By Anushi Mehta
Today we’re pleased to welcome Linda Williams Jackson to the WNDB blog to discuss middle grade book The Lucky Ones, out April 19, 2022!
It’s 1967, and eleven-year-old Ellis Earl Brown has big dreams. He’s going to grow up to be a teacher or a lawyer—or maybe both—and live in a big brick house in town. There’ll always be enough food in the icebox, and his mama won’t have to run herself ragged looking for work as a maid in order to support Ellis Earl and his eight siblings and niece, Vera. So Ellis Earl applies himself at school, soaking up the lessons that Mr. Foster teaches his class—particularly those about famous colored people like Mr. Thurgood Marshall and Miss Marian Wright—and borrowing books from his teacher’s bookshelf. When Mr. Foster presents him with a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ellis Earl is amazed to encounter a family that’s even worse off than his own—and is delighted by the Buckets’ very happy ending. But when Mama tells Ellis Earl that he might need to quit school to help support the family, he wonders if happy endings are only possible in storybooks. Around the historical touchstone of Robert Kennedy’s southern “poverty tour,” Linda Williams Jackson pulls from her own childhood in the Mississippi Delta to tell a detail-rich and poignant story with memorable characters, sure to resonate with readers who have ever felt constricted by their circumstances.
The Lucky Ones starts with Mr Julius Foster dropping Ellis Earl Brown to his house from school. Ellis Earl is the protagonist and Mr Foster, his teacher, plays a pivotal role in his life. I love how this scene opens up a daily ritual, but also so easily sets us in the place. I’d love to know if the opening image came to you at the inception of the novel. And if not, what scene came to you first?
Yes! This opening image came to me from the very beginning. I knew it was a Friday, and the main character and a younger sibling were walking along a path toward their home, because the main character was too embarrassed to allow their teacher to drop them off directly in front of the house. But, when I initially wrote that opening scene, the main character was a girl named Annie rather than a boy named Ellis Earl. I’m glad I changed the character’s gender, because I really love Ellis Earl. I’m sure I would have loved Annie, too, but I don’t think the conflict with the little sister Carrie Ann would have been as strong as it is with Ellis Earl.
This is why I love interviewing authors because I find out things that never really reach the readers—I had no idea that Ellis Earl was envisioned as a girl at the start.
Ellis Earl has childhood experiences (racial discrimination, poverty) that children who might pick up this book may not have experienced. While all his struggles are so prominent in the telling of the story, he is such a relatable, fun and bright eleven-year-old, what was the process like of making him so fully fleshed and three-dimensional?
Many revisions. When I first write a scene, the scene is pretty skeletal (as I’m sure is the case with most writers). Then I’ll go back to that scene again and again and add layers. Also, the story has such a large cast of characters with Ellis Earl’s many siblings and his classmates, so naturally Ellis Earl would have many emotions and actions as he interacted with them. Again, that goes back to layering after having drafted a scene.
Mental note to self: every story requires multiple revisions and don’t beat yourself up about not getting it right the first time around.
“Mama’s smile brought tiny lines around her eyes. Ellis Earl wished he could erase them.” This line says so little, but so much. He also says that caring for rich people is not a ‘real’ job for coloured people. Every reader would pause and think for a moment about the number of ways in which we have discriminated in the past and continue to do so. Is this something you did purposefully or did these dialogues flow organically?
Those lines were both organic and purposeful, and they came after many drafts. Ellis Earl’s fear of his mother’s ageing came from my own fear of my mother’s ageing when I was a child. Like Ellis Earl, I was very concerned about my family’s welfare even at a young age. When I was ten, my mother was 48, and I thought for sure that when she turned 50, she would be old and disabled. So, at age ten, I began to worry that I would have to drop out of school at age 12 and find a job to take care of her. This memory came to mind as I was writing that scene with Ellis Earl and his mother. As far as the mother’s work situation, this mimics the lives of many women in my family. My own mother, however, was not a domestic worker, but a field hand. The domestic work was almost idolized, much like it was before the abolishment of slavery. It was the easier, more favored work, and my memory of Black women’s attitudes towards it in the ’70s and ’80s was that it was almost revered. But even as a child, I felt sorry for the women who did it—not that there was anything shameful about earning a living this way—but simply that it was still regarded with such high esteem over a hundred years after slavery was abolished.
