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How High the Moon

Book review by
Barbara Saunders, Common Sense Media
How High the Moon Book Poster Image
Girl seeks family secrets in hopeful Jim Crow-era tale.

Parents say

age 18+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Teaches readers about Jim Crow customs and practices in southern U.S. -- e.g., segregated drinking fountains and railroad cars -- and explicitly contrasts them with different social rules in the northern U.S. during same era. Story's events include lynching and unfair trials as well as day-to-day mistreatment. Also teaches about women who worked building ships for WWII.

Positive Messages

Friends and family, including chosen family, can make life happy through worst of times. Accept who you are. Accept other people for themselves. Accept reality of circumstances, even the bad ones, and have hope for the future. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

In addition to providing positive images of working-class black people during 1940s and 1950s, How High the Moon shows us that there were kind white people, even under cruel Jim Crow system. Main character's mother, Lucy, and her roommate, Helen, a lesbian couple, are depicted as having a caring, supportive relationship.

Violence & Scariness

In one scene, children discover bodies of a black woman, man, and child, hanging from trees after being lynched. Numerous descriptions of bullying: Henry, a main character, is bullied by another boy, and that boy is seen being slapped by his own older brother. Gang of white boys attacks Ella, pushes her face in mud; one holds her on ground with his a foot on her back. Two girls are murdered; a boy is arrested. White kids mock, "That boy gonna fry. That's if we don't string him up first." White mill workers threaten father of boy accused of murder: "Boy, you'll just be giving us cause to bring more rope." A boy is executed.  

Language

No swearing, but there's mean and abusive talk from bullying children. One kid calls another "fathead." "Zebra" is used as a slur about a biracial child. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that How High the Moon is a hopeful historical novel set in South Carolina and Boston during the mid-1940s. The three main characters, middle school kids Ella, Myrna, and Henry, are exposed to daily loss of dignity living under Jim Crow laws, as well as serious injustice: A 14-year-old boy is executed for murder after a forced confession and improper trial. There's a scene where children discover the bodies of a man, woman, and child hanging from trees after being lynched. There are several scenes of bullying, both physical assault and mean language. One boy bullies another in school and that boy is slapped by his brother within eyeshot of other people, who do not intervene. Some white boys catch Ella in the woods and knock her to the ground. Ella's mother is in a lesbian relationship, revealed when the girl finds the two women cuddling together in bed as they sleep. There's a scene where Ella's mother and her companion drink whiskey, and another where Ella finds glasses with whiskey in them.

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What's the story?

It's 1943, and 12-year-old Ella and her friends Myrna and Henry are living in the Jim Crow South. Ella, the main character of HOW HIGH THE MOON, lives with her grandmother, who's taken in Myrna from her unwed mother. Ella doesn't know who her father is -- though everyone suspects he's white. Her mother, Lucy, lives in Boston, where she works in a shipbuilding factory and pursues her dream of a singing career. Ella is ecstatic to get a letter from her mother inviting her to come stay with her. But once there, she finds Helen, the roommate who cuddles up in Mama's bed when Ella wants to be there. And between work at the shipyard and performing at nightclubs, Mama is hardly ever home. She doesn't get around to enrolling Ella in school, so the girl spends long, boring days by herself in the small apartment until Lucy takes off for New York and sends Ella back to South Carolina. And no one, including her mother, will tell Ella anything more about her father than that he went to California. The same day she gets back to South Carolina, one of Ella's friends, George Stinney, is arrested and charged with murder.

Is it any good?

This heartfelt tale about childhood in the Jim Crow South brings us a girl who finds a sense of family despite an absent mother, a mystery father, and a cruel society. How High the Moon, the debut novel from Karyn Parsons, grew out of a conversation the author had with her mother. Parsons wondered how her mother could claim she had a happy childhood when she grew up in the South under Jim Crow. The subplot about the boy who's wrongfully executed comes from a real legal case. The strength of the novel is the character of Ella: Her close relationship with her grandmother, longing to be with her mother, and desperation to know who her father is all ring true.

There are two main weaknesses. First, the author chose to have each of the three children narrate chapters. However, this isn't quite balanced, since Ella's clearly the main character and the other narrators and their perspectives are not as well developed. This technique seems like a clumsy way of providing backstory. Second, a few of the Jim Crow stories seem like rehashed scenes from To Kill A Mockingbird

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the way How High the Moon explores racial identity. Some of the kids at school call Ella a "zebra." When Ella's grandmother confirms her suspicion that her father was white, Ella asks "what she is." Why do you think some people are uncomfortable when members of a family have mixed racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds?

  • Throughout the story, many community members step up to act as family. What are a few examples of that? What difference does that make in the characters' lives?  

  • The author uses an unusual structure for the book: Three different characters tell different parts of the story. Did you like hearing from Ella, Myrna, and Henry? Did that make the story more interesting? Was it ever confusing?

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