Writing is mining.
It’s digging deep inside
for special memories, emotions, and meaning.
It’s burrowing into history for inspiring characters and moments
that change the course of events.
~ Beth Anderson
I am excited to bring you an extra special interview and look at a great nonfiction book this week. My friend and critique partner, Beth Anderson, is on a roll. Her second nonfiction picture book came out last month and her third releases this fall.
After earning a B.A. in linguistics and a M. Ed. in reading, Beth Anderson taught English as a second language for more than 20 years. Surrounded by young people from all over the world, with literature as her favorite tool, Beth was fascinated by the power of books to teach, connect, and inspire. In 2013, she began her journey writing for children. Combining her love of writing with the joys of discovery and learning, she found her niche with narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books.
When she’s not writing, Beth might be weaving, gardening, exploring nature, or playing with her grandkids. Born and raised in Illinois, she now lives near the mountains in Colorado. Beth believes in laughter, learning, and investing in young minds. And…that truth really is stranger than fiction.
Her first book, An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution, released in 2018. Her newest picture book, Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights released January 7, 2020.
Welcome back Beth,
Thanks so much for inviting me back, Maria!
[For some background information, see our earlier interview (here).]
ME: Besides being nonfiction biographies, do you see a common theme or thread in your picture books Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights and An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin & Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution? What if you include your upcoming picture book, “Smelly” Kelly And His Super Senses, The Mostly True Story Of An Ordinary Man And His Extraordinary Nose (fall 2020)?
BETH: Although most people call and shelve both An Inconvenient Alphabet and Lizzie Demands a Seat as biographies, technically they aren’t. An Inconvenient Alphabet is nonfiction, but not really a bio. Technically, Lizzie Demands a Seat isn’t either. I had to change the dialogue slightly to make it work and be comprehensible for kids. She wrote her account of the incident in “reported speech” but I needed to convert it to “direct speech.” I’d say it’s 98% nonfiction. And “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses is also close to NF (90%) but I had to imagine him as a child. Sometimes, for the sake of more dynamic or meaningful storytelling, I’ve decided to let the pure NF label go. For me, the story comes first.
Technicalities aside, I think there are some threads that run through most everything I write. With characters, it’s choices and inner strengths, and in the bigger picture, threads dealing with connections, playing out with consequences and relationships. In general, I love stories with an emotional pull, but that also take us into another time and place to open our minds and hearts.
Hmm, I'm afraid I'll have to agree with the others that these are nonfiction "slices of life" biographies. But we'll leave that to the librarians. Where did you first learn about Lizzie Jennings? What was your inspiration for writing Lizzie Demands a Seat?
I saw Elizabeth Jennings’ story in an article about unknown women in history. I was first struck by her strength and driven to dig into her story by my belief that we all have a role in eliminating prejudice, especially whites. New York City in 1854 was a time I really knew nothing about.
When we learn about civil rights, it’s usually 1950s and 60s. There’s a huge hole in our general knowledge of civil rights history. I wanted to understand more about life for a free black woman in a free state before the Civil War. I think if we look into history and try to understand the social construct of racism that we have a better chance of bringing that to today’s society and understanding how and why behaviors play out and the impact on lives. It’s a difficult topic, but necessary for us to talk about and recognize and find ways to act.
And hopefully with greater education and empathy, one day eliminate. I'm glad to say my friend is part of this change. Was Lizzie Demands a Seat easier, or harder, to write than An Inconvenient Alphabet? Why? What was the hardest part of your research and/or writing of Lizzie Demands a Seat?
The quick answer is that I had three times as many revisions on Lizzie! And a good bunch of rejections. So definitely more agony!
But…I had been working on Lizzie for almost a year before I’d even found the spark for Ben and Noah’s story. My writing and research skills were just starting to be tested, so revisions involved “baby steps” and my research process kept expanding as I learned.
Though the tones and topics of the two books are very different, they both struck passions of mine. Lizzie was much harder to write due to the difficult topic of racism. And because of that, I kept stretching the reach of the research to try to understand the setting and what brought Lizzie to that moment in time as well as the risks involved with her actions. Setting is huge in terms of understanding character—it’s backstory.
Alpha (as I affectionally call it) had its own challenges, but had within the idea its own uniqueness. Lizzie was a more common type of story so I had to find my special way to tell it. I knew what I wanted to say in my gut, but finding and voicing that thread on the page turned out to be my biggest challenge. I learned a lot about revision in the process and how to revise BIG, beyond sentence level, by experimenting with structure, narration, point of view, and more.
