Category Archives: People

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

“Streetcar to Justice” Was Inspired by Friendship with the Delany Sisters

When you’ve had friends like the late Sadie and Bessie Delany, with whom I created the 1993 oral history Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, you find that you see life in a different way. The daughters of a man born into slavery and a mother who was mixed race and born free, the sisters were 100 and 102 years old and absolutely still full of life when I met them. They had never married, and had lived together their entire lives.

Their memories were astonishing. They were funny, candid, and insightful. They were independent, dignified, and forthright. And, apparently they had not changed one bit in more than a century.

At the time we met I was already an established journalist but from their point of view I was, at age 33, a mere child in need of their protection and advice. Their expectations for my future were high. Having Our Say, they made it clear, would be my first book. I was to go on and write more books, and each one would have to be worthy of my time and God-given talent.

In fact, the Delany Sisters not only had specific ideas for my future, they said they’d be watching and cheering me on from the Spirit World after they were gone. (Bessie went one step further: She said she was going to be my guardian angel. “Anyone who messes with you is going to be sorry,” she’d say.) To the Delany Sisters, love and expectations and high hopes were all intertwined.

Having Our Say started as a feature story I wrote about the then-unknown pair of sisters for The New York Times. The next thing I knew, I was contacted by a book publisher. Did I want to expand my story into a full-length book?

The Delany Sisters, born in 1889 and 1891, were from a generation of black women whose contributions and perspectives were almost completely ignored. It didn’t take long for us to agree that the book should be done for the sake of history. As Sadie noted, “Maybe it will help somebody. Mama used to say, if it helps one person, it’s worth doing.”

The sisters’ upbringing was very unusual: Along with their eight brothers and sisters, they were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, N.C. where their father was vice-principal and their mother, a teacher and administrator. Booker T. Washington and Dr. W.E.B. DuBois were among the friends of the Delany family. As young adults, the sisters went on to become ground-breaking career women, both having earned advanced degrees at Columbia University in New York City. Living in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, the sisters experienced what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. From the Delany sisters I learned black history in depth and firsthand.

Having Our Say, to my surprise, was a runaway bestseller. Later, it was adapted to the Broadway stage and for an award-winning film. Twenty-five years after its publication, the book is still used in American classrooms.

The sisters have been gone for years now. Bessie, the “little” sister, died at age 104 in 1995. Sadie died in 1999, a few months short of her 110th birthday.

I think about them every day, and whenever I have a problem I ask myself, What would the sisters say? And the answer pops right into my head. I’m following in their footsteps as I make my way through life. One thing I am sure of: My new book, Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York is exactly the type of book project they wanted me to do. I have felt their presence every step of the way.

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Filed under Civil rights history, Delany Sisters, Greenwillow Books HarperCollins, Nonfiction books, People, Remembrances, Streetcar to Justice, The Writing Life

On Memorial Day, a World War Two Dad’s Legacy: Never Take a Day for Granted

My dad always had a strange reaction to Memorial Day Weekend, or so it seemed to me as a little girl. Yes, it was the beginning of summer and we celebrated (if that is the right word) with hamburgers on the grill and root beer floats.

But I realized from an early age that the so-called “holiday” was a time when my dad, a World War Two Army veteran and normally a very upbeat person, was also quietly grieving.

He didn’t say much. I believe he wanted to protect us, his children, from the horrors of the world. When he did talk about the war, it was nearly always about the goofy things that had happened, the hijinks and practical jokes because, after all, he and his Army buddies were so young they were little more than boys. My dad didn’t even shave yet.

Over the years, he began to talk about how lucky he’d been, how he could have been in much worse places, how his near-misses had been exactly that – near-misses.

He would talk (if I asked him) about the friends from high school, his Boy Scout troop, church, even his high school swim team who “didn’t make it home.”

Then, of course, there were his fellow soldiers. The one from Mississippi, for example, who, like Dad, was an only child. How this particular guy had died not from war wounds but from malaria. How Dad wrote to that soldier’s mother every Christmas until she died, decades after the war ended.

