The Lucky Ones tells the story of eleven-year-old Ellis Earl Brown in 1967 Mississippi. Ellis Earl dreams of living in a big house in town with his family and having plenty of food to eat. A special teacher introduces him to a world of possibilities through the books in his classroom.
Linda Williams Jackson’s previous novels, the award-winning Midnight Without A Moon and its sequel A Sky Full of Stars, weave historical events into coming-of-age stories. Enjoy this interview with the author and read an excerpt of The Lucky Ones below, courtesy of Candlewick Press.
– Rae Ann Parker, Director of Books and Events for Young Readers
Rae Ann Parker: The Lucky Ones is inspired by events in your childhood. When did you decide to tell this story and how did you create the main character of Ellis Earl?
Linda Williams Jackson: “Who is RFK?” is the question that inspired me to tell this story. In 2018, my son, who was 10 at the time, asked me this question when he saw the headline “RFK” on a magazine cover while we stood in the checkout line at the grocery store. Realizing I had a personal connection to this bit of history—specifically, Kennedy’s poverty tour of the Mississippi Delta—I decided to share the answer that I gave my son through a historical novel for middle grade readers.
The main character Ellis Earl is inspired by a real-life Ellis, a man whose life inspired me as I was growing up. I imagined what the real-life Ellis might have been like as a young boy then injected this personality into my imaginary Ellis Earl. Most of the narrative, however, is inspired by my own childhood during the early 70s.
RAP: Did you learn anything from your characters as you wrote the story? Did any choices your characters make surprise you?
LWJ: I can’t say that I learned anything from my characters as I wrote the story, but I was surprised by some of the choices that Ellis Earl made. I was surprised how quickly his desire to read longer books like his friend Philip eventually turned into something more competitive to the point of jealousy. Then that jealousy escalated to antagonism. I was also surprised by how caring Ellis Earl could be at any moment then turn right around and get bitten by a mean bug the next. In other words, I guess I was surprised at how realistic this fictional character became.
RAP: Books are important to Ellis Earl and inspire his dreams. As an author of middle grade books, what do you hope readers find in your new book, The Lucky Ones?
LWJ: I want readers to find hope and empathy in The Lucky Ones. Ellis Earl is very hopeful, despite his circumstances, and that can be a tough thing to do, especially for kids. I want kids who might be living in less than desirable conditions to press on and keep hope alive. Through education and mentors, children have the opportunity to create the life they desire when they grow up. And for those who cannot identify with Ellis Earl’s circumstances, don’t look down on those who do. Be a support system instead.
RAP: What is your favorite part of writing books for young readers?
LWJ: My favorite part of writing books for young readers is the joy of telling a story from a child’s perspective (which is also my favorite part of reading books written for young readers). I love storytelling in the first place, and who better to tell them to than children?
RAP: And finally, we ask everyone: What’s your favorite thing about indie bookstores?
LWJ: Indie bookstores are charming! Every one of them is unique (obviously), and they are inviting and full of character (no pun intended). While I love visiting any bookstore, indie bookstores are my favorite because I never know what I’m going to find in terms of setup and layout. Every indie bookstore that I’ve visited has been beautiful and wonderful.
Please enjoy Chapter 1 of The Lucky Ones, courtesy of Candlewick Press.
Friday, March 17
A Whole Moon Pie to Myself
“Thank you, Mr. Foster!”
Ellis Earl Brown waved goodbye to his teacher, then trekked with his sister Carrie Ann along the dusty path toward home. Mr. Julius Foster always offered to drive his lime-green station wagon all the way to the end of the winding path to drop Ellis Earl and Carrie Ann off directly in front of their house. But regardless of how much eight-year-old Carrie Ann begged him to accept the ride, eleven-year-old Ellis Earl always adamantly refused, even when the sky threatened rain, as it did today. Ellis Earl was grateful that Mr. Foster was kind enough to include them in his carpool of nine students to whom he gave a ride to and from school each day, but Ellis Earl didn’t want the other students to see the place they called home.
Because it was Friday, Carrie Ann began skip-ping down the road singing a made-up song about how glad she was that she didn’t have to get up for school the next morning. But Ellis Earl dreaded the weekend. The weekend meant two whole days with no school and no grand selection of books from Mr. Foster’s shelf, except the one book Ellis Earl was allowed to take home to read to his younger siblings and the one book he was allowed to take for himself.
Today he wasn’t at all happy with his selection. Ellis Earl preferred the books with lots of pictures. But his friend Philip loved the Hardy Boys mysteries, and this is what he had challenged Ellis Earl to take home for the weekend. Ellis Earl wasn’t interested in reading The Secret of the Old Mill. But not wanting to be called a chicken, he had accepted the challenge and brought the book home. For certain, he’d do his best to try to read it, as he longed to read chapter books like Philip. But deep down he knew that his mind would soon wander away from the words if there were no pictures to guide him along.
Besides the absence of Mr. Foster’s collection of books, there would also be the absence of food—sometimes not even a piece of bread—unless Ellis Earl’s family went to visit their grandparents on Sunday, which he dreaded.
This weekend, however, Ellis Earl was in luck. Mr. Foster had given him the leftovers from a surprise afternoon snack for his class. Ellis Earl wished the food could hold them over until Monday. But with eleven people in their house, a half loaf of bread, a half-empty jar of peanut butter, two chocolate Moon Pies, and a package of Stage Planks wouldn’t last until even the next day. The minute Mr. Foster had given him the sack, Ellis Earl had begun figuring out how many sandwiches he could make with the bread and peanut butter. He shared those figures with Carrie Ann.
