Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Q&A with Beth Anderson

Beth Anderson is the author of the new children's picture book Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights. She also has written the picture book An Inconvenient Alphabet. She lives in Loveland, Colorado.

Q: How did you learn about Elizabeth Jennings' story, and at what point did you decide to write a picture book about her?

A: I saw a list of “unknown women” in history and, after reading just a little about her, I was really struck by her grit, and also by the giant hole in my historical knowledge.

We read about slavery, emancipation, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. But life in pre-Civil War free states? I wanted to know more. How did she become this woman?

Though my curiosity was piqued, I needed to know she mattered today. Once I found that element, I dove into writing her story. Not only did the event and court case matter, but finding that kids in 1991 and 2007 worked to have her honored with a street named after her in NYC showed me that she was inspiring kids to take action!

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I generally follow source to source, scouring bibliographies and footnotes, and also delve into relevant topics. When I started this manuscript, I hadn’t done a lot of this kind of research.

The story presented many research lessons over several years. I learned to stretch the net wider and dig into specific issues, seeking to understand how history shaped her and inspired her actions.

The broad scope also helps understand consequences and what’s really involved in her decision making—such as possible repercussions of losing a court case, that the black community was divided on how to address issues of discrimination, and how an expanding city increased the importance of transportation.

It’s easy to think of her story as one of discrimination resulting in emotional pain and injustice. But when you dig into the racism as a social structure, it deepens understanding of our society today.

I tried for a very long time, through multiple channels and offices, to find the court records. The end conclusion was that they were lost in a warehouse fire.

So…what do you do when it’s clear you need the courtroom scene? I was fortunate to find an expert on the courts of the time who could answer my questions.

After learning about the many forms of discrimination, I was assuming that the jury would have been all white men, and I wondered if Lizzie, as an African American, could testify.

But…I learned that black men could vote, so therefore could serve on a jury, though the reality of the times makes that highly unlikely. Lizzie could testify as a black woman, but as someone who had a financial stake in the case, she couldn’t.

Her community would have packed the courtroom as the court proceedings were seen as a sort of entertainment of the time. In the absence of records, stretching the net wide had provided enough information to create a scene and made me wary of assumptions.

One person’s story requires much more research than what you find about that one person. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” I really got that with this story.

Q: What do you hope kids take away from the book?

A: I really hope that kids and adults from all backgrounds will see that everyone has a role to play in eliminating prejudice and building social justice. We need to question traditions and not blindly follow.

I want readers to notice all the people that sat in silence in the streetcar and members of the crowd who stood and watched. I want readers to understand that, though we need courageous heroes to inspire us, they also need us. No one accomplishes social change on their own.

Letting kids believe the “hero narrative,” that someone greater than the rest of us will come along and save the day, is not helpful. Lizzie couldn’t wait. We can’t wait. We need to step forward – whether it be in a bold way such as Lizzie, or a quiet way as the witness, or by choosing a profession that allows us to work for change.

I hope kids will find inspiration in the story to speak up when they see injustice.

Q: What do you think E.B. Lewis's illustrations add to the book?

A: What an honor to have a book illustrated by E.B. Lewis! His gorgeous watercolors add power and dignity to Lizzie’s story and heighten the emotional impact.

The page with the jurors hit me the hardest—the close up, the colors. And the second spread, there’s so much depth in Lizzie’s eyes. I’m grateful that his reputation as a phenomenal illustrator will help Lizzie’s story reach more people.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: In between Lizzie events, I’m working on revisions for editors of two fun, historic stories that haven’t been announced yet…will have to keep you in suspense on those. I’m also starting research on a new manuscript.

October 13, “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses releases – a really fun bit of history with energetic illustrations by Jenn Harney, and actually another hero story of sorts that involves transportation in NYC! I’m waiting for illustrations on two books, and then work begins with that process.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog. I greatly appreciate all the support from the kid lit community, friends, and family! Every book is a new adventure!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Beth Anderson.

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