Category Archives: The Writing Life

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

Why Middle-grade?

My tenth book, STREETCAR TO JUSTICE: HOW ELIZABETH JENNINGS WON THE RIGHT TO RIDE IN NEW YORK, will be my first for middle-grade readers. Other than one picture book back in 2003, all of my books have been for adults (although, interestingly, they are appropriate for YA – young adults – and have won awards in that category.)

Why middle-grade for STREETCAR TO JUSTICE? Because it’s the right audience.

And, yes, I had to adapt my writing style, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

For years, librarians, teachers, and parents have asked me to write a nonfiction book on a topic that would appeal to middle-grade readers. This is the age group, variously described as somewhere between 8 and 13, that is between two worlds. They have outgrown picture books but may not be ready for some of the content found in young adult books.

The story of Elizabeth Jennings seems perfect for them. I’d been researching this forgotten story and the immense historical context of the era, New York in the 1850s, as a hobby of sorts for many years. (Yes, this is a journalist’s idea of a hobby!) Elizabeth Jennings is an inspiring character whose story was similar to Rosa Parks, although it happened a century earlier and in the North.

It was over lunch with an author-friend who writes middle-grade books that the idea of turning boxes of research on Elizabeth Jennings into a book took root, however. When I mentioned my ongoing research, my friend set down her fork. “You need to wrap that up and get it published!” she said. “People need to know that story. And it’s perfect for middle-grade!!”

I went home and got to work. It took several months to write the proposal but my agent was able to sell it quickly. This was followed by a year of writing, locating historical images to go with my text, coming up with a title – and so on.

In January, the book will be published. I’ll always be grateful to the librarians, teachers, parents – and especially my author-friend – for giving me a nudge!

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Filed under Career advice, The Writing Life

How to Stay Focused During Times of Great Change

The news has been breaking at an astonishing pace since Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidential election. Whether or not you agree with Mr. Trump and the Republican Congress, it’s a time of turbulence. If you’re an artist of any sort, it can be distracting.

At the same time, it’s vital that we all pay attention. As an American citizen, I know that’s part of my responsibility.

What helps me to maintain my focus is deliberately tuning out the noise, because that’s what a lot of it is. There’s a whole lot of shoutin’ going on, and although I want to stay informed, much of what passes for public discourse is pointless and hurtful.

I avoid public places, such as certain restaurants, that have a television turned on all the time. Who needs that? Doctors’ waiting rooms can be a problem, though I’ve learned that if you ask, the staff will often let you turn it off or change the channel, especially if you consult with others in the waiting room first.

It helps to remember that some of the commentators on radio and television are not journalists but agitators. They are there for one purpose: to make money. By stirring us up they are using us.

Social media is another place where over-the-top, disturbing language has increased tenfold. I’m interested in different viewpoints. I will stop reading posts that aren’t civil, however. Anger and strong feelings are okay but if you bully people, I’m not interested, and if I get too upset, it ruins my muse!

Newspapers are still the best place to find good, solid information. Plus, you can absorb that information at your own pace.

But one last suggestion from personal experience: Don’t read the newspaper before going to bed! The speed of change is unsettling right now, regardless of your political views. You’ll end up tossing and turning instead of getting your much-needed REM sleep, and your writing process the following day will be disrupted.

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Filed under Career advice, The Writing Life

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,

Amy

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Filed under People, Remembrances, The Writing Life

How to Show Support for Your Favorite Authors

I don’t have a new book coming out on the Spring or Summer schedule but I know many, many authors who do. A word on their behalf: There are ways you can help.
1) Pre-order the book. Publishers factor in the number of pre-orders when deciding on the print-run and preparing a book tour budget. The more pre-orders, the better.
2) Don’t buy a book second-hand. You may save yourself a buck or two, but remember that the author receives no royalties.
3) Buy the book in paper. Depending on a lot of factors which are too complex to mention here, many authors currently receive less money for an electronic book than a paper book.
4) Post a review (an honest, fair-minded review) on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, Goodreads, and other online sites.
5) If you love the book, buy a second copy for a friend rather than loaning it.
6) “Like” the author’s Facebook professional page and subscribe to her newsletter if she has one.
Some of these tips may be obvious; others, not. I’m writing this because I know authors who are really struggling. Some of them are young writers who are just getting started! It’s important for our culture that they stay in the game.

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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. http://www.wowretreat.net/

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 http://www.audreyvernick.com/
She’s also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AudreyVernick
and Twitter @yourbuffalo

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Filed under Career advice, People, The Writing Life