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.

New Releases for May 2022!

May brings a bounty of new middle grade books, fiction and nonfiction, covering many different perspectives and cross-cultural voices. Here is just a sampling of what’s new this month.

José and the Pirate Captain Toledano

by Arnon Z. Shorr (Author) Joshua M. Edelglass (Illustrator)

Set in the shadows of the Spanish Inquisition, this is the coming-of-age story of José Alfaro, a young refugee who forms a powerful bond with the mysterious Pirate Captain Toledano. It’s also a dynamic pirate adventure on the high seas, with hand-to-hand combat and ship-to-ship action, and the powerful story of a dark time in history when people took different paths to survive.




Rise of the School for Good and Evil

by Soman Chainani

The battle between Good and Evil begins. Two brothers. One Good. One Evil. Together they watch over the Endless Woods. Together they choose the students for the School for Good and Evil. Together they train them, teach them, prepare them for their fate. Then, something happens. Something unexpected. Something powerful. Something that will change everything and everyone. Who will survive? Who will rule the School? The journey starts here. Every step is filled with magic, surprises, and daring deeds that test courage, loyalty, and who you really are. But they only lead you to the very beginning of the adventures that are THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL.



The Lion of Mars

by Jennifer L. Holm

Life on Mars is pretty standard…. until a mysterious virus hits.  Don’t miss this timely and unputdownable novel from the bestselling author of The Fourteenth Goldfish.
Bell has spent his whole life–all eleven years of it–on Mars. But he’s still just a regular kid–he loves cats and any kind of cake, and is curious about the secrets the adults in the US colony are keeping. Like, why don’t they have contact with anyone on the other Mars colonies? Why are they so isolated? When a virus breaks out and the grown-ups all fall ill, Bell and the other children are the only ones who can help. It’s up to Bell–a regular kid in a very different world–to uncover the truth and save his family…and possibly unite an entire planet.

Small Town Pride

by Phil Stamper

Jake is just starting to enjoy life as his school’s first openly gay kid. While his family and friends are accepting and supportive, the same can’t be said about everyone in their small town of Barton Springs, Ohio.When Jake’s dad hangs a comically large pride flag in their front yard in an overblown show of love, the mayor begins to receive complaints. A few people are even concerned the flag will lead to something truly outlandish: a pride parade.

Except Jake doesn’t think that’s a ridiculous idea. Why can’t they hold a pride festival in Barton Springs? The problem is, Jake knows he’ll have to get approval from the town council, and the mayor won’t be on his side. And as Jake and his friends try to find a way to bring Pride to Barton Springs, it seems suspicious that the mayor’s son, Brett, suddenly wants to spend time with Jake. But someone that cute couldn’t possibly be in league with his mayoral mother, could he?


Kings of B’more

by R. Eric Thomas

Two Black queer best friends face their last day together with an epic journey through Baltimore in this magnetic YA debut by bestselling author of Here for It R. Eric Thomas. With junior year starting in the fall, Harrison feels like he’s on the precipice of, well, everything. Standardized testing, college, and the terrifying unknowns and looming pressures of adulthood after that—it’s like the future wants to eat him alive. Which is why Harrison is grateful that he and his best friend, Linus, will face these things together. But at the end of a shift at their summer job, Linus invites Harrison to their special spot overlooking the city to deliver devastating news: He’s moving out of state at the end of the week.

To keep from completely losing it—and partially inspired by a cheesy movie-night pick by his Dad—Harrison plans a send-off à la Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that’s worthy of his favorite person. If they won’t be having all the life-expanding experiences they thought they would, Harrison will squeeze them all into their last day together. They end up on a mini road trip, their first Pride, and a rooftop dance party, all while keeping their respective parents, who track them on a family location app, off their trail. Harrison and Linus make a pact to do all the things—big and small—they’ve been too scared to do. But nothing feels scarier than saying goodbye to someone you love.


Singing with Elephants

by Margarita Engle

A powerful novel in verse from Newbery and Pura Belpré Award-winning author Margarita Engle about the friendship between a young girl and the poet Gabriela Mistral that leads to healing and hope for both of them. Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol lives in Santa Barbara, California, where she struggles to belong. But most of the time that’s okay, because she enjoys helping her parents care for the many injured animals at their veterinary clinic. Then Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature, moves to town, and aspiring writer Oriol finds herself opening up. As she begins to create a world of words for herself, Oriol learns it will take courage to stay true to herself and do what she thinks is right–attempting to rescue a baby elephant in need–even if it means keeping secrets from those she loves. A beautifully written, lyrically told story about the power of friendship– between generations, between humans and animals–and the potential of poetry to inspire action and acceptance.


