Hi guys! Today starts off the first full week of school for me, so I’m going to be a bit less active on social media since this semester is going to be hectic. Already, I have my DECA District Career Development Conference next Tuesday, so wish me luck in my competition! Today, I am also sharing with y’all my second ever LILbooKtalk (this will be a monthly post, so look out for February’s soon!), and I am so excited to have Linda Williams Jackson and Gwen C. Katz here to talk about “The Importance of Historical Fiction for Young Readers.” Historical fiction is my favorite genre, so I am super stoked to let you all read this discussion. Enjoy!
About Midnight without a Moon
It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. For now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation. Then, one town over, an African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change and that she should be part of the movement. Linda Jackson’s moving debut seamlessly blends a fictional portrait of an African American family and factual events from a famous trial that provoked change in race relations in the United States.
About A Sky Full of Stars
After the murder of Emmett Till, thirteen-year-old Rose is struggling with her decision to stay in Mississippi. Torn between the opinions of Shorty, a boy who wants to meet violence with violence, and Hallelujah, her best friend who believes in the power of peaceful protests, Rose is scared of the mounting racial tension and is starting to lose hope. But when Rose helps Aunt Ruthie start her own business, she begins to see how she can make a difference in her community. Life might be easier in the North, but Mississippi is home and that’s worth fighting for. Mid-Century Mississippi comes alive in this sequel to Midnight Without a Moon.
About Among the Red Stars
World War Two has shattered Valka’s homeland of Russia, and Valka is determined to help the effort. She knows her skills as a pilot rival the best of the men, so when an all-female aviation group forms, Valka is the first to sign up.
Flying has always meant freedom and exhilaration for Valka, but dropping bombs on German soldiers from a fragile canvas biplane is no joyride. The war is taking its toll on everyone, including the boy Valka grew up with, who is fighting for his life on the front lines.
As the war intensifies and those around her fall, Valka must decide how much she is willing to risk to defend the skies she once called home.
Inspired by the true story of the airwomen the Nazis called Night Witches, Gwen C. Katz weaves a tale of strength and sacrifice, learning to fight for yourself, and the perils of a world at war.
(Questions are in bold; HF = Historical Fiction)
Kester: The first author we have today is Linda Williams Jackson, who wrote the stunning Rose Lee Carter series, which comprises of Midnight without a Moon and A Sky Full of Stars. A Sky Full of Stars just released last week on January 2nd! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your novels?
Linda: Hi Kester. Thanks for doing this chat. I was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, which is where my novels take place. It is also where the Emmett Till murder occurred. That murder and the swift trial and acquittal of the accused are the historical part of my “historical” novel.
Kester: Thank you so much, Linda! I really loved both of your novels, and I am super excited to have you here today! Alongside Linda, we have the wonderful Gwen C. Katz, who I had the pleasure of interviewing back in October about her debut novel Among the Red Stars. Would you also like to share with us a bit about your book and your background?
Gwen: Hey Kester. Thanks for having me. I’m Gwen Katz and I wrote about the Night Witches, an all-female bomber regiment who served on the front in Russia during World War II. It’s one of those really cool yet inexplicably neglected historical topics and I just wanted more people to know about it.
Kester: That sounds awesome! I’m really looking forward to reading Among the Red Stars! This month’s LILbooKtalk theme is “The Importance of Historical Fiction for Young Readers.” Why do you both believe that it is critical for children and teens to be exposed to history through literature? How do your novels achieve the purpose of enlightening readers on the struggles of the past while conveying themes that could inspire generations?
Linda: I think it’s a more intriguing way to learn about history rather than in a textbook. As far as young readers are concerned, I think they would probably prefer reading a novel over reading a biography or a nonfiction book. HF also lends itself to tell stories that might get overlooked, such as the story Gwen has unfolded in Among the Red Stars. There is only so much space in those history books, so it’s up to us to tell the stories that get left out. And we can do this in an engaging way via HF.
Kester: Right. I definitely agree with you! Sometimes it’s hard to connect with history when I’m reading it from a textbook rather than a fiction novel.
Gwen: I think it’s important to expose young people to historical fiction because it allows them to make a personal connection to history. Historical events like wars and battles are often taught as a dry list of dates and locations and it’s easy for it all to feel very distant. Fiction helps us remember that every one of those war casualties was a real person with their own life, their own family, and their own dreams.
Linda: I love that answer, Gwen.
Gwen: And I definitely agree with Linda that a novel feels a lot more accessible to young people (and, for that matter, readers of all ages). Why shouldn’t learning about history be entertaining as well as informative?
Kester: Midnight without a Moon and A Sky Full of Stars revolve around Rose’s life as she navigates through the Civil Rights era during and after the Emmett Till murder case. Among the Red Stars follows Valka as she enlists in the Night Witches, one of the Soviet Union’s all-female aviation squadrons in World War II. How did your personal experiences influence your novels?
