever, that bananas were disgusting, and that crossing the Mississippi River to the Eastbank was still exciting no matter how many times they’d done it. They each admitted to owning a box filled with Mardi Gras beads even though they had no idea why they were collecting them.
Their loyalty to one another came early, like whenever anyone mispronounced Joya Mia’s name, Kiki and Greer told them sternly, “It’s pronounced Hoya Mia.”
By the project’s due date, they were calling themselves the Hurricane Girls. That was last year in sixth grade.
By summer they’d become the best of friends, spending Saturdays at Oakwood Shopping Center or Greer’s dad’s movie theater, where they’d head to the dock afterward, buy a sno-ball, and watch the Algiers Ferry cross the river to the edge of the French Quarter. Now seventh grade was almost over and something had changed. Like Hurricane Katrina causing the water to shift and transform the land, the bond between the three girls had weakened. It had started last autumn with Greer and the accident.
GREER’S LITTLE SISTER CLAIMED she wanted to be an architect, but Darby could change her mind a million times. She was only seven. A lot of things change, even in half of a year.
Six months ago, Greer was a track star at Spanish Oaks Charter Middle School. She was ranked number two with only Meghan Williams ahead of her. No one could touch Meghan. She ran like a kite that had been let loose on a gusty day, gliding across the sky, not stopping until it reached a tree. Even now Greer sometimes dreamed of watching the soles of Meghan’s Nikes sprinting toward the finish line.
Greer lost that number two spot because she didn’t run anymore. Hadn’t for a long time. Didn’t even want to.
That October, Greer had run every afternoon, getting ready for the first big track tournament at the beginning of the school year. She pushed herself a little harder every day, not caring if any other team won. There was only one thing she’d wanted more than anything in the world, and that was to beat Meghan Williams. Just once, Greer wanted to be the number one runner on the Spanish Oaks Charter Middle School track team.
The tournament had been a week away and she needed to build up her stamina. She’d made the plan a month before, entering it into the calendar on her phone. One Sunday Greer had laced up her running shoes and was about to leave when her mother met her at the front door.
“That run will have to wait,” she said. “We need to head out, so you’ll have to watch Darby.”
They were leaving for the annual fundraiser event at the Casa Blanca, her dad’s movie theater.
Greer snapped. “I’m training!” Babysitting Darby would screw everything up. “Why can’t you take her with you?”
Her dad stared away, but her mother said, “You can train tomorrow.”
“I am, and I can’t miss one day. Can’t you leave a little later?”
Her mother ignored her question. “We’ll be back late. There’s jambalaya from last night in the fridge.”
Her dad gave her an apologetic look. Then they left.
From the first floor, Greer called up to Darby, who was in her bedroom.
Ten seconds later, Greer yelled to her again.
Darby appeared and leaned over the railing. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re coming with me. I have to run.”
“Am I going to run?” Darby always wanted to tag along.
“No, you’ll ride your bike. Now get your helmet.”
“But I can run fast.”
“You’re going to ride your bike!” Greer felt mean. It wasn’t Darby’s fault, but Greer needed to train if she was ever going to beat Meghan. With Darby along, she wouldn’t be able to run her regular route toward the Harvey Canal. She liked making water her destination. It was such a part of her life.
The Harvey Canal was a mile away, and narrow Bayou Fatma snaked behind the back of the houses on her street. Even the Mississippi River was only a few miles as the crow flies from Greer’s front door. Most of the homes in her neighborhood were built in the 1970s and shared the same floor plan. Greer’s dad joked that whenever they visited the neighbors, he never had to ask where the bathroom was.
After Darby fastened her helmet on, Greer took off and focused on each landmark as she reached it—the Simmonses’ house at the turn, the enormous red rose shrub midway down Matador, the yard dotted with a million gnomes. She glanced at her watch, then reminded herself this was her long run. This day was about stamina, not speed. But that meant going right on Apollo, and crossing to the median on Lapalco Boulevard. Greer glanced back at her little sister.
Darby was leaning forward, her skinny legs pedaling hard. The bike was almost too small for her. Her knees barely missed the handlebars. That and her green helmet made Greer think of a determined turtle racing its way across a road. She knew she shouldn’t turn right. But she did. Greer remembered thinking she should slow down, but she knew Darby was behind her. She could hear the flapping sound of the playing cards Darby had attached to her spokes with clothespins after their grandmother had told her she’d done that as a kid.
Darby complained, “My legs hurt! Can we stop for a break?”
