Category Archives: Middle-grade books

Special New Podcast on Elizabeth Jennings this Fall

I spent the morning of July 16 visiting the precise locations where the dramatic Elizabeth Jennings story unfolded in Lower Manhattan. Why July 16? Because that is the anniversary of the date in 1854 when she was assaulted and removed from a segregated streetcar. While walking from place to place, and trying not to get run over, I was being interviewed by a Famous Person and his recording team for his new podcast. Famous Person was a swell guy and a good sport. In fact, he carried my purse so that I could juggle my map and a bottle of water. (We were all desperately drinking water. It was 90-plus degrees which meant that on the pavement it must have been closer to 100.) Despite the challenges, I believe the podcast will turn out well! I’m very grateful for the opportunity. Stay tuned! I’ll let you know when I can share more about it. I’m so thrilled that my book, Streetcar to Justice, continues to get great media attention. Elizabeth Jennings, the Rosa Parks of New York, was long overdue for a biography

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Filed under Civil rights history, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books, People, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

Middle-Grade Readers Captivated by the ‘Yuck’ Factor

If you think Manhattan is dirty now, consider what it was like in 1854. That was the year Elizabeth Jennings, the Rosa Parks of New York, had her fateful encounter on a segregated streetcar, as I wrote in my book Streetcar to Justice, the first biography of the all-but-forgotten civil rights hero.

Dirt roads that reverted to marshland every time it rained, no sanitary sewer system, tons of horse manure (and even the occasional dead horse), packs of stray dogs and wild hogs (hogs!) scavenging for food: This was Manhattan.

This is great material for a book geared to middle-grade readers. When I’ve read the book aloud to students, there is always a chorus of “ewwws!” and other reactions: “Yuck,” “gross,” and so on. (Well, at least I’ve captured their attention!)

When I researched the details of life in Manhattan during Elizabeth Jennings’s era I didn’t want to rely on descriptions by other writers. Instead, I located original documents. These included statistics about various horrible diseases (for example, cholera) compiled at the time and kept by the city.

This type of research makes a book come alive. That she was forcibly removed from a streetcar meant for whites, and literally ended up on her back in the filthy street, makes the indignity of what Elizabeth Jennings suffered that much worse.

At the same time, her fight for justice in the courts reveals a woman of courage and resilience – a true hero of her time who deserves her place in history. It is delightful to know that readers are finally learning her inspiring story, even if they are also enjoying the “yuck” factor!

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Filed under Civil rights history, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books, Streetcar to Justice

New Book on Elizabeth Jennings, “Streetcar to Justice,” Tells Her Full Story for the First Time

My tenth book, published last month, is a biography of an all-but-forgotten American woman named Elizabeth Jennings who was the Rosa Parks of Old New York.

Why a book on Miss Jennings? Because, frankly, she needed one. She was 164 years overdue.

I had stumbled across her story and started researching it as a hobby of sorts many years ago. This is the kind of mystery that journalists love. She was a footnote to history or, at best, a few sentences or a chapter in an academic book. She was almost completely unknown to the general public. I was intrigued.

In more recent years her name and story started floating around the Internet, told here and there, in pieces, with many errors, many of them casually repeated. I found this enormously frustrating. She deserved better.

But I always had something else – another book project or two – on my plate. Then one day a close writer-friend, the author Audrey Glassman Vernick, gave me the nudge I needed. Enough already with the research, she said, adding that it was time to pull together all of the research, write a book, and share what I had learned. She convinced me, also, that middle-grade readers must be able to read it. That’s the age when many American children are introduced to Rosa Parks and other civil rights icons. A book on Elizabeth Jennings would build on that knowledge and expand their understanding of American history.

The book I ended up writing is indeed geared to middle-grade readers but, as many critics have noted, it’s suitable for middle-grade to adult readers. Some critics say that Streetcar to Justice has more primary resources and explanatory research than any children’s book they’ve ever seen. Well, I couldn’t help myself. I wanted middle-grade and young adult readers to see how a book like this is created. I hoped teachers could use sidebars, timelines, and images. And, I realized the book would be read by adults who had never heard the story and were, quite simply, interested.

To be properly remembered, Elizabeth Jennings needed a book. With the publication of Streetcar to Justice, she has one.

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Filed under Civil rights history, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books, People, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

How an Old, Abandoned House Led Me to My New Book Topic

Every book has a “back story,” or the-story-behind-the-story of how the book came about.

My new book, Streetcar to Justice, has an especially good one. I learned of the topic thanks to an old, abandoned Victorian house.

From 1987 to 1996 my husband and I lived in Ossining, New York, a village on the Hudson River about an hour north of Manhattan. There was a house in our neighborhood that was covered with vines and partially boarded up. The house was perched high on a hill and must have had beautiful views of the Hudson River.

I suppose some people would walk right past a decrepit old house and dismiss it as an eyesore, if they paid much attention at all. I’m a nosy journalist, however, which means I pretty much notice everything. Not only that, but I’m fascinated by history.

Imagine my delight when I learned that the house was the summer home of a New York lawyer named Chester A. Arthur. If his name sounds familiar it’s because he was the twenty-first president of the United States.

I didn’t know much about Chester A. Arthur. I hadn’t even known he was a lawyer. Because I can never leave a good story alone, however, I did some additional research. That’s when I learned that he’d had a special interest in equal rights for blacks. Among his cases was one called Elizabeth Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company which went to court in 1855.

Digging deeper, I learned that Elizabeth Jennings was a black schoolteacher who had been thrown off a Manhattan streetcar because of the color of her skin. She sued, with Chester A. Arthur – just 24 years old – as her attorney, and she won. Her victory was the first major breakthrough in ending discriminatory practices in public transportation in New York City. It’s a riveting story but, sadly, it’s been mostly forgotten by time.

I found myself obsessed. Researching Elizabeth Jennings, Chester A. Arthur, and the 1850s in New York became my hobby of sorts for years. It evolved into a book project –my tenth – a year ago when I wrote a proposal and my literary agent sold it to Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. This is my first book for middle-grade (and up) readers, the perfect audience, I believe, for the topic.

And so, more than 160 years late, Elizabeth Jennings will finally get her due in the form of a book that includes archival photos, sidebars, timelines, and copies of stories from long-defunct newspapers. And to think that it started when a nosy reporter couldn’t resist finding out about an abandoned old house.

Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York will be published January 2. Be among the first to receive it by pre-ordering from your local bookstore or an online store such as Amazon.com
Chester A. Arthur summer residence, Havell St., Ossining, N.Y. (Photo courtesy Ossining, N.Y. Historical Society)

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Filed under Civil rights history, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Middle-grade books, Nonfiction books