Oh, Linda—I am sorry that at age ten you considered dropping out of school. That must have been so much to process and debate at such a tender age and you do a beautiful job of showcasing this with Ellis Earl.
Oscar, Ellis Earl’s brother, is too ill to attend school. The relationship between Oscar and Ellis Earl is really precious, especially when he decides to share Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with him. It feels like with all their struggles they still have room to be kids sometimes. Why was it so important for you to showcase this aspect of Ellis Earl’s life?
Mainly because it’s the truth. Having grown up in poverty and still knowing people who live in poverty, I can attest to the fact that the kids still find moments to just be kids. I have so many sad memories from my childhood, like days when we literally had nothing to eat. But I remember one really funny moment during that time as well. One of my brothers tore off a piece of a paper bag, placed an ice cube on it, then shook salt on the ice cube. He then pretended the ice cube was some delicious treat. We all (the five younger ones) did the same. To this day, we still laugh over the time we slurped on salt and ice and pretended it was food. So, yes, we found laughter even in the midst of heartache. Of course, there were times when we didn’t laugh about it, like when I would pass out from hunger. Like Oscar, I was the sickly one. We later found out I was anemic from lack of iron.
Linda, you are breaking my heart over here. Again, I am sorry that you were sickly in your younger days. The ice-cube story is so charming a description of what happy elements of your childhood were like.
The Lucky Ones is set in Wilsonville Mississippi in 1967. Your book, A Sky Full of Stars, is also set in Mississippi, which was part of the Civil Rights Movement at the time. What kind of research did the world-building take? For instance, I was curious to know why the mother’s accent is so much more defined as compared to Ellis Earl’s?
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta during the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I have a pretty good memory. So, much of what I wrote came from my own memories. My family, like many others, were unbelievably destitute in the ’70s, so we didn’t live much differently than people had in the ’50s. But I did go back and watch YouTube videos from the time period (mainly the ’50s for my first two books), and I read other books set in that time period in order to recall some memories. As far as dialect is concerned, those of us who attended school in my family spoke differently than the ones who didn’t. My older brothers were constantly correcting the grammar of us younger kids. Respectfully, they never corrected our mother’s grammar. Even though my mother did not always pronounce words correctly or use the correct subject-verb agreement, she spoke quite eloquently for a woman who lacked a high school education, which might have stemmed from raising children who embraced “proper” speech.
You tackle racism and colourism deftly even though writing this must have brought about a lot of anger. I recently watched an interview with Bell Hooks where she talks about the first time met Thich Nhat Hanh and the first words she said to him were ‘I just feel angry.’ What kind of emotions does it bring out for you and why?
Not anger, but sadness, when it comes to writing about the past. I had suppressed many sad memories of my past, and writing The Lucky Ones brought them back to the surface. Anger comes into play when I look at the present and still see racism, colorism, and hardship so prevalent in our society. Shouldn’t we be past this by now? Shouldn’t we be better people by now?
It must have felt cathartic to release those suppressed emotions.
The Lucky Ones is a fictional story, but you tie in so much history through the readings of news clippings, the knowledge that Mr. Foster imparts and the field trip Ellis Earl goes on. Do you see this book becoming a vital teaching aid for students learning about Black history?
I certainly hope this book will become a vital teaching aid, not just during Black history month, but every month, which is why we have created a discussion guide to go along with it. Much like the students in The Lucky Ones discuss current events with their teacher, Mr. Foster, I want today’s students to be able to discuss this novel and tie it into our current events.
In an interview you said you read a ton of books that are similar to what you are writing, can you share the ones you read for this book?
I don’t recall all the books I read, but here are a few books I read for research purposes: Delta Epiphany: Robert F. Kennedy in Mississippi by Ellen B. Meacham, Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors by Marian Wright Edelman, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored by Clifton Taulbert, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
Linda, your book does focus on heavy themes and it is so difficult not to fall into the trap of ‘information dumping’, but the way you do it is a credit to your masterful craft. At parts of the book, I felt like I was a bystander to many powerful debates and discussions unfurl (a bit like Mr. Foster).
