How do we explain racial inequality to children? How do we speak about the complexities of race and racism in a world where these issues have become more and more relevant? How do we make sure that these conversations are productive and empathetic while still preserving the innocence of children? How can we explain these issues in a way that is historical and honest?
How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons is a good kickstart to this kind of essential conversation. Billed as To Kill a Mockingbird meets One Crazy Summer, this debut middle-grade novel tells the story of a twelve-year-old light-skinned black girl, Ella, who spends her time between South Carolina and Boston in the early 1940s.
At 12, Ella has only seen her small town of Alcolu, South Carolina, in the Jim Crow South. When her mother, a struggling jazz singer trying to make it in Boston, invites Ella to come to the city for Christmas, Ella is incredibly excited because she misses her mother terribly. She has no idea that the visit will change her life.
The narrative shifts from Ella's perspective to that of the family she and her mother left behind in South Carolina, who forcefully pontificate about the differences between the South and the North. Ella's worldview changes because she can see racism and racial division more clearly in her hometown, and she finds out family secrets that become integral to how she sees herself.
Mostly told through Ella's perspective as she realizes how differently she and her mother are treated in the North, How High the Moon gives faces and a story to difficult aspects of American history that could be too abstract or historically far away for young readers to grasp otherwise. The reader discovers race and racism along with Ella, whose world expands slowly through her mother's ambitions in Boston. Ella's reality is also violently shaken when her friend George in South Carolina is arrested for the murder of two local white girls. This book's greatest accomplishment is showing the depth and range of aggression and violence that are justified through racism and the construction of race.
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Best known for her role as Hilary Banks in the 90s hit show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, author Karyn Parsons’s debut book takes an unflinching and captivating look at identity and racism in American society. To people who haven’t followed her career, this might seem like a random path for her to take, but Parsons has been dedicated to telling African American stories since she founded the nonprofit Sweet Blackberry, which focuses on telling stories about black people in America. The charity has produced three award-winning animated films that center black history and heritage, which is in line with the themes of How High the Moon.
Parsons has a lot of faith in telling forgotten African American histories as a way to educate young people about their own potential and heritage. In an interview with Shondaland, she said, “Most people didn’t know that these stories were being buried and lost. If all those stories are unearthed, I can’t help but feel that it changes how you feel as a young person. If you come up in a world where there are more stories available, more images available that are empowering, it makes you feel like, ‘I’m a strong, capable person. I can do whatever I wanna do.'”
Named after an Ella Fitzgerald song, How High the Moon also gives nods to black culture in the 1940s. It’s a book about race and racism, yes—but it’s also about blackness and resistance. In an educational and entertaining novel, Parsons’ commitment to telling stories that both inform and inspire young black children is present in every page.
Karyn Parsons is 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 has gone 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. It’s been screened on HBO and Netflix and enjoyed by schools and libraries across the country. How High the Moon is Karyn’s self-authored debut novel.
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Nicole Froio is a Sociology Ph.D. candidate based in York, United Kingdom. She writes about books, politics, human rights, feminism and more. She is a Book Riot contributor and can be found at @nicolefroio.