Linda, how did growing up in the South around this time period impact both you as a writer and your Rose Lee Carter series? Gwen, what were some ways you used yourself or other people you know to shape your main characters and their story?
Gwen: It’s funny that I keep writing about people in the military because I hate rules and would probably get sacked in five minutes if I ever enlisted. I did, however, go to an all-women’s college, so I know the power of all-female spaces to help empower girls and women, especially in a male-dominated field. So all these female friendships and the way girls in my story work together and lift each other up instead of tearing each other down comes from my personal experience.
Linda: Actually I grew up 20 years after the setting of my novels, but not much differed in my life as opposed to Rose’s as far as the setting itself is concerned. Segregation had been legally struck down in the South, but it still existed. I began elementary school in the early 70’s, right at the beginning of “desegregation.” The school was still called “the white school,” which confused me because there were hardly any white children there. They had all been moved to a private school—so we were still segregated. I knew of a young black man who went to prison for “raping” a white girl, who happened to be his girlfriend until her father caught them together. Also the same type of poverty existed—we still lived in shacks that lacked indoor plumbing. People still worked in cotton fields. Black women still worked as maids.
Gwen: Wow. Did the guy arrested for having a white girlfriend inspire you to write about Emmett Till?
Linda: No. I actually didn’t remember it until I was writing the story. My mom mentioned Emmett Till one night while watching the news. This shocked me because she had never mentioned him before. She was in her late 70’s by then. Hearing her speak of him made me wonder how his murder impacted my family.
Gwen: So she remembers that story from when it happened?
Kester: And what moved you to write a novel that centers around the Emmett Till case?
Linda: Her words were: “I sure believe Mr. So-and-so had something to do with killing that boy.” I don’t remember the name she used, but it surprised me because the murder occurred 50 miles away. That let me know that the whole MS Delta knew about this, yet no one ever talked about it. It had been 50 years, yet my mom was recalling it as if it were yesterday. I knew that I had to research and tell this story.
Kester: Wow! I’m so glad that you are able to share the Emmett Till case with readers of all ages around the nation through your stories!
Gwen, how did you discover the Night Witches, and what prompted you to write about them in Among the Red Stars?
Gwen: My father-in-law is a big World War I aviation buff. We were playing Wings of War one time and I asked him if any female pilots had flown during World War I. He told me some had flown for Russia, so I started reading about them and their World War II successors and just got fascinated by the topic. (Linda’s story is better.)
Kester: Still, I find it very fascinating to hear the moments of inspiration and discovery for historical fiction novels!
Linda: Ironically, last night I had this weird dream about airplanes and falling out of one, then somehow willing myself back into it. I’d like to think it was a foreshadowing of this chat. I find your story quite intriguing. 🙂
Gwen: Hopefully not foreshadowing an actual flight!
Linda: Ha ha. I hope not! But I was unharmed. *thumbs up*
Kester: That’s funny! Here’s the next question: Would you consider yourself as a history nerd or buff? Did your love of the past influence you as you first conceived the idea of writing a novel?
Linda: I hated history in school, but I love it as an adult! I don’t think I’m a history buff, but I’m sure I dig into it more than the average person. My love of the Mississippi Delta and my fascination with my family’s sharecropping experience influenced my writing.
Gwen: The funny thing is I wouldn’t have before I started writing Among the Red Stars! Before that, I mostly read and wrote fantasy (which I still love). I think, like a lot of people, I fell into the trap of thinking that there were the occasional cool things that happened but most of it was boring.
Now I feel the opposite way: I think that every historical event, even the ones that seem very minor and uninteresting, is an interesting story waiting to be unpacked.
Linda: How interesting that you started with fantasy and ended up writing historical fiction.
Gwen: They have more in common than one might expect!
Linda: “I think that every historical event, even the ones that seem very minor and uninteresting, is an interesting story waiting to be unpacked.”
Therein lies the beauty of historical fiction. “Unpacking” history, making it relevant, giving it life. ❤
Gwen: Linda, your family is a perfect example. In a history book they’d be lumped into the one paragraph about “life in the south before the Civil Rights Act” (if they even got that). A novel is a chance to center the entire narrative around them.
Linda: Or simply a photo with that caption…
Gwen: With a caption that probably doesn’t even give their names. (This is my history book pet peeve. Photo captions should always include the people’s names, even if they aren’t famous historical figures. They were real people!)
Linda: True. I also wanted to give a bird’s eye view of African American life in 1955 Mississippi. I wanted readers to see and feel the environment that Emmett Till stepped into that tragic summer.
Kester: That’s why I love historical fiction so much! You never know what you’ll discover and how much you can connect with it. I recently just finished Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough, which revolves around the Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi (who I never heard of until now) and how she defied the gender roles back then and the man who raped her.
Linda: Kester, thanks for mentioning Joy’s book. I’m looking forward to reading it.
Kester: It definitely will inspire you to be more courageous in the darkest moments. I hope you enjoy it!
