March 07

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When Research Leads to Inspiration by Karyn Parsons

It was the way she smiled at me.

 

Self-assured and at ease. Confident and bright. Her fingers interlaced at the crossed knee belied the tomboy fire in her eyes. And, of course, there was her hat. Tilted to the side and worn at once with pride and grace.

 

I’d come across her photo while doing research for HOW HIGH THE MOON. The internet’s swirl of images from South Carolina in the 40’s transported me with rapid speed into the belly of a world I’d been told so much about, but upon visiting in real life, could find little trace of. But there, in the computer, documented in black and white, were the fields, the farms, the general stores. The diverse, but limited modes of transportation, the trains of the day, and there were the people. Most were very serious, meeting the camera with knit brows and distrusting eyes. Life had etched itself deep in the faces of the old and most of the young faces wore expressions too somber for a child. I would find more levity in the faces of the people in the north as I researched further for different parts of my story, but in the south, you could feel the oppression of the people who lived there.

 

Though I was writing a story very loosely based on my mother’s childhood, the girl in the photo was nothing like what I imagined my mother to be like growing up. Clearly this girl, unlike my mother, was mixed race. And there was something else, too. This girl had an edge to her. My mother has always been, even as a little girl, a consummate “lady.” What the two did have in common, however, and something that I was very much after for my story, was managing to live a happy childhood even though surrounded by a dangerous, volatile world. The girl in my photo definitely had it.

 

I had become transfixed. Her spirit spoke to me and I just knew in every part of me, that this radiant girl in a sepia world was Ella.

 

I already had an idea of who Ella was and her story that I wanted to tell. She was a little bit eleven-year-old me, biracial and trying to find where I fit in, and part my mom as a girl, growing up on a farm in the Jim Crow south.

 

But now I’d found a third inspiration for Ella. I didn’t know this girl, but I wanted to. So, I tacked her picture above my desk, and from that moment, every time I sat down to write, she was there, answering questions, fueling actions. Informing the way Ella teased or sulked, struck out or flopped down on the grass and stared into the sky.  It wouldn’t be long before her image and who I believed she was were seared into my brain and I didn’t need the photo anymore. She was living inside me and living on the page.

 

When I began my journey into Ella’s world in Alcolu, South Carolina, there were some things I knew going in. I definitely knew about the backdrop of the segregated south in 1943. But I also knew a little about the love that she’d be surrounded by. Granny and Poppy were always going to be there. They were the strong foundation of my mother’s childhood and I understood quickly that having those two pillars in uncertain times had much to do with my mom being able to later declare, with certainty, she’d had a happy childhood. She’d always had their unwavering love, their support, their guidance. Myrna had always been there as well, the relationship of she and Ella based on a relationship I’d had with someone close to me growing up. Henry came fast and once he appeared he held like glue. I knew Mama was in Boston, and George Stinney, while initially a memory of Myrna’s, was always going to be a part of the story. I’ve known his story for some time and wanted more people to know who he was. As he and my mother grew up in relatively close proximity, I knew that this story was the right story to introduce him.

 

So, I started with some elements of a structure and I plodded along trying to breathe life into the circumstances I’d outlined. I stumbled along awkwardly pushing the story forward, loyal to the grid, but it wasn’t until the girl in the picture came along and climbed up on the beams of that structure, swinging from them like monkey bars, did the character and the heart of Ella begin to emerge. And as she came into full bloom, so did so much of the book.

 

The intensity of her curiosity unfolded on the page. She loved hard and wrestled with being different. Her will cut through all else.

 

While I’d started out wanting to create a girl who was a combination of myself and my mother, with the help of a stranger in a photograph, Ella became someone else entirely. Nothing like the “good girl” my mom was and had raised me to be. Ella spoke the truth and fought against what she felt wasn’t right. A fight that would carry on beyond the pages of my book and into Ella’s future.  Her ferocious spirit became the heart of HOW HIGH THE MOON. I owe it all to a girl in a picture.

 

Karyn Parsons is perhaps best known for her role as Will Smith’s ditsy cousin Hilary Banks on NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. After leaving acting behind, Karyn went on to found and produce Sweet Blackberry, an award-winning series of children’s animated films, to share stories about unsung black heroes in history, featuring narration from stars such as Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah and Chris Rock. The series has been screened on HBO and Netflix, and is enjoyed by schools and libraries across the USA. How High The Moon is Karyn’s self-authored debut middle grade novel. She lives and works in New York.