I was instantly intrigued by this story given it was written by Karyn Parsons, best known for her role as Will Smith’s ditsy cousin Hilary Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Karyn has since 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. How High the Moon is her debut novel for children aged 9 and up. A sweeping tale of growing up in segregated America, it tells the story of Ella and her family and friends and will stay with you long after the final page.
How High the Moon by Karyn Parsons
“Boston was nothing like South Carolina. Up there, colored folks could go anywhere they wanted. Folks didn’t wait for church to dress in their fancy clothes. Fancy was just life. Mama was a city girl . . . and now I was going to be one too.”
It’s 1944, and in a small, Southern, segregated town, eleven-year-old Ella spends her summers running wild with her cousins and friends. But life isn’t always so sunny. The deep racial tension that simmers beneath their town’s peaceful facade never quite goes away, and Ella misses her mama – a beautiful jazz singer, who lives in Boston. So when an invitation arrives to come to Boston for a visit Ella is ecstatic – and the trip proves life-changing in more ways than one. For the first time, Ella sees what life outside of segregation is like, and begins to dream of a very different future. But her happiness is shattered when she returns home to the news that her classmate has been arrested for the murder of two white girls – and nothing will ever be the same again.
A moving and beautifully written historical tale drawing you into a world of racial tension, family bonds and friendship. It is told through the voices of the various central characters –11 year old Ella, desperate to find her place in the world; Henry, Ella’s steadfast best friend and Mryna, an orphan girl taken in by Ella’s grandparents who experiences first love with classmate George. Ella has a love-hate relationship with Myrna and is often in conflict with her. When Ella goes to Boston to stay with her mother she hopes to find the truth about her father – who judging by Ella’s skin-colour and the prejudice she is often on the receiving end of, was white. However, Ella finds her mother unwilling to share any more than this and unwilling to give up her lifestyle of late-night performing to be a stay-at-home mother. Ella finds a surprising ally in her mother’s roommate, Helen, but the time comes when she must return home. The story takes a heart-rending turn when George, Myrna’s boyfriend is accused of murder, turning their world upside down and causing increased racial tension with the threat of lynch-mobs never far away.
There are so many facets to this brilliant story and it weaves a believable but haunting narrative. Ella is a brave heroine, with a voice that must be heard. The character building is excellent and you can’t help but feel Ella, her friends and family really existed, pulling empathy from the reader from the first page. Sadly, the story of George is based on truth – George Stinney Jr was 14 years old when he was excused of murdering two white girls and executed for murder. Seventy years later he was exonerated and his trial and sentence declared a sham.
I never fail to be horrified by man’s inhumanity to man and shedding light on the racial tensions in 1940s Deep South, and what it was really like to live during this time is important. Particularly in the current climate where racial inequality still exists; this book will build empathy and understanding and would be most suitable for older primary children and also good for those students studying this period of history. How High the Moon is brilliant and brave storytelling and is deservedly described as future classic.
Find out more www.penguin.co.uk. With thanks to Puffin for sending me this book to review.