Author Spotlight: Linda Williams Jackson

In today’s Author Spotlight, Linda Williams Jackson, award-winning author of Midnight Without a Moon and its sequel, A Sky Full of Stars, chats about her latest middle-grade novel, The Lucky Ones—out now from Candlewick Press—as well as her own childhood in the Mississippi Delta. PLUS, a chance to win a signed copy of The Lucky Ones! Scroll down for details! 👇👇👇

The Lucky Ones: a summary

It’s 1967 and eleven-year-old Ellis Earl Brown has big dreams. He’s going to grow up to be a teacher or a lawyer—or maybe both—and live in a big brick house in town. There’ll always be enough food in the icebox, and Mama won’t have to run herself ragged looking for work as a maid to support the family. Ellis Earl applies himself at school, soaking up the lessons Mr. Foster teaches his class and borrowing books from his teacher’s bookshelf, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—a story about a family that’s even worse off than Ellis Earl’s… but with a happy ending. When Mama tells Ellis Earl that he might need to quit school to help support the family, he wonders if happy endings are only possible in storybooks…

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Linda! Thanks for joining us today.

LWJ: I’m honored to be here! Thanks for having me!

The Interview

MR: The protagonist of The Lucky Ones, eleven-year-old Ellis Earl Brown, cares deeply about his family, is passionate about furthering his education, and he adores books—particularly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which resonates with him profoundly. What was the inspiration behind Ellis Earl? Also, what’s the secret to creating lovable, sympathetic MG characters?

LWJ: When I initially began this story, the main character was a girl named Annie. After my agent asked me how I would make this character different from my main character Rose (Midnight Without a Moon/A Sky Full of Stars), I decided to make the main character a boy instead. I know a real-life Ellis, whom I admire, so I decided to name the main character after him and portray him as a nerdy, ambitious kid.

As far as creating lovable, sympathetic MG characters is concerned, well… I don’t know if it’s a secret, but I find lovable, sympathetic real-life people, imagine what they might have been like as children, then use them as muses.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

MR: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has an enormous impact on Ellis Earl and features prominently in the novel. What prompted you to choose this particular middle-grade book for Ellis Earl, despite its problematic backstory?

LWJ: Memory is a tricky thing, so I don’t remember exactly why I decided to incorporate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into the story. But I knew I wanted the main character to struggle with reading novels even though he loves books, because that was true for me until age twelve. I think the book might have popped into my mind because Charlie Bucket’s situation resembles Ellis Earl’s, plus the book is as familiar today as it was in the 1960s, when it was first published. I thought today’s kids would be fascinated by that. As far as the problematic backstory, I didn’t find that out until I was deep into the manuscript. At that point, even though I was very disappointed by what I found, I didn’t want to remove the book from my story.

I tried ignoring it, but my editor pointed it out in our first round of edits. I knew that if she had pointed it out, then others would, too, after The Lucky Ones was in print. At first, I addressed it within the story itself. But in another round of edits, I removed it and decided to include an author’s note at the end of the book. I didn’t want to taint Ellis Earl’s story with a problematic backstory that Roald Dahl himself did, indeed, later fix.

{FYI, Charlie fans: Check out this Mixed-Up Files interview with Julie Dawn Cole, Veruca Salt from the movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.}

Backstory: RFK’s “poverty tour”


MR: The Lucky Ones includes Robert F. Kennedy’s visit to the Mississippi Delta during his groundbreaking “poverty tour,” in 1967. Can you share the backstory behind your decision to write about this historic event?

LWJ: My son asked me, “Who is RFK?” when he saw the letters on the cover of a magazine while we stood in the checkout at the grocery store. This was in 2018, 50 years after RKF’s assassination. I told my son who Robert Kennedy was, but I also dug a little deeper because I, too, am curious. (I hated history as a student, but I love it as an adult.) In my research, I discovered the book Delta Epiphany by Ellen Meacham. I stopped working on whatever I was working on at the time because I knew I had to write this story, because it literally hit close to home. I grew up in the very area that Robert Kennedy visited, and my family experienced the exact poverty that he witnessed. How could I not write this story?

Mothers: fiction versus reality

MR: I read that Ellis Earl’s mama is based in part on your own mother, Ernestine Scott Williams. What are the main similarities between the two matriarchs? The differences…?

LWJ: Similarities: My mom had a TON of kids. My mom was gentle and kind. My mom generously opened her home to grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and any of our friends. My mom didn’t like asking for help even though she needed it.

Differences: While Mrs. Brown (my grandmother’s maiden name, by the way) was hesitant about using the strap on her children, my mom sure wasn’t! She wasn’t abusive or anything, but she was a strong disciplinarian.

Food and hunger

MR: Food and the lack thereof play a tremendous role in Ellis Earl’s story. There’s never enough for his large family, and food is always on Ellis Earl’s mind. In many ways, food is like a separate character in the book. Was this an issue for you growing up? If so, how has it affected you as an adult?

LWJ: How interesting! I hadn’t thought of food as a separate character, but Ellis Earl is pretty obsessed with it, isn’t he? And yes, food was an issue for me growing up, which is, in part, why I wrote the book. I wanted to give readers an inside look at poverty, specifically hunger.

Now, as an adult, I tend not to waste food. I’m also the type of person who won’t stock too much food at once, for fear of waste. It might seem as if growing up with food insecurity would make me want to keep my refrigerator and pantry full to the brim, but I like to make sure I use every bit of food that I buy. So I don’t store more food than I can readily see when I open the fridge or peer into the pantry.

Life in the Mississippi Delta

MR: In addition to The Lucky Ones, your previous novels, Midnight Without a Moon and A Sky Full of Stars, are set prior to and during the Civil Rights era, in the Mississippi Delta. They’re also autobiographical in nature. What is it about this historical era that speaks to you personally and as a writer?

