Karyn Parsons talks about her debut middle grade novel, How High the Moon, her time as an actor on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” empowering children, keeping hope while fighting against injustice and more.
You’ve had such a gloriously varied career. How did you hone your writing chops?
I’ve always loved writing. Never thought of myself as a writer, though. I declared my love for acting at an early age. I studied. I got an agent and was fortunate to have success in that field early in my life. But with that success came being identified as “an actor” by everyone, including myself.
After “Fresh Prince” ended, a friend encouraged me to study writing with author and teacher, Jim Krusoe. The experience changed everything for me. I didn’t stop loving acting, but I realized there was something that I loved more. I dedicated hours every day to writing. To reading. To reading about writing. Being able to call myself a writer, however, was still difficult. Showing that part of myself to others was terrifying. I had identified myself as an actor for so long. It was hard to make that transition for me.
Honestly, though, acting and writing are similar in many respects. It’s storytelling. It’s slipping into another person’s skin. My lifetime as an actor has definitely helped me with my writing.
You founded Sweet Blackberry to make short animated films that bring little-known stories of African-American achievement to children everywhere. In the opening paragraphs of How High the Moon, Ella runs through the blackberry bushes in her hometown of Alcolu, South Carolina. Tell us about the importance of those blackberries, how you decided to write this book, and how these storytelling projects relate to each other.
(You caught the blackberries!)
I think that sharing inspiring stories of African American achievement with children can change the way they look at race as they enter the world. By seeing someone that looks like themselves overcoming incredible obstacles, they’ll recognize their value and what they’re capable of. Children that aren’t African American will also be inspired. And I think they’ll go into the world looking at their neighbors as more than what our society often presents.
Over the years, researching for Sweet Blackberry, I often came across the story of George Stinney, Jr. I’d share it with people, but no one seemed to have heard of him. It was terrible to think that when he died the memory of that horrible tragedy was buried with him. I wanted people to know his story. It wasn’t a Sweet Blackberry story—nothing about it was empowering—but it was important.
Your mother was raised in the South. Did you incorporate any of her childhood experiences into your novel? What research did you do to bring the worlds of both Jim Crow South Carolina and 1940s Boston so vividly to life?
Oh, so much of it is my mom’s. The backdrop, anyway. Not the actual story. She told me stories of her growing up on a farm in the south and about her grandparents. She always referred to that time as so joyful. There was little to nothing about the racial discrimination, let alone the horrors. I made her dig a little deeper for me and share more when I decided to do the book. She and my aunt both shared with me. And, of course, there was plenty of research. I dug into newspaper archives and took advantage of the internet. It was a lot of fun, actually. Writing a historical novel was daunting sometimes, but then I’d wind down some unexpected path and discover all sorts of treasures from the past. People, events, details of society and culture that we don’t see today, and they’d find their way into the story.
I didn’t know that George would be in there when I first started the story, but my mother didn’t grow up that far from Alcolu where George lived. The chronology of their childhoods was close, too. When he did first appear, he wasn’t one of the principal characters in the book. His story was a memory. I was encouraged to bring him to the forefront. I think I was scared to at first. It’s a hard story to get close to.
Your novel tackles some of the horrors of human behavior, yet manages to be hopeful. Was this a difficult balance to achieve?
Well, my mother is such an optimist and such a hopeful person, so the fact her memories were paving so much of the way and the fact that I was seeing this world through a child’s eyes, I believe, kept things hopeful. And Ella wasn’t someone to be defeated by tragedy. I think she would take injustice and use it as fuel for fight.
Like Ella, you grew up in a biracial family. How did Ella’s character evolve? Is she named for Ella Fitzgerald, who sang “How High the Moon?” How did you settle on the title?
She is named for Ella Fitzgerald, yes.
Ella is at the age where she’s becoming aware of how the world sees her. How she perceives they see her anyway. She’s just left behind that beautiful space in childhood where you’re free floating. When you’re not thinking of how you look or about those superficial differences that we later become aware of and cling to and attach to identity. Ella doesn’t want to be different. But the deep, unconditional love of her family helps her to begin to accept all of who she is. And that love helps her understand what family really is.
The title, well . . . it’s about wanting and reaching. Reaching for something that seems forever out of reach.
Each of the three cousin narrators in your book―Ella, Henry and Myrna―have unique family situations. The closing scene of your book is a beautiful tribute to families in all their wonderful varieties. Was it a challenge to incorporate so many stories and voices?
It wasn’t. They were my family as I wrote this (they still are), and even though things aren’t always smooth, they love each other and accept each other. They are all different, but they are one. And they all had something to say, so they all had to be heard.
What books were important to you as a child? What books have been meaningful to your own kids? How is children’s literature changing?
I had to read everything that Judy Blume wrote. There were others, of course, but, like so many of us, I ate those books up. I used to get an almost visceral thrill when I entered a new book. And, even recently, I was reading Jesmyn Ward in the anthology, Well-Read Black Girl, talking about a book she read as a kid, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. I hadn’t heard or thought of that book since I was a kid, but chills ran through my body when I read the title again. I think it must’ve really affected me so long ago. My mom was a librarian and I was an only child, so I spent a lot of time in libraries by myself. I think I experienced that thrill quite a bit.
These days, it seems there’s SO much out there for young people. It’s so varied. Such an exciting time! I do hope though, that with all of the contemporary writing we have the older books don’t get pushed to the back and forgotten completely.
Do you and your family ever watch “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air?” Can you do the Carlton dance?
Ha! No, we don’t watch, but the kids have seen it. They each went through a very brief phase. They liked the show. Laughed a lot and that made me feel pretty good.
The Carlton? I’ve never been able to do it! My son can, though. He’s pretty good at it.
What’s next? More books?
Yup. Working on one now.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of How High the Moon.