“No!” Greer hollered, not bothering to glance back. Then a few moments later, as they exited the neighborhood, she started to consider shortening the run. They’d reached Lapalco Boulevard. Lapalco was a busy four-lane street with a grassy median strip where Greer ran. Riding a bike on it would be difficult. But this was Greer’s route. As they waited for the light, she made a quick decision.
“Wait for me by that tree.” Greer was almost at the turnaround spot, and she would be able to see Darby even though it would mean glancing back often. The light changed and they crossed the median.
Darby got off her bike and settled next to the tree’s trunk. “Can I have a sno-ball later?”
“They aren’t open!” Greer took off again. She hollered back, “Be ready to go when you see me coming back your way.”
Fueled by anger, Greer sped up. She felt a surge of energy as her shoes smacked the ground. If Darby wasn’t with her, she would have made it to the Harvey Canal Bridge. She’d secretly done it before, but with Darby it would have been too dangerous.
Usually her mind was occupied by the run—the steps, the time, her breathing—but that day she couldn’t concentrate. She’d hated being grumpy to Darby. After they got back home, Greer would make it up to her. Give her two scoops of ice cream. Maybe three. Was there any cookie dough ice cream left in the freezer? She hoped so. Greer shifted her focus to the turnaround spot, the insurance office in the two-story white colonial that looked so out of place among the stretch of retail shopping centers. Two flags flew in the yard, a US flag and a Louisiana one. Greer focused on the Louisiana flag’s pelican’s beak like she always did. Almost there. Almost there. Just a few steps away. Then, down the street, a pickup truck came swerving. Another car sounded the horn after almost getting sideswiped. Greer moved to the left of the median strip in case the car jumped the curb.
The driver was out of control. Then Greer gasped and turned. Darby! She’d forgotten about her. Only for a moment. For a moment she’d been out there alone, running in the direction of the canal. How could she have forgotten?
Greer’s head turned back toward the direction of the canal like she didn’t want to see. As if not seeing could keep anything bad from happening. Then she turned back again, facing the tree. What happened next went so quickly, yet when she replayed the moment in her head, she saw it in slow motion. Like a slide presentation, clicking quickly—the truck swerving into the U-turn near her sister. The tires screeching to a stop. Darby’s legs beneath them. The jack of hearts card inches from her fingers. The ambulance lights. That one tiny moment that she’d forgotten she was supposed to be watching her. If only she’d turned left on Apollo instead of right. Maybe if she’d remembered, somehow Darby wouldn’t be in the condition she was in. A life using a wheelchair. No, that wouldn’t have stopped the car.
If she’d only stayed at home.
Her head rattled with the word. If, if, if, if. If…
Even now, six months later, thinking of that moment, Greer felt nauseous and sweat broke out on her forehead. The same question still haunted her. Why couldn’t the truck have run over her instead? Why couldn’t she be the one who couldn’t walk? Greer believed with every bone in her body, it should have been that way.
At the hospital her mother had yelled, “You were supposed to be watching your little sister! Not running!”
Everyone, even her best friends, Joya Mia and Kiki, knew. The accident had been her fault.
JOYA MIA’S LITTLE BROTHER, Manuel, sometimes teased her that she wasn’t from Louisiana because she was born in Houston.
Joya Mia always set him straight. “I’m more Louisiana than you because I’m the reason Mamá and Papá came here.”
It was true. Her parents had told her that every birthday. “We came here when you were a baby because we wanted a better life for you.”
After Hurricane Katrina, her parents moved to New Orleans with family and friends to work in the restaurants and in construction jobs. Most of the employees and workers had evacuated the city during the hurricane and hadn’t returned. Buildings and houses needed to be rebuilt. Restaurants needed to reopen so that the tourists would return. And they did. So in a way the Latino community got New Orleans running again. That’s the way Papá told it, and Joya Mia believed him.
Her parents were second-generation Americans, and being bilingual had allowed them to have supervisor roles along with their regular jobs at the Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter. And since their home was in Terrytown on the Westbank, they had to cross the Mississippi River five days a week. They took the Algiers Ferry, but they worked different shifts: Mamá in the early morning as a sous chef to chop the vegetables, Papá in the late afternoon to make the sauces. Tuesday through Saturday, Mamá stepped on the ferry as Papá stepped off. It was as if the Mississippi River had been their chaperone, keeping them apart. Back then, the aromas of their jobs clung to their clothes, bringing home the smell of garlic and onion, étouffée and gumbo.
