Category Archives: Streetcar to Justice

Librarians Choose ‘Streetcar to Justice’ as Notable Book

Good news! Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York, made the ALSC Notable Books list! (ALSC is the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.)

This means a lot to me. I worked so hard on this book, perhaps harder than on any other book I’ve done. The research was extraordinarily challenging. The events took place in 1854-55, which may as well be a thousand years ago, and I was determined to use original resources.

This meant countless hours at historical societies, universities, and, of course, libraries. Without the New York Public Library’s main branch, and the Schomburg branch in Harlem, this book could not have been written. The archives there are priceless.

Being selected for the Notable Children’s Book 2019 list is special to me for an additional reason. When I was growing up I wanted to become a librarian. I remember the first time I said it and how my mother smiled with pride. Well, I never became a librarian but I’m one of those persons who writes the books that fill the shelves of libraries, so that’s close enough.

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Each Book is a Leap of Faith

People usually see a book only as a finished product, and while they can easily imagine the satisfaction and pride an author must feel when seeing her book on the shelves of a bookstore they have no idea what has gone into the creation of it.

Some books are easier to write than others. I have published ten, all with major publishing houses. This means I came up with an idea, my literary agent gave it a green light, and then a publisher chose to take it on. Just getting a book deal is a huge accomplishment. Once the proposal is sold to a publishing house, however, then the real work begins.

My most recent book was a challenge in many ways. Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York (HarperCollins/Greenwillow 2018) is the first biography of a woman who is sometimes called the Rosa Parks of New York. My goal was to write her back into history.

I had been reseraching her story and the era for many years as a hobby of sorts when a writer-friend gave me a nudge (a very big nudge; more like a shove) and said I had a responsibility to pull it together and turn it into a book. She was right. But what a responsibility!

I wrote it for middle-grade students because that’s the age when most American children first learn about Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights heroes. Writing about someone who was famous and then forgotten one hundred years prior to Rosa Parks’s arrest, however, required that I provide a tremendous amount of context. Because so little is known about the era by most Americans, many adults are buying the book, too.

Looking at the stacks of boxes of research in my home office, I felt overwhelmed. Why on earth was I taking this on? It was one thing to do the research (a journalist’s idea of fun) and another thing to write a book. Even after I had written the basic narrative, I needed to add sidebars and timelines. I spent countless hours looking for the right illustration, photograph, or painting to go with each part of the story, and then acquiring the rights to use each one.

Again, I felt a strong sense of responsibility. I had grown attached to my subject. Elizabeth Jennings was a woman of great courage. Unknown to most people today, segregation was rampant in the North, includiing Manhattan. Miss Jennings, a black schoolteacher and church organist, was assaulted and removed forcibly from a streetcar in Manhattan meant for whites. She had hoped the streetcar conductor would let her ride, rather than making her wait for a car bearing the sign for “Colored People.” She didn’t want to be late to church. Her actions that day led to the first significant step in the fight to desegregate New York City’s public transportation.

And yet no one had written a biography of her. This year marked 164 years since she was assaulted and 163 years since her unlikely victory in court.

But again the word that defined my decision to be the person who wrote it was “responsibility.” Yes, it was a joy. Yes, I am proud. The critics gave it two thumbs up. The book received a coveted “starred” review from both Publisher’s Weekly, which called it “a book that belongs in any civil rights collection” and Kirkus, where the reviewer wrote that the book is “completely fascinating and unique.” And, of course, I’m thrilled.

I’m also relieved. The satisfaction of having created the book is a lot more complex than simply seeing it displayed on the shelves of bookstores. I know what went into it. I know the hard work, the late nights, the cups of coffee consumed, the dinners I missed with family. I gave this book everything I had, including a chunk of my life and a piece of my soul. The writing of Streetcar to Justice was, put simply, a leap of faith. That’s the part you don’t see when you hold the book in your hand. #GreenwillowBook #HarperChildrens #RosaParks #middlegrade

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

How to Cultivate a Love of History in Your Child: 7 Tips

Many parents complain that their child finds history boring, and yet the development of a love of history will make his or her life far richer. A person who finds history fascinating will have an enhanced view of the world and will be a better citizen. He or she will understand that to be fully alive in the present, it is imperative to know what life was like in the past.

Exploring historical topics can be an exhilarating experience. This has happened to me in my career many times but one of the most memorable moments occurred in lower Manhattan when I successfully retraced the steps of a black schoolteacher named Elizabeth Jennings, who was the Rosa Parks of old New York. Most of the buildings were gone, several streets were re-named, and indeed the shape of Manhattan island itself was different than it had been that fateful day in 1854 when Miss Jennings refused to leave a segregated streetcar and was physically assaulted. She went to court, and the result was the first significant step in the fight to desegregate New York City’s public transportation. As I was re-tracing her steps I came across a small patch of old cobblestones with streetcar tracks still visible. From my reaction, passersby might have thought I had struck gold.

