Not Necessarily Keats by Linda Williams Jackson￼
“A shack with only a dozen or so books is an unlikely place to discover a young Keats.” – Alice Walker, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens
A dozen or so books? I doubt that many books could be found in the shacks in which I grew up. I actually only recall having one book in our house. I’m sure there were probably three or four more, but I don’t remember them. That one book that I do remember was some type of Black History book. And the only reason I remember the book so vividly is because it had a picture of a slave auction in it, and one of my brothers had written “blue-eyed devil” over the face of the white auctioneer. So, with only one book in the home—and that book, a traumatizing one, at best—how does a child become a reader? And more importantly, how on earth did said child grow up and become a writer? Because, as Ms. Alice Walker has said, “A shack with only a dozen or so books is an unlikely place to discover a young Keats.”
Even though we only had the one book that permanently remained in our home, my first memory of borrowed books in our home was around age three, when my brothers brought Curious George books from school. A reflection of this childhood memory is mirrored in The Lucky Ones, when the main character, Ellis Earl, brings home Curious George Rides a Bike to read to his young niece Vera. I’m not sure where my brothers got the books they brought home, whether from their teachers or from the school’s library, but I do remember the joy that we felt when they read those books to us. And I say “they” because I had three older brothers who attended school at the time (1969), but I don’t remember which one of them brought the books home. I only remember that one of them did, and he read it to us “little kids”—me, my brother, my two younger sisters, and my niece who lived with us—the way Ellis Earl borrows books from his teacher, Mr. Foster, and reads to his younger siblings and niece.
Fast forward to my own elementary school years when I was able to bring my own borrowed books home. Library day was THE best day of the week. Imagine this little girl from an impoverished, book-starved home being allowed to enter a room with wall-to-wall shelves of books and being able to choose any book from those shelves to read. A whole new world exploded before my eyes. Yet, outside of school, I had zero access to books. My elementary years occurred between 1972 and 1978, and for the first five and a half of those years, my family lived way out in the boondocks, meaning I didn’t have access to a public library. And, given the timeframe and my location—the Mississippi Delta—I’m not sure I would have had such access to the library anyway considering we were still mostly under the influence of Jim Crow laws. The library was located in the white section of town which wasn’t a place Black folks frequented during the 70s.
So, summers were hard for this book lover, so hard in fact that one summer I stole four books. Not intentionally, of course. I really thought I’d have the money to pay for those books once the bill came due. (Did I also mention that I’m extremely optimistic and hopeful, much like my main character Ellis Earl Brown?) Anyway, here’s how I unintentionally stole those four books. One day a wonderful package arrived in our mailbox: Join Our Book of the Month Club, Order Your First Four Books Now and Pay Later! (Not exact words, but it’s been almost 50 years, so don’t expect me to remember it to the letter.) I thought to my then nine-year-old self, “Wow! I can get four books! Four books that I get to keep!” I searched through the offering in the mailer until I found four books that I thought I would like. They were all kids’ books, of course, and I do recall that one of them was an early-reader mystery. Silly me. The whole time I kept thinking that someone would be able to pay for those books when the bill came. I wanted those four books so badly that it clouded my thinking. I knew that we barely had food to eat, so buying books was completely out of the question. Yet, I filled out the Book of the Month form, ordered my books, and optimistically hoped that everything would be okay.
Well, they weren’t. The first thing I did when the books came in the mail was lie and say I guess somebody sent them to me by mistake. But I didn’t offer to send them back. Nor did anyone make me. Next, the bill arrived. Nobody ever saw that bill except me. Why? Because I diligently got the mail all summer to make sure nobody ever saw that bill but me, and I immediately tore the bill up and threw it in the trash. Then one day, instead of a bill, the “Book of the Month Club” sent my mom a letter threatening to report her to the credit bureau as a bad credit risk. Did I tell my mom about the letter? Sadly, no. I felt horrible about what I had done. But I was too afraid to confess and untangle the web I had woven. The letters eventually stopped coming, and no one ever found out what I had done. Admittedly, I was still happy to have those four books.
By the time I got to junior high school—7th grade—my family had moved to town. Yet, I still did not know about the public library. Furthermore, I hadn’t actually begun reading novels yet. Again, like my main character Ellis Earl Brown, I was afraid to read books that didn’t have pictures. Until the day I had no choice. I had basically read every picture book available in my junior high school library and was forced to check out a novel. I strolled the aisles, my finger gingerly touching the spines of books, until something caught my eye. The spine read: “The Soul Brothers and Sister.” Well, that sounded like something I might be interested in. After all, it was the 70s, and I did consider myself a “soul sister.” So, I checked out the book, which actually was titled: The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou. Once again, a new world exploded before my eyes. I was hooked on novels. Luckily, not long after I fell in love with novels, I did discover the public library in my hometown. Also, lucky for me, Jim Crow had finally died his slow death, and the “white part of town” was no longer completely off limits to Black folks. I now had a new place to spend my summers—a place where I could enjoy air conditioning and read all the books I wanted. And I was allowed to check out two to take home with me each week to boot.
This, my friends, is how a child growing up in a sharecropper’s shack with less than a dozen or so books became, not necessarily a Keats, but both a reader and a writer, nonetheless.
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. Her third book, The Lucky Ones, was inspired by Robert Kennedy’s 1967 Poverty Tour of the Mississippi Delta and is loosely based on her own family’s experiences in the Delta. Born and raised in Rosedale, Mississippi, Linda Williams Jackson lives in Southaven, Mississippi, with her family.