Five years ago they bought a food truck with the money they’d saved. Now Mamá and Papá came home smelling like chili peppers and lime, tacos and salsa. Ana’s Cocina, named in honor of Joya Mia’s abuela, made its way every day from construction site to construction site. They worked so hard. That was why Joya Mia studied late into the night to remain a top student in seventh grade. College was five years away, and she needed to get a scholarship. Maybe more than one. She didn’t want her parents to pay one penny. When they moved to Terrytown, they had an old car that broke down so often that Papá bought a used bicycle so that he could at least get to the grocery store.
Joya Mia’s dream was to get a good job when she graduated from college and buy her parents a new home to replace the rented house that often ran cold water even when they turned on the hot, and had a leaky roof that the no-good landlord wouldn’t fix. Then instead of hearing the plink-plank of rain dripping in buckets, they could hear the gentle sounds of water trickling from a three-tiered fountain.
She helped out as much as possible. She started dinner after school. But Mamá never let her finish. She’d tell her, “Go study, mija. Make me proud.”
Sometimes when Joya Mia tried helping with the laundry, Mamá would say, “Go have fun with your friends.”
Joya Mia loved spending time with Greer and Kiki. Although it seemed since the beginning of the school year, Greer had started drifting away from them, quiet instead of joking around, and spacing out whenever they were talking to her. The change had started to happen after Darby’s accident and Greer stopped running.
KIKI’S REAL NAME WAS Katrina, named after the hurricane that hit the New Orleans area the day she was born. Maybe that’s why everything around her turned into a storm. The worst one had been five months ago when her dad left.
The last thing her dad did before leaving a goodbye note and disappearing was hire some men to build a swimming pool in the backyard. He left the day after the invoice arrived, and they still hadn’t heard from him. They’d never used the pool, not once. Kiki didn’t even know how to swim and wasn’t going to be caught in a bathing suit, especially since the two-story house hovering above their fence had a bird’s-eye view of their yard.
Her mother ignored the pool, never mentioning it. Kiki’s grandmother, Nana, just wished she knew where her stepson was and when he planned to return home. The three of them lived in Nana’s small house in a Marrero neighborhood with a postage stamp–sized backyard now overtaken by the pool. It was the only home Kiki knew, but after her dad left, she asked her mother, “Why can’t we move?”
“Nana can’t live alone,” her mom said. “She’s getting old.”
Her mom loved her mother-in-law and Kiki did too. Nana was always baking, filling the house with sweet aromas of lemon cake and chocolate chip cookies. She’d tell Kiki, “Eat, or you’ll waste away.”
Kiki knew the real truth.
Her mom had been overweight too. But ever since Kiki’s dad left, her mom had been going to the gym and skipping dessert. Even as her mom went down sizes, she never bugged Kiki about losing weight. No one did. Maybe it was because Kiki seemed to ooze confidence with her perfect posture and her constant smile. She was the first to laugh at fat jokes. Although on the inside she ached whenever someone said one. And she was always searching online for crazy diets like how to lose twenty pounds in twenty days on a cabbage soup diet.
Her best friends never made her feel bad. Joya Mia was tall with a graceful neck. Kiki always told her she could be a model. Greer was cute with her short wispy pixie and lean long legs.
One day last summer, they were playing pool in Greer’s garage, drinking plain iced tea, the only right way, they claimed, although Kiki secretly preferred it sweet. Kiki had been trying to ignore the giant bowl of potato chips on a worktable nearby.
“Are you on another crazy diet?” Joya Mia asked.
Joya Mia rolled her eyes. “Not that broccoli soup diet?”
“Cabbage soup,” Kiki said, “No. I’m eating high protein.”
“Not everyone has to be the same size,” Joya Mia told her. “You should have my aunt’s attitude. Work those curves!” Joya Mia walked across the garage, twisting her butt.
Kiki laughed, but Greer was quiet, and Kiki pulled her knees to her chest, feeling like a giant trying to squeeze into a dollhouse.
Then Greer spoke. “It would be boring if everyone was alike. Why do you want to starve yourself? You’re gorgeous.”
A second later three sets of hands dove into the bowl of potato chips, and they went back to playing pool. That day, Kiki realized, next to her mom and Nana, she loved these two girls more than anyone else in the world. Last summer had been a great one: sleepovers and matinees at Greer’s dad’s movie theater. Lately Greer was quiet and sad, and that had upset the trio’s balance. Now they were like a tricycle with one loose wheel.