Very late in his life, Dad shared a memory from basic training. “We were doing a training exercise where we had to crawl on our bellies with live ammunition being shot over our heads,” he told me. “There was this guy. Same age as me. He lifted his head just a little too high and he was killed instantly. That was the first time I saw things I wish I hadn’t. And I wasn’t even overseas yet.”

To the world, his generation was known as the greatest. To Dad, his was a damaged generation of people who happened to be born at the wrong time. The survivors would be haunted by the questions of what might have been.

Men like my dad lived their entire lives with the scars of their war experiences. When he was about 80 years old, Dad had a major operation. When he awoke, he thought he was on the back of an Army truck on the Burma Road. The war was long over, but it had shaped and largely defined my father’s life. It never left him.

But Dad lived his long life- he died last fall at 92 – with an ever-present sense of gratitude. He never took a day for granted. He never lost his deep appreciation of the ultimate sacrifice made by so many others. I believe he endeavored to live a happy, worthy life in part because he felt he was living for those who didn’t get the chance.

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Filed under family life, People, Remembrances

My Word of the Year for 2017

A friend just posted that her personal word for the new year is “confidence.”

I’m not sure if she’s feeling confident or hoping that she will. Either way, that would not be my word for 2017.

Mine is “resolute.”

Resolute is a great word. It means purposeful, determined, and unwavering.

The image that comes to mind when I think of “resolute” is the way my dad used to describe being a young soldier in World War Two. All you really want to do is go home but in the meantime, you have to make a conscious effort to be strong. Determined. Unwavering. Resolute.

My dad died last fall, and I had several other losses last year as well. I’m grieving for my father, and for all of the problems of the world, some of which seem quite hopeless at times.

I’m determined to keep moving forward, however. As Dad used to say, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”

May you find peace, love, and happiness in 2017. (Or, at the least, may you be resolute!)

Best wishes to you,


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Filed under People, Remembrances, The Writing Life

Five Questions for Audrey Vernick, Author of Books for Young Readers

I met author Audrey Vernick fourteen years ago when she was working on her first book, BARK AND TIM: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, written with her sister, Ellen Glassman Gidaro, and illustrated with the paintings of Mississippi folk artist Tim Brown. Since that book’s publication her career has exploded: There are now a baker’s dozen of Audrey Vernick books with more on the way. She will be among the faculty this July in Helen, Georgia at a week-long WOW Writing Retreat.

Q. You have two new books in the stores right now – THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET (Clarion Books, March 29), which is nonfiction, and a fiction picture book with the delightful title, I WON A WHAT? (Knopf, April 12). Would you tell us a little about these two very different books and how they came about?

A. I am a fan of baseball history, but not in a statistics way. I love the stories. THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET is my third nonfiction book about baseball. The second was titled BROTHERS AT BAT, a true story about a team comprised of the 12 Acerra Brothers of Long Branch, NJ. When I was working on that book, I was in touch with the director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame who mentioned something about an all-sister softball team. When I asked for more information on that, the file was nowhere to be found! But he suggested I check out the Bobbies, a Philadelphia women’s baseball team (named for the hairstyle all players shared).
Edith was the team’s star player. When she was only ten years old, she was playing shortstop on a professional team! She was a true phenom, grabbing all the headlines from her much older teammates (which was not her intention. That girl just loved to play). It’s possible I became a tiny bit obsessed with Edith when I saw a photograph of her. I remember when I showed it to you, you said she looked like a cross between Scout Finch and Mary Pickford. Thinking about Edith’s fierce determination consistently impresses me and fills me with awe. I could talk about her all day.
I WON A WHAT? is a story about a kid who has always wanted a pet. He talks his parents into letting him keep whatever he wins at the goldfish booth at a carnival. And then he wins a whale. I remember having the idea for this one–written as “Kid tries to win goldfish but wins whale–which may be the best synopsis I have ever written. (It’s not my strong suit.)
The challenge came on, say, page five. He won a whale. Now what?
I needed a little spark of inspiration to help me find the rest of the story. So I started reading about people’s experiences interacting with whales. Many people wrote, in describing whale-watching expeditions, of having the feeling that they were being watched carefully by the whales. Somehow, that little observation was a spark for me—it helped me understand the friendship, based primarily on watching and understanding and thinking, between the boy and his pet. And I got lucky with this book—the ending (which can be such a hard thin) just came out my fingers without me even thinking about it. And I think it’s my favorite ending of all the books I’ve written.