LWJ: Personally, I am tied to this historical era because it directly impacted my own family in one way or another. My mom once remarked that she believed she knew someone involved in the murder of Emmett Till. During my research, I found I out that I actually did know someone (indirectly) who was involved. I wasn’t born during that time, but I am still connected to it. With my latest book, I was born during the time period (still a baby at the time), so I wanted to share what life was like for a poor Black child growing up in the Mississippi Delta during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement. My little hometown of Rosedale, Mississippi, might seem pretty insignificant today, but it holds plenty of history that relates to the entire nation.

Write what you know

MR: The most common advice given to writers is: “Write what you know.” How does this apply to you and your writing?

LWJ: Before I wrote the manuscript that became the book Midnight Without a Moon, I tried writing what I didn’t know, and I failed miserably. Taking the plunge to write “what I knew” made my writing more authentic and paved the way for publication. I’m not saying that the only way to succeed is to write what you know, I’m only sharing my experience and saying, “It helped.”

Reginald James and The Lucky Ones audiobook

MR: I should mention that The Lucky Ones is available as an audiobook, narrated by actor Reginald James.  I listened to it yesterday and was blown away by James’ spot-on portrayal of Ellis Earl, his sister Carrie Ann, Mama, and the other members of the Brown family. James really nailed the dialogue. How was he chosen for the project?

LWJ: Ha! It was his portrayal of Carrie Ann that sealed the deal! I was sent samples of several readings by various people. I chose Reginald James because he didn’t sound like he was trying to be southern as he read. His portrayal of Carrie Ann actually made me laugh out loud.

Dialect in MG fiction

MR: Speaking of dialogue, except for Ellis Earl’s beloved teacher, Mr. Foster—and Ellis Earl, who tries to speak “proper”—the characters in your books use local dialect. What’s your advice to other writers when it comes to using dialect? I know this can be tricky to pull off.

LWJ: I think that goes back to writing what you know. I grew up with that dialect, and, when I’m not in a professional setting, I still use it a bit myself. So, it’s easy to write it. I guess my advice would be, “Don’t try to write a dialect that you can’t naturally speak yourself.”

A sense of wonder

MR: When a reader finishes one of your novels, what do you hope stays with them long after they’ve replaced the book on the shelf? Also, what stays with you after you finish a writing project?

LWJ: I want readers to leave my books feeling a sense of wonder—like they’ve actually visited another time and place and gotten to know the characters so well that they feel it’s possible to run across them in real life. And when I read a book, I want that same feeling.

MR: What are you working on now, Linda? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know!

LWJ: Oh, a mix of things…

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is compete without a lightning round, so…

Coffee or tea?

Coffee, but I do drink tea occasionally.

Cat or dog?

Neither. I tolerated my daughter’s cat because I had to.

Favorite character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Charlie, of course.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

Haven’t you heard? We’re already in it! The Internet is eating our brains!


X-ray vision. I can see right through most people.

Favorite place on earth? My own home.

 If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? Courage, wisdom, and the power to become invisible at will.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Linda—and congratulations on the publication of The Lucky Ones. I absolutely loved it, and I know MUF readers will too!

LWJ: Thank you for the interview, Melissa! And thanks for reading The Lucky Ones! I’m so glad you enjoyed it!


For a chance to win a signed copy of The Lucky Onescomment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account, for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 5/31/22; U.S. only, please.)

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 town 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 a career in Information Technology as a Database Administrator and Adjunct Professor, Linda now prefers manipulating words rather than numbers and symbols. Besides her novels for young readers, Linda has also written reading assessment passages for various educational publishers and is published in five Chicken Soup for the Soul titles. Learn more about Linda on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Melissa Roske on EmailMelissa Roske on FacebookMelissa Roske on InstagramMelissa Roske on Twitter
Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for J17 magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company). Melissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
  1. Thank you for your generous comments, Joan. I will pass them along to the author. Thanks for entering the giveaway!

  2. Thank you for the great interview! This book sounds fascinating. I have a number of students at my school who love historical fiction and I think this would be a great book to add to our library’s collection.

    • So glad you enjoyed the interview, Lori. And thank you for your support of the Mixed-Up Files!

  3. Linda Williams Jackson is an incredible writer. Thanks for the chance!

    • I agree with you 100 percent, Sarah. Linda Williams Jackson is an incredible writer indeed! Thank you for your comment.

  4. What a great interview. Thanks for that and for a chance to win the book. It sounds great and I look forward to reading it.

    • Thanks for your generous comment about the interview, Rosi. Thank you for your continued support of the Mixed-Up Files!

  5. I would love this book! I know I will get a copy soon either way. I am so intrigued by this era. I am currently working on a middle-grade ghost story that involves the music and politics of the 60s. Of course, the Kennedys are a big part of it. Plus the human rights issues are just what I am looking for. Such a perfect mentor text from the ideal author. Congratulations on this book!

    • Good luck on your MG ghost story, Sharon. It sounds intriguing. Thanks for entering the giveaway!

  6. Thank you for the interview and chance to get to know this author better. This book sounds amazing as I haven’t read any middle grade historical fiction set in the late 1960’s.

    • Thanks for your comment, Danielle–and for your continued support of the Mixed-Up Files!

  7. The book sounds amazing. I love to dig deeper into the lives of kids growing up. The history and background of this book would allow me to know what it was and is like for these children. Thank you for writing it. I already bought this book, but if I win it in the raffle, I would donate it to the classroom my daughter teaches in. I think every classroom should have a book like this one where children can learn and relate. Again, thank you for writing it 🙂