GREER SAT ACROSS THE dining room table watching Darby build a cityscape. Last Christmas she’d received a deluxe building blocks set. It had two hundred pieces and included bridges and columns. Now all meals were eaten in the breakfast area, and the dining room table had become Darby’s workstation. It was amazing what her little sister could create out of wooden blocks. She could stay at it for hours. Midsize structures next to high-rises resembled downtown New Orleans. Darby had even constructed a Mardi Gras parade with floats made from tiny boxes that had once held matches or staples. She called it the Krewe of Darby.
Outside the open window, sunbeams danced through the branches of the magnolia tree. The fresh scent from the blooms drifted into their home. It was nearly May, the prettiest time of year. Not hot with air as thick as cane syrup like most of their spring and summer days. The time of year when Greer used to run forever, weaving through the streets of their neighborhood. The time of year when Darby used to circle and circle the block on her bicycle to the fluttering sounds of cards brushing the spokes.
Greer’s dad would be leaving for work soon. He had opened the Casa Blanca Theater in Algiers Point a few years before. He considered going across to the Eastbank outside the French Quarter, or maybe even Metairie, but it was too expensive. Algiers Point was on the Westbank and closer to their home. He bought a former grocery store, a triangular building where the double entry doors faced the corner. The back room of the store had been an oyster-shucking room. Her dad loved the building’s history and had discovered some old photographs that now hung in the theater lobby.
Greer liked Algiers Point’s charming multicolored bungalows and shotgun houses that lined the streets. Sometimes after she and her friends went to a movie, they’d head over to the coffee shop or peek into the blown-glass studio located in a building that had actually been an Art Deco movie theater. If the film ended early enough, they’d ride the Algiers Ferry to the other side of the river, get off, and then hop on and cross back again.
Loyal fans kept her dad’s theater going, spreading the word on social media. They were the backbone of the meager income that the theater brought in. She knew it was meager because her mother, a CPA and a bottom-line person, pointed it out often. During the James Bond Festival, her dad had been so happy because the theater had had its best week ever. But by the time her mother got through looking over the numbers with her calculator, subtracting the promotion and operating costs, the festival didn’t seem like such a success. Greer hated the way her mother could suck out all the joy in a room. She did that a lot lately.
Her dad used to leave for work a couple of hours before the first movie started. People didn’t tend to arrive early for classics, probably because the movies rarely sold out. Now he left four to six hours before showtime. She suspected the real reason he did was because he couldn’t wait to escape home.
He tucked his index cards in the pocket of his black binder, the one he kept for movie trivia and introductions before each film. That was another thing fans of movie classics enjoyed, hearing stuff they could easily google. But her dad made it sound like he’d discovered the information. Maybe it was the first time they’d heard it. Books about old films and actors who had long been dead took up half of the wall-to-wall shelves.
Now her dad was staring outside as if he wanted to say it was a beautiful day, but then Breanna Boudreaux rode by on her little pink bicycle. His jaw tightened as he glanced over at Darby in her wheelchair, still focusing on her project. Without saying a word, he started toward the front door.
“Wait, Daddy,” Darby said. “Look at my city.”
He turned around, walked over, and stood behind her, studying the buildings, both mid- and high-rise.
“That’s great,” he told her.
“I named it Inglewood,” she said, smiling proudly. “It kind of looks like New Orleans.”
“It’s really good,” her dad said, but Greer wondered if he was actually taking it in, or if he was like her, playing that one horrible day over and over in his mind.
JOYA MIA’S AUNT ISABELLA made pozole every Christmas Eve for the family celebration. Her aunt said it was her secret recipe and wouldn’t even drop a hint to the ingredients. Aunt Isabella had watched Joya Mia when she was little while Mamá worked her shift. She loved Joya Mia.
“You’re like a daughter to me,” she’d tell her. Her own children didn’t know the recipe, but they couldn’t care less.
“Some have beauty,” she said, “but my recipes are my charm. They will go to the grave with me.”
“I like gumbo better,” Mamá claimed whenever Joya Mia asked if she knew the recipe. “It’s a lot like pozole. A little of this. A little of that.”
But aside from both soups being made in a big pot, Joya Mia knew they were nothing alike. Gumbo had different spices and cayenne, not all the hottest red chili peppers grown on the planet like in pozole. And gumbo was served with rice. Pozole was served with cabbage.
If she had the recipe, she’d make it for Manuel and Diana. She’d do anything for her siblings. Diana, the baby of the family, was born when Joya Mia was nine and when Manuel was seven. She was so happy to have a sister. Her mother even let her name her.
Joya Mia checked out a book of baby names from the library. Every day, she thought of a different option until one day she told her mother she would decide after she was born.