This Is My America

by Kim Johnson

The Hate U Give meets Just Mercy in this unflinching yet uplifting first novel that explores the racist injustices in the American justice system. Every week, seventeen-year-old Tracy Beaumont writes letters to Innocence X, asking the organization to help her father, an innocent Black man on death row. After seven years, Tracy is running out of time–her dad has only 267 days left. Then the unthinkable happens. The police arrive in the night, and Tracy’s older brother, Jamal, goes from being a bright, promising track star to a “thug” on the run, accused of killing a white girl. Determined to save her brother, Tracy investigates what really happened between Jamal and Angela down at the Pike. But will Tracy and her family survive the uncovering of the skeletons of their Texas town’s racist history that still haunt the present?


History Comics: The National Parks: Preserving America’s Wild Places

by Falynn Koch

In this volume, turn back the clock to 1872, when Congress established Yellowstone National Park as an area of unspoiled beauty for the benefit and enjoyment of the people. Meet the visionaries, artists, and lovers of the American wilderness who fought against corruption and self-interest to carve out and protect these spaces for future generations. See for yourself how the idea of National Parks began, how they’ve changed, and how they continue to define America.


Made in Korea

by Sarah Suk

Frankly in Love meets Shark Tank in this feel-good romantic comedy about two entrepreneurial Korean American teens who butt heads–and maybe fall in love–while running competing Korean beauty businesses at their high school.

There’s nothing Valerie Kwon loves more than making a good sale. Together with her cousin Charlie, they run V&C K-BEAUTY, their school’s most successful student-run enterprise. With each sale, Valerie gets closer to taking her beloved and adventurous halmeoni to her dream city, Paris.

Enter the new kid in class, Wes Jung, who is determined to pursue music after graduation despite his parents’ major disapproval. When his classmates clamor to buy the K-pop branded beauty products his mom gave him to “make new friends,” he sees an opportunity–one that may be the key to help him pay for the music school tuition he knows his parents won’t cover… What he doesn’t realize, though, is that he is now V&C K-BEAUTY’s biggest competitor.Stakes are high as Valerie and Wes try to outsell each other, make the most money, and take the throne for the best business in school–all while trying to resist the undeniable spark that’s crackling between them. From hiring spies to all-or-nothing bets, the competition is much more than either of them bargained for. But one thing is clear: only one Korean business can come out on top.


The Peach Rebellion

by Wendelin Van Draanen 

From the author of The Running Dream comes a heart-swelling historical tale of friendship, family, and the power of sisterhood to help heal the wounds of the past and step boldly into the future.

Ginny Rose and Peggy were best friends at seven, picking peaches on hot summer days. Peggy’s family owned the farm, and Ginny Rose’s were pickers, escaping the Oklahoma dust storms. That didn’t matter to them then, but now, ten years, hard miles, and a world war later, Ginny Rose’s family is back in town and their differences feel somehow starker. Especially since Peggy’s new best friend, Lisette, is a wealthy banker’s daughter. Still, there’s no denying what all three girls have in common: Families with great fissures that are about to break wide open. And a determination to not just accept things as they are anymore. This summer they will each make a stand. It’s a season of secrets revealed. Of daring plans to heal old wounds. Of hearts won and hearts broken. A summer when everything changes because you’re seventeen, and it’s time to be bold. And because it’s easier to be brave with a true friend by your side.


Land of the Cranes

by Aida Salazar

From the prolific author of The Moon Within comes the heart-wrenchingly beautiful story in verse of a young Latinx girl who learns to hold on to hope and love even in the darkest of places: a family detention center for migrants and refugees.

Nine-year-old Betita knows she is a crane. Papi has told her the story, even before her family fled to Los Angeles to seek refuge from cartel wars in Mexico. The Aztecs came from a place called Aztlan, what is now the Southwest US, called the land of the cranes. They left Aztlan to establish their great city in the center of the universe-Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. It was prophesized that their people would one day return to live among the cranes in their promised land. Papi tells Betita that they are cranes that have come home.