Q. What is it about writing for young readers that appeals to you?

A. I am sure it has to do with the connection I felt to the books I loved as a child. My love for those books—Ursula Nordstrom’s THE SECRET LANGUAGE, Louise Fitzhugh’s HARRIET THE SPY, France Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN and many others—was akin to the love you feel for a real best friend. I was a serious re-reader in those days. I have always been one to read purely for pleasure, never analytically, but I believe a brain begins to sort things out, to understand structure, when you reread books, particularly when you’re young (and your brain isn’t yet cluttered with lyrics to every Beatles song). Without having to give it thought, you start to understand, intuitively, how a story is told when you reread books. But I digress. I wanted to say that with THE SECRET GARDEN, I must have read the scene in which they first discover that garden hundreds of times, awed by the way words created magic.

Q. I’m aware from writing a picture book myself that there’s more to creating a book for young readers than many people might realize. It takes a special skill set. What are the easiest, as well as the most challenging parts of the process for you?

A. I can hold an entire picture book in my head, something I cannot do with novels (though I’ve met people who can). The easiest thing I think is that it is not impossible to go through the entire writing and revision process pretty quickly. I’ve had that happen maybe three or four times. It’s a great feeling. Of course, I also have some books started that I’ve been unable to finish. Because there is a precision to good picture books—nothing extraneous. No room for fat. Beginning, middle and end, just like with any book.
With my nonfiction picture books, I always talk to kids about the responsibility of taking a whole life–one in which something happened to the subject every day of her life, for many, many decades–and boil that down to a 32- or 40-page book with many big pictures. It can be daunting. You write nonfiction too, so you know the sense of responsibility that comes with writing about real subjects. It’s a formidable task.

Q. If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing for a living?

A. If my sister Beth hadn’t gone to law school, I think I might have—but I saw how miserable it made her and ruled it out. I did public relations for public schools and libraries as my last full-time job. I didn’t mind the writing but I really didn’t care for the part that felt like sales. There’s a good chance I’d be a teacher—there are many in the family, and on my school visits it’s kind of like being Teacher for a Day.

Q. I’ve never met an author who didn’t have pets. Can you tell us about your two dogs?

A. Rookie, our 15-year-old dog, is officially a miniature labradoodle but he’s not that miniature. He has lived more than a cat’s nine lives, having ingested so many things—especially socks—not intended for dogs. He has had surgery for sock removal, wears a brace on walks now for the CCL he tore last winter, and is notorious for finding my purses and eating whatever he finds contained therein. He’s a bit of a grumpy old man but oh, does he love the people he loves.
Hootie’s four and one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known. She was a rescue near death (parvovirus) when we adopted her as a puppy. She’s three-quarters poodle and one-quarter golden retriever. She’s very funny but lacks short-term memory which can lead to extended barking riffs when people she doesn’t know reenter the room they were just in. She’s my daily walking buddy. When Rookie comes along, it’s more like grazing. They both love to eat grass.
Thanks for inviting me to visit, Amy! It was fun!

To learn more about Audrey, visit her website at
She’s also on Facebook at
and Twitter @yourbuffalo

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Five Questions for Author Jen A. Miller

From time to time I like to feature a writer on my blog and social media pages to help him or her get the word out about an intriguing new book. I call this “Shared Space.” Today on Shared Space I am focusing on Jen A. Miller, the author of a brand-new memoir, Running: A Love Story, published by Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Miller, 35, lives in a small New Jersey town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Q. You’ve said that you didn’t plan on being a writer, and you didn’t anticipate becoming a running enthusiast, either. What did you expect you would be doing at this point in your life?