“She can’t leave the hospital without a name,” Mamá told her.
“I have to see her first,” Joya Mia said.
Up until the day she was born, she thought the name would probably be Katrina. But the day Joya Mia saw her, she changed her mind. Not just because the quiet tiny baby didn’t remind her of a hurricane at all. But because as soon as she looked down, the curly-haired child grabbed her finger so tight Joya Mia knew that she needed a name that was strong and would bond them forever. “Diana,” she told her parents.
“Diana?” Papá asked.
“Like the goddess,” Joya Mia said.
“All my daughters are goddesses,” Papá had said.
Joya Mia made sure Manuel and Diana did their chores and brushed their teeth. She helped them with their homework and asked to see their report cards before their parents did. She washed their clothes and sewed on buttons. She didn’t resent any of it, except when they sometimes ignored her and reminded her that she wasn’t Mamá.
Praise for The Hurricane Girls:
* "The girls’ slowly deepening understanding of themselves gives this book its heart. Like their rebuilt city, this friendship cannot reconstitute as an exact replica of what they had before…. Holt takes time developing these characters, allowing readers to see both their individual and collective growth in this appealing and sensitive novel."—The Horn Book, starred review
"Interpersonal conflicts threaten the friendship of three New Orleans seventh graders in this slice-of-life novel by Holt (The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas).... Nuanced relationship dynamics paired with complex characterizations drive this grounded look at the ways in which the aftermath of tragedy can reverberate long after the event and how community and connection can pave a path toward healing."
- "Holt’s involving third-person narrative shifts focus, chapter by chapter, from one girl to the next and portrays their family relationships as well as the intricately interwoven thoughts, emotions, and memories that bind them together. While some readers may be drawn to one girl in particular, most will find themselves rooting for all three main characters in this engaging novel."—Booklist
- "A tender and triumphant story about friendship and family, in a proud and resilient city."—Deborah Wiles, author of the National Book Award finalists Each Little Bird That Sings and Revolution
- "Another outstanding novel by one of my favorite authors. Set after Hurricane Katrina, our three girls are all dealing with issues that every girl can relate to—it's Holt's superpower to bring a contemporary novel to our young readers."—Valerie Koehler, owner of Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, TX
- "This is a wonderful story of friendship and strength."—Judith Lafitte, co-owner of Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA
Praise for Kimberly Willis Holt:—VOYA, starred review on Dear Hank Williams
National Book Award - Winner
ALA Best Books for Young Adults
ALA Notable Children's Books
Booklist Editors' Choice
Horn Book Magazine Fanfare List
School Library Best Books of the Year
Georgia Children's Book Award (U of GA)
Illinois Rebecca Caudill YR Choice Award
New Mexico Land of Enchantment
NYPL Books for the Teen Age
Texas Bluebonnet Award
Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award
* "In this companion to the author’s memorable When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, 30 years have passed and it’s 2001. Evocatively written (“stiff as burnt bacon”), this is an altogether absorbing and affecting novel. It’s obvious that Holt loves her fully realized characters and their small-town setting, and readers can’t help but feel the same." —Booklist, starred review on The Ambassador of Nowhere Texas
* "The strength of this novel lies in the insight Tate develops as she deals with tragedy and depends on the love of family. Artfully told, this middle grade novel pleases on many levels." —School Library Journal, starred review on Dear Hank Williams
"This book packs more emotional power than 90% of the so-called grown-up novels taking up precious space on bookshelves around the country. Kimberly Willis Holt's When Zachary Beaver Came to Town will resonate with readers." —USA Today on When Zachary Beaver Came To Town
"Holt may not take her readers on wild flights of fantasy, but her quiet novel offers a slice of life that's hard to resist." —New York Times Book Review on When Zachary Beaver Came To Town
* "As in her first novel, My Louisiana Sky, Holt humanizes the outsider without sentimentality.... Holt reveals the freak in all of us, and the power of redemption." —Booklist, starred review on When Zachary Beaver Came To Town
* "In her own down-to-earth, people, smart way, Holt offers a gift.... It is a lovely—at times even giddy—date with real life." —The Horn Book, starred review on When Zachary Beaver Came To Town
* "Well-developed characters, all fantastic and flawed in their own ways, add plenty of spice." —Publishers Weekly, starred review on When Zachary Beaver Came To Town
* "With tidbits of history woven throughout and the rich cast of characters, especially an endearing protagonist, Dear Hank Williams is a novel that sings from the heart."
- On Sale
- Aug 29, 2023
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Christy Ottaviano Books