Then one day, Betita’s beloved father is arrested by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico. Betita and her pregnant mother are left behind on their own, but soon they too are detained and must learn to survive in a family detention camp outside of Los Angeles. Even in cruel and inhumane conditions, Betita finds heart in her own poetry and in the community she and her mother find in the camp. The voices of her fellow asylum seekers fly above the hatred keeping them caged, but each day threatens to tear them down lower than they ever thought they could be. Will Betita and her family ever be whole again?



Hope you enjoy these and the many other middle grade books releasing in May! Happy reading . . .

Pushing the Kindness Agenda

Since the now-infamous awards show last week that, unfortunately, probably far too many young people saw, I’ve been thinking a lot about kindness. I saw very little of that broadcast, admittedly—the abundance of “gibes” and “roasts” and physical gags (long before the most talked-about moment) had me turning away early on. It made me wonder if that show/“joke”-fest might be one representation of a lack of general goodwill between people these days stemming from societal stress. Society seems a bit besieged right now with supercharged tensions (the years-long weight of the pandemic, increased political polarity, harmful social media, images of war, economic concerns…) that sometimes eclipse kindness in words and deeds.

Despite parents’ and teachers’ best efforts, kids may struggle to find kindness in the midst of those confusing stressors, especially if they don’t understand them. Counterbalancing our increased societal tension with some extra promotion of kindness seems more and more crucial.

Luckily, there’s at least one way to push a kindness agenda that’s easy for us as writers, teachers, parents, and librarians: Offer good books that show what kindness can do. Many, many middle grade books offer a dose of kindness, as we all know that books for this age range have great potential for character education; parents and teachers see the merits of sharing and teaching books to middle graders in which virtues like kindness are rewarded. And some middle grade reads promote kindness as the very root of the plot, theme, or main character’s arc.

These middle grade choices count under the kindness column, including some newer titles on the scene as well as older favorites worthy of a fresh read with compassion in mind. Eager to hear your personal picks for kindness in the comments.

Like Auggie said, choose kind.

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park – Fourteen-year-old Hanna is not surprised by the mostly unwelcoming attitudes of townspeople in the new railroad town of LaForge, Dakota Territory in 1880, where she and father settle to open a dress goods shop; she is half-Chinese, and others have made their prejudiced views clear all her life. In the midst of unfriendliness and harassment, Hanna must find the courage to draw on the kindness of one genuine friend to save her father’s shop and their future in LaForge.

Efrén Divided by Ernesto Cisneros – Seventh grader Efrén embodies kindness towards his family and friends, even when his mother’s deportation requires him to take on the care and supervision duties for his kindergarten-aged twin siblings, making his own homework difficult to complete and his free time disappear. A rocky friendship that heals through empathy and Efrén’s goals to extend his kindness beyond his family’s needs solidify the goodwill theme.

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk – Annabelle, going on 12, learns perseverance and resiliency in her attempts to show kindness to a misunderstood local WWI veteran who becomes the victim of a malicious harasser. Look for the sequel to Wolf Hollow, My Own Lightning, due out next month.

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh – In this graphic novel, main character Snap befriends a local older woman whom many in town consider a witch. Snap learns some unexpected things about her own family—as well as a little magic—through this kindness.

Kiki and Jacques by Susan Ross – Twelve-year-old Jacques makes an unexpected friend through kindness: Kiki, a Somalian refugee new to his small Maine town. On a larger scale, the book invites a look at how towns can change for the better through acceptance and generosity toward others in need.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein – A group of middle schoolers try to beat Mr. Lemoncello’s “escape room”-like game with kindness in mind; those who are unkind or play unfairly break the rules and face ejection from the competition.

One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt – Eighth grader Carley Conners feels bitter, betrayed, and fearful after an episode of abuse involving her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. Now in foster care, Carley is initially mistrustful of the kindness shown to her by foster parent Mrs. Murphy, a mom of three boys. Soon, Carley learns that the kindness you accept can be practiced toward others.

A Long Way from Home by Alice Walsh – Reflecting the true story of kindness extended by the town of Gander, Newfoundland to thousands of diverted plane passengers on 9/11, this novel’s main character is a young Muslim refugee on her way to America. A boy, Colin, initially sees only differences between Rabia and himself, but the charity of Gander’s citizens soon leads to a change in perceptions.

Wonder by RJ Palacio – To borrow the author’s phrase, this “meditation on kindness” has certainly impacted millions of readers. Readers new to Wonder will explore the struggle behind individuals’ difficulty in accepting a boy just because his appearance is different from theirs.