“We got ten slices of bread,” he said. “We can make five sandwiches and cut ’em in half, or we can each have one slice with peanut butter on top. That’s enough for all the children. We’ll divide up the Moon Pies, too. Mama can have the Stage Planks. It’ll be nice if she has something sweet for a change.”
Carrie Ann stopped skipping and turned to face Ellis Earl. She glared at him. “Mr. Foster said to make sho’ I got a Moon Pie,” she said. “That mean a whole Moon Pie. So I ain’t splittin’ it up with nobody.”
Ellis Earl waved her off. “Don’t be selfish. We can split these Moon Pies six ways. Everybody oughta get to taste something sweet.”
“I’m hungry enough to eat both of them Moon Pies and all that bread and peanut butter right now,” Carrie Ann said, licking her lips.
“Stop acting greedy. We can’t eat up everything by ourselves. It ain’t right.”
Having eaten only one meal that day himself, Ellis Earl would have gladly eaten all the food right then and there had he been as oblivious to their family’s plight as his younger sister was. But he wasn’t as oblivious as Carrie Ann, so he would never think of devouring a whole sack of food and not sharing it with his siblings, especially ten-year-old Oscar, who had become too ill to attend school.
Ellis Earl knew that all the family who were home during the day had probably eaten little more than a couple of biscuits, at best. He was fortunate that Mr. Foster always brought lunch for his students. Mr. Foster’s food was delicious, so Ellis Earl didn’t mind one bit that he couldn’t bring his own lunch. Sometimes Mr. Foster even had fried chicken, or smothered pork chops. And as if by some trick of magic, he had enough for everyone, even the students who brought their own lunches at times.
“Why we gotta walk all the way home from the road?” Carrie Ann complained as she did nearly every day. She hugged her stack of textbooks to her chest with one hand and with the other tugged her coat collar tighter about her neck. “It’s cold out here. And my hand is freezing.”
Ellis Earl clucked his tongue at Carrie Ann. It was a pity how his little sister could so quickly switch from skipping and singing to slouching and complaining. He peered through the still-bare branches of the trees and gazed at the sky. It was overcast and gray. “It’s about to be spring-time before long,” he said, even though he hardly believed that himself. Regretfully, he didn’t have a free hand with which to secure his coat collar tighter about his neck. Neither could he alternate which hand held his textbooks in order to warm the other in his coat pocket as Carrie Ann did. But cold hands were a small price to pay to avoid the humiliation he would feel if the other children in the carpool ever saw his house.
“When?” Carrie Ann asked.
“When is spring gon’ be here?”
Ellis Earl shrugged. “Couple of weeks, I think.”
“How should I know? Do I look like a calendar?”
“You always lookin’ at it, so I thought you had it re-memorized by now.”
“Well, I don’t have it memorized. I just know spring’s coming soon. But I don’t know the exact day.” Ellis Earl glanced back up at the sky, doubtful. Spring was nowhere in sight, despite what the calendar said. But oh, how he wished it were. March shouldn’t feel the same as December.
Another cold night in their house.
Another night that his brother Oscar would be coughing up a storm.
Ellis Earl hoped that Oscar would get better soon. He had missed two months of school, but Ellis Earl knew he could catch up if he was able to go back before the term was over. Oscar was a fast learner. But in the meantime, Oscar would have to settle for the bits of the outside world that Ellis Earl could bring, like books and food, when Mr. Foster sent it home with him.
Halfway to the house, Carrie Ann stopped and stamped her foot.
Ellis Earl groaned. “Now what’s the matter?”
“Please let me have something outta that sack ’foe we get to the house,” Carrie Ann begged.
“Nope. This food is for everybody.”
Carrie Ann dropped her books on the road, fell to her knees, and, with her hands clasped beneath her chin, begged. “Please! Just gimme my Moon Pie. I just wanna have a whole Moon Pie to myself for once. Just. This. One. Time. Please!”
Ellis Earl’s shoulders drooped. Carrie Ann was right. When they were lucky enough to have a sweet treat, it was always “divided up” among the little children: him, Oscar, Carrie Ann, Beatrice, Deidra, and Vera. Regardless of how tiny the snack, whether it was a Moon Pie, a Honey Bun, or even a Poor Boy cake, it was divided up.
While Ellis Earl was deciding what to do, Carrie Ann got to her feet and reminded him again, “Mr. Foster said to make sho’ I got a Moon Pie. That mean a whole Moon Pie. Not no split-up Moon Pie.”
“Mr. Foster said to make sure you got a Moon Pie, not sho’.”
“Well, if that ain’t the pot callin’ the kettle black,” said Carrie Ann. “Don’t try to tell me how to talk, Ellis Earl Brown. You ain’t always so proper yo’self.”
“Yourself,” said Ellis Earl, unfazed.
Carrie Ann stretched out her hand. “Just gimme my Moon Pie.”
With much exaggeration, Ellis Earl placed his books on the road, reached into the bag, and pulled out a Moon Pie. “Here,” he said, extending it toward Carrie Ann.
“Thank the good Lord!” cried Carrie Ann.
Before they reached the house, she had devoured the whole Moon Pie. With a satisfied grin, she raced toward the rickety steps of their home, dashed up, and darted across the porch to the front door.
Ellis Earl, however, hesitated at the edge of the yard. With his stomach rumbling, he peeked into the sack and considered eating that entire second Moon Pie.
But he thought of Oscar.
He thought of Beatrice.
He thought of Deidra.
He thought of Vera.
Split four ways, that Moon Pie would make a satisfying treat for them.
He himself could do without.
Excerpted from The Lucky Ones by Linda Williams Jackson. Copyright © 2022 by Linda Williams Jackson. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The Lucky Ones will be released on April 19th, 2022.