Walk us through your writing process.
Thank you for saying that. Before I begin a new chapter, I take a moment to envision the scene. What is the setup for this chapter? Do I want to open it with dialogue or narration? (Sometimes this will depend on how the previous chapter ended.) Once I feel the “mood” of the chapter, I begin drafting and just type whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it’s good stuff, and sometimes it’s not. After I create the scene, I download it to my Kindle and read it, highlighting what needs to be fixed and adding notes for enhancements. Then I go back and revise the chapter. I repeat this process until I feel that the chapter is solid. If the next chapter starts speaking to me before the current one is solid, I’ll go ahead and type (in red) whatever is coming from my subconscious for that next chapter. I do this because I can’t go on and do the write/revise process for a new chapter until I think the current chapter is solid. I don’t usually write from a detailed outline, but I do create a loose one of where I want the story to go from beginning to end. Then I start writing—doing that chapter-by-chapter thing mentioned above. I do stop and assess where I am in the story to see whether or not I’m on track to get to that ending I aimed for in the loose outline. I also read quite a bit when I’m writing. I think this helps me to make sure my story hits the right notes.
I love this, Linda. I am currently sitting in front of a writing friend and I just stopped to read your writing process to her!
I adore Ellis Earl’s connection with Mr. Foster and his desire to share everything with him. It gives the reader hope throughout the novel that things are going to be okay. Sometimes that is all we need in life, a person to talk to. As a child, did you have someone that you interacted with on a daily basis that you idolised like Ellis Earl does?
I had SO many mentors when I was growing up. Without them, I really don’t know where I would be. As a child, I would have been described as an “old soul.” I had a sister who was 18 years older than I, but I could sit and chat with her and her friends more easily than I could with my peers. On a daily basis, I guess I would have to say that two of my older brothers were my idols. They were both very determined to “be somebody” and instilled that same dream into me. It was not so much a dream to be famous, but simply a dream to live a better life. I also had many teachers who encouraged and inspired me. I even had adults in my life who shared material resources with me as Mr. Foster did with Ellis Earl.
The Lucky Ones never talks down to its young readers. You show the grit and reality of Ellis Earl’s life and don’t shy away from anything uncomfortable. Why is it so important to write for young children without simplifying, softening or sensitising the world? I’d love to hear your experiences with reactions from your previous books: A Sky Full of Stars and Midnight Without A Moon.
When I talk to my own children, and when I’ve talked to other young children, I try to keep things real with them. I did not grow up sheltered. I had to face many harsh realities like poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual assaults… If you can name it, then I probably saw it or experienced it. I have openly shared many of these experiences with my children. Just recently I pointed out to my son, who is 15, that there were (and still are) many alcoholics in our family. I did this because I want him to be careful that he doesn’t allow himself to fall into harmful behaviors. If we don’t honestly tell children about the missteps of the past, then we shouldn’t be surprised if they repeat them.
I was very surprised at how eagerly middle graders embraced Rose’s story in Midnight Without a Moon and A Sky Full of Stars, because some early reviewers had said that the book would be a hard sell to young readers. That turned out to be a falsehood based on the fear that the book kept things too raw and real for young readers. Young readers want raw and real. They don’t want us to keep holding their hands as they cross the street. They’re braver than we think.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all my questions. This was one of the most moving and heart-wrenching interviews I have done. Hugs to you!
You’re welcome! It was a pleasure to be interviewed by you!
Linda Williams Jackson is the author of Midnight Without a Moon, which was an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, a Jane Addams Honor Book for Peace and Social Justice, and a Washington Post Summer Book Club Selection. Her second book, A Sky Full of Stars, received a Malka Penn Honor for an outstanding children’s book addressing human rights issues and was a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year. Born and raised in Rosedale, Mississippi, Linda Williams Jackson lives in Southaven, Mississippi, with her family.
Anushi Mehta is a first generation Belgian-Indian who grew up in charming Antwerp. She pursued degrees in psychology and primary teaching at Warwick University and met her husband while working in London. Now, they live in Mumbai and everyone from her two-year-old to her 88-year-old grandma teases her for always feeling cold.