I’ve always been interested in hearing a historical fiction author’s perspective on this. One of the hardest challenges with writing HF is determining when to draw the line between fact and fiction, as in keeping the story as historically accurate as possible versus adjusting certain details and dates to fit the narrative better. How did both of you deal with and overcome this problem? What were some other obstacles that you faced as you drafted and revised?
Gwen: Ooh, this is the hardest thing. For me, it’s okay to make small departures from historical fact if they help illuminate the whole picture of history, if that makes sense. For instance, having someone serve in a battle they weren’t actually present for so that I can introduce them as a person and talk about them and their life.
Linda: I tried to stay as true to the story as possible while connecting Emmett Till’s Mississippi relatives to my main character’s family. I initially had the grandmother state that Mose Wright, Emmett Till’s great uncle, and Papa, Rose’s grandfather, “go way back.” But during revisions my editor said that wasn’t enough. So I had to write in a little more to tie the two families together. But I stayed away from bringing in any of Till’s family into the actual narrative and trying to fictionalize their story. Their story was not mine to tell, so I only fictionalized how I felt their story impacted the community.
As far as dates, all of my dates coincide with historical events. I wrote the story around the dates.
Gwen: What I don’t like are changes made in order to make history fit a neater or more satisfying narrative. For instance, all the “daring commando raid to destroy Hitler’s unstoppable superweapon” stories. These kinds of stories are appealing because they reduce a big, messy conflict to a single all-important objective that’s very easy to understand and invest in, but I think that presents a misleading picture of how real historical conflicts work.
Kester: I definitely see what you mean, Gwen. Like World War II is more complex than many people realize–there were so many fronts and operations that they’re all interrelated with each other!
Gwen: It gets back to presenting ordinary people’s accomplishments as important. You didn’t have to personally assassinate Hitler to make an important contribution.
Kester: Right. Millions of soldiers and civilians died for a cause they fought valiantly for. It’s important for readers to see life as a regular soldier or a civilian in fear or hiding because that was truly regular life then.
Linda: “It gets back to presenting ordinary people’s accomplishments as important.”
This is why I love historical fiction. ❤
“It’s important for readers to see life as a regular soldier or a civilian in fear or hiding because that was truly regular life then.” And this. ❤
Kester: That’s definitely why I love it, too!
This was definitely an amazing and enlightening LILbooKtalk, and to wrap everything up, would you both like to share any advice to young readers and writers who are viewing this discussion?
Gwen: Everyone’s story is important–and that includes yours. Your life and what you choose to do with it is unique and valuable, even if you don’t make it into the history books.
Linda: To readers: This is something that I have finally found freedom in. You don’t have to finish any book you don’t love, unless it is assigned reading. Also, don’t publicly trash a book simply because you didn’t love it or even like it. Stop reading and move.
To writers: Don’t let anyone despise your youth. If you want to write a book, then sit still long enough to write it. You’re never too young to create a brilliant masterpiece.
Gwen: Great advice, Linda!
Linda: “Everyone’s story is important–and that includes yours. Your life and what you choose to do with it is unique and valuable, even if you don’t make it into the history books.”
Same! I wish someone had told me this when I was young.
Gwen: It was great to be here and congratulations to you, Linda, on A Sky Full of Stars out in the world! I can’t wait to read it!
Linda: Thank you! I enjoyed chatting with you both.
Kester: Thanks so much for joining me today in this LILbooKchat! I really appreciate all you do, and it was definitely fun listening to your insights!
Linda: Thanks for letting us share our thoughts with your readers. 🙂
About the Author
Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta in the teeny-tiny town of Rosedale , Linda Williams Jackson likes to spin stories about everyday people in small-town settings. Though she has lived in a few other states (Alabama, Missouri, and Kansas), Linda currently makes her home in a not-so-small city in Mississippi with her husband and three children.
While a degree in Math and Computer Science from the University of Alabama allowed her to enjoy careers in Information Technology, Linda now prefers manipulating words rather than numbers and symbols. Besides her debut middle-grade novel Midnight Without a Moon from HMH Books for Young Readers (January 3, 2017) and the sequel A Sky Full of Stars (January 2, 2018), Linda is published in multiple Chicken Soup for the Soul titles and has written reading assessment passages for various educational publishers.
Purchase Midnight without a Moon here:
Purchase A Sky Full of Stars here:
About the Author
Gwen C. Katz is a writer, artist, game designer, and retired mad scientist easily identified by her crew cut and ability to cause trouble. Originally from Seattle, she now lives in Altadena, CA with her husband and a revolving door of transient mammals. She is represented by Thao Le of Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.Website | Twitter | Facebook | Goodreads | DeviantArt
Purchase Among the Red Stars here:
Thanks so much again to Linda Williams Jackson and Gwen C. Katz for agreeing to do this LILbooKtalk! I hope you all enjoyed this online discussion panel, and if you’d like to talk about any aspect or question of the discussion, please comment below!
Comment below, or find me in one of my social media pages, and let’s chat!