“I asked my mother so many questions as I wrote my book,” said Karyn Parsons. “What did people wear? How did they speak?”
The answers helped Parsons bring to vivid life the small town of Alcolu, South Carolina, in her first novel, “How High the Moon.” The book is set during the 1940s and the place, though the name of a real town, is actually based on her mother’s hometown, close to Charleston.
Twelve-year-old Ella and the other African American characters enjoy berry picking and church potluck suppers, just as Parsons’s mother did when she was a child. But they also must deal with racism. In the segregated South, black and white people lived in different neighborhoods, attended different schools and were treated differently under the law.
When Ella visits her jazz-singer mother in Boston, Massachusetts, she feels braver and more free. In the North, people use the same water fountains and bathrooms, regardless of race. Back in South Carolina, Ella thinks and talks about these differences. She also pushes to learn the identity of her long-disappeared father — a search that threatens the status quo of her town.
Ella’s fierce desire for truth drives her actions throughout the novel, and she, along with other characters, starts making a difference in her family and town.
The character of Ella was inspired by a real person, too.
“When I was doing research, I came upon an old, sepia-toned photograph of a girl in a man’s hat, sitting on the ground,” Parsons told KidsPost by phone from her home in Brooklyn, New York.
This unknown girl had such a spunky, confident air that Parsons used her as a model for Ella, who loves wearing the man’s hat she found in the woods.
Growing up in Santa Monica, California, Parsons happily spent hours in the library where her mom worked.
Parsons started acting as a teen, and in the 1990s, she starred in a popular TV show called “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
But she always wrote “little poems, stories, scripts,” she said, and when the show ended, she took her first creative writing class.
“That was it,” said Parsons, with a laugh. “I wanted to keep writing.”
In her writing, she continues to draw on skills honed as an actress. With both, you try to inhabit a character, to see the world through another’s eyes, she said.
For the past 14 years, Parsons has been creating short animated films for the foundation she started, Sweet Blackberry. The films feature black heroes many Americans have forgotten, including pilot Bessie Coleman and inventor Garrett Morgan.
“They are an important part of American history,” Parsons said. “All children benefit by knowing their stories.”
While doing research for these films, she discovered another real person — George Stinney — who helped shape her novel. George was a 14-year-old boy convicted in 1944 of a crime he probably did not commit. Parsons included him as a character because she wanted readers to know his tragic story.
Parsons continues to flesh out forgotten parts of the past. She’s at work on another historical novel. She is also developing the Sweet Blackberry films into picture books., with art by R. Gregory Christie.
“I love the process,” she said, of researching, writing and working with a creative team. “You never know where it might take you.”