But, indeed, that is the point. It was gold! It was a tiny piece of the past that ignited my determination to tell the Elizabeth Jennings story to the world. She deserved a book, so I wrote one.

Where does this determination and joy come from? Parents, teachers, and librarians ask me if I was born with a love of history or if I acquired it. The good news is that it is learned behavior! Here are some suggestions that I can share with you:

1. START EARLY. My parents took my siblings and me to historical sites and museums from a very young age. A particular favorite that I remember was Fort Ticonderoga on the upper reaches of Lake George, N.Y. Another memorable place – which wasn’t even a developed as a landmark yet – was Cowpens, a Revolutionary Battle site in South Carolina.

2. SHOW YOUR OWN ENTHUSIASM. My dad loved history and his enthusiasm was contagious. I remember other kids at museums or historic sites who seemed bored and I recall their parents acting bored, too. If you act like it is a chore, your child will follow your example.

3. STEP ASIDE. My dad had a way of (sometimes) overselling his own interests, but my mom would listen and watch carefully to see what caught each of our imaginations. Then she supported and built on that interest.

4. RESEARCH apps and games that tie in to places you’ll visit. In my day we didn’t have such things but we did have an encyclopedia, World Book, and Dad would read aloud before we went on an excursion. Today, there are more books than ever and for all ages that parents should investigate to help pique the child’s interest ahead of time. If you’re not sure, ask a librarian.

5. ARTIFACTS ARE IMPORTANT. The first historical object that captured my imagination was an artifact my great-great grandpa had brought back from the Civil War: two bullets that had hit head on during a battle, and melted together. That’s a pretty spectacular artifact but the reality is that most people have all kinds of objects that could lead to fascinating discussions with a child. Look around you. You may have old tools, horseshoes, paper artifacts such as passports. Even an old typewriter could spark a conversation.

6. ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO RESPECT ELDERS and to listen to their stories. I was lucky to have a number of relatives who lived into their nineties and even past 100. Our old folks were the center of our lives. If great-grandma wanted to eat lunch at noon, that meant we all ate lunch at noon. If you respect your old folks you will be interested in their stories. (Tip: If you don’t know how to start asking an elder about the past, start by looking at an old photo album together.)

7. EVERYONE HAS A STORY: That is an old saying worth teaching your child. Reach out to your community to hear other people’s stories. If a Holocaust survivor, for example, is speaking at your local library, by all means go, and bring your child. Search your neighborhood, visit a local nursing home, ask at your church, synagogue, or other place of worship, and you will find older people, many of them lonely, who have stories to share of the old days.

In sum, to love history is to enjoy a richer life, yet many Americans have lost sight of the past. How can we make decisions for the future if we don’t know what happened before our time? History is not “over” nor is it dead, as some would say. Rather, it is the foundation of all things here and now.

Amy Hill Hearth is the author, most recently, of STREETCAR TO JUSTICE: HOW ELIZABETH JENNINGS WON THE RIGHT TO RIDE IN NEW YORK, written for middle-grade to adult readers. She has written nine other books including HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS’ FIRST 100 YEARS. Find out more at http://www.amyhillhearth.com

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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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Where does prejudice come from?

Whenever I hear of someone acting with prejudice toward another person, and after I get over my shock and disgust, the lyrics of an old song come to mind. It’s not a song that many people know today because it dates to a play (and then a movie) called “South Pacific” that was a huge hit with the Greatest Generation. A copy of the record album was among my father’s possessions.

The song is, “You Have to be Carefully Taught.”

The point of the song is that prejudice isn’t something you’re born with. It’s learned behavior from early childhood.

“You have got to be taught before it’s too late…

To hate all the people your relatives hate.”

Sung by the character Lieutenant Joe Cable, the lyrics stunned audiences in 1949 when the play hit Broadway. Some theatergoers and critics felt the topic wasn’t “appropriate” for musical theater but the producers, Rodgers & Hammerstein, insisted on including it.

Some of us are lucky and were not raised to have anger in our hearts, or to habitually blame someone else for our problems. Some of us have parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles, who set us on the right path.

But plenty of others grew up under different circumstances. They have been “carefully taught” to hate.

It must be extremely difficult to overcome an upbringing in which one is essentially brainwashed into having such hostile viewpoints. It can be done, however, and clearly it takes a combination of willingness and exposure to a broader world.

This is where reading can make a difference. Recent studies show that reading increases a child’s empathy toward others. A child can explore entire worlds through the pages of a book. When a white child reads a book about Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, for example, he or she may be acquiring more than a history lesson. It may very well be that child’s first opportunity to see the world in a different light.

Amy Hill Hearth is the author, most recently, of “Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York.”

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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