A. I don’t want to sound too depressing, but I figured I’d try the writing thing for a few years and when that didn’t work out, that I’d get a boring office job. I never thought I’d have stuck it out with freelancing for more than 11 years, or write a book like this (or: convince someone to pay me to write a book like this). It’s a pleasant surprise.

As for physical activity, that was a bit fuzzier. I maybe saw myself having something to do with walking or hiking with dogs. Which hey I do right now anyway!

Q.Clearly, your book is intended for a wide audience, not “just” running enthusiasts. Who do you envision as a typical reader of this book, and why?

A.Anyone who has been somewhere dark and come out on the other side. It’s a lot about perseverance, and also the changing roles of women and how, because I found a lot of strength in myself, I was able to make the right decisions, even if I was course correcting for wrong turns.

The book is being marketed female – which makes sense since more women read than men and more women finish road races in the U.S. than men – but it’s gender neutral, I think. While I was writing it, a male friend who was just coming out of a divorce read it. He had the same reaction that a lot of women had. I’ve had non-runners read it too and told me it was just a good story. That was really the goal: to tell my story in a way a lot of people would understand and maybe see a bit of themselves too.

Q. Writing a memoir is notoriously challenging because it’s so personal and revealing. How have your parents, siblings, and former boyfriends reacted to the book?

A. I spoke to family members individually about what was coming. In some cases, I didn’t want them to be surprised. In others, I wanted to clarify details since memory can be fuzzy. My parents – that was the hardest part. My mom read through it in four hours. I told her she would decide if my father should read it (and she said yes!). I should point out that my parents are divorced. I’m lucky they’re still friends.

No word yet on the former boyfriends (though a few were interviewed at length during the writing process). My current boyfriend read it when it was still a Word document – though we weren’t dating then. So he knew what he was getting into!

Q. In the book, you seem especially close to your mother. Why does she inspire you?

A.She’s an incredible person. I don’t know any other way to describe it. It’s not really a spoiler alert to say that by the end of the book, my mom is running too. She picked it up at age 58. She wasn’t allowed to run in high school because she was a girl, and now she’s run 15 5ks, a 10 miler, done two triathlons and will be running her first half marathon in May. That’s the kind of determination this woman has. Almost everyone has cried at the same moment in the book, and it involves her. I cried writing it too.

Q.In addition to your mother, there’s another character in the book that has seen you through thick and thin – your dog, Emily. Does Emily run with you, or does she show her support in other ways?

A. Oh Emily! My little 14-year-old Jack Russell Terrier with a patch of fur the shape of a heart on her side. Emily used to run with me before we found out she has a heart murmur, so that was the end of that. Now she enjoys lying outside in the sunshine and long walks in the park near my house. Every night around 5 p.m. she forces me to stop work, walk her, then sit down so she can sit on my lap – and for that I am grateful. Emily’s first owner beat the heck out of her, and my goal has been to give her the life she deserves. Ten years and counting, and I think I’ve done just that.
To learn more about Jen, check out
or You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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A Family Story of Hope and Perseverance

I have a story about my grandma (my dad’s mother) that I would like to share with you. It is a story of hope, perseverance, and love. Grandma told me this story one day over breakfast thirty years ago. I knew that she had been a miracle baby – she weighed less than 3 pounds when she was born in 1896 – but she had never provided any details. Over toast and jam, she told me the rest of the story: Her mother fell down the cellar stairs on Christmas morning and went into labor prematurely. The baby (Grandma) wasn’t due until March or April but she was born January 7. There had been a terrible snowstorm (this was in Wisconsin) and the doctor was unable to come for days. When he arrived, he told my great-grandma that she “shouldn’t get attached to the baby.” He said Grandma was the smallest baby he’d ever seen and “too small to live.” Well, he was wrong. Grandma not only survived but she lived a long and happy life. When she told me this story she was already close to 90. She passed away in 1997 at age 101.

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Filed under family life, People, Remembrances