As a critique partner, I got see some of these revisions. I was impressed with your persistence and dedication to telling these stories in the best way possible. How hard was it to decide what went into the back matter and what went into the story?
Anyone who writes nonfiction knows that there’s a treasure trove of fascinating information down the rabbit hole of history. I found so much important information that enhanced and deepened Lizzie’s story—and you need all that to understand the emotional impact of the setting on the character and the character’s response to the setting, to choose the right words, and build in context . But, you can’t sort out back matter from story until you have your special thread, your vital idea, your ‘so what.’ Then, as you focus on keeping that tight thread and moving the story forward, you see what needs to go to back matter. Of course, that’s all easier said than done.
But sometimes it’s a matter of pulling what’s been relegated to back matter into the story to create more context for young readers. Or bringing an emotional nugget that I’ve expressed more clearly in back matter to play out more strongly in the story. Back and forth.
I tried to decide…What will deepen the meaning of the story, connect the reader, provide a window into understanding the past, and bring Lizzie’s inspiring actions into the present? Yes, my author’s note is long.
Great answer! I think I see a webinar or a conference presentation on this in your future. What's something you want your readers to know about Lizzie Demands a Seat?
I want them to know this is a story for ALL of us—not just African Americans. While it’s extremely important for African American children to have books that are mirrors, that let them see themselves in strong, resilient characters, I want all kids to understand that eliminating prejudice requires all of us, the entire society. This is OUR history, not one group’s history.
Given the reception it's receiving, I think many teachers, parents, and critics agree with you. Having worked with a couple of illustrators, what has been your best experience so far? Your biggest surprise?
The two experiences were so different because the books are so different. With An Inconvenient Alphabet, it was really fun to collaborate with the editor and Elizabeth Baddeley to get some of the difficult concepts, like silent letters or letters with too many sounds, into the illustrations.
With Lizzie Demands a Seat, I had imagined images as I worked on the story, but when the sketches came through, it was really interesting to see which moment of the text E.B. Lewis chose to illustrate. His illustrations are all full spreads, no spot art or single page art. His choice, that single moment from the text of the spread, reflected the emotional impact. I think it’s eye opening to see the illustrator's choices.
Text © Beth Anderson, 2020 . Image © E.B. Lewis, 2020.
For instance, with the jury, I was thinking about the technicalities, as we couldn’t be 100% sure they were all white men. I don’t know if E.B. even thought about that as he created a powerful, emotional spread with five jurors.
Text © Beth Anderson, 2020 . Image © Elizabeth Baddeley, 2020.
In An Inconvenient Alphabet, I had the passage of time at the end when the text moved from Noah Webster into the present. Elizabeth Baddeley created an amazing spread with details that move the reader through time. Those are the surprises I love!
I thought that final spread was genius, too. Do you have a favorite spread from Lizzie Demands a Seat?
While I am blown away by the impact of the jury illustration I mentioned, I really love the title page—the palette, the scene composition, the anticipation. My favorite type of art is watercolor so to have Lizzie’s story told this way is such a treat. E.B. Lewis’ “Note from the Artist” mentions that he went “all out in the way of color,” and used colors that he’d never used before. It looks like we both took a journey and stretched ourselves with this book, and I hope young readers will do the same.
Text © Beth Anderson, 2020 . Image © E.B. Lewis, 2020.
I think the care and effort that you and E.B. Lewis put into the book are what make it so very special. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
Well…. “Smelly” Kelly and His Super Senses is finished and on its way for an Oct. 13 release. Jenn Harney’s art is so fun and full of energy! Can’t wait to share that one with kids!
I’m working on editor revisions with two manuscripts I can’t mention yet. And I’m in a pause mode on two more as we await illustrations. Anticipation is building to see what S.D. Schindler does with Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle: Pandemonium, Patience, and Protest in the President’s House. Tad is such a loveable child, bursting with life, challenging tradition, decorum, and most everyone’s patience. He’s found a special place in my heart, and I’m thinking he just may wriggle into a few more.
That cover is so enticing! I can't wait to meet "Smelly" Kelly. Having gone through a number of book releases and associated readings and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently next time? Best or worst experience to avoid?)
My experience is still very limited in this area, but I can say that each book is different, and there’s lots of learning along the way. My only advice is to jump into any opportunity that’s offered and look for ways to create even more. It’s not always comfortable, but there’s nothing more special than seeing your book in the hands of kids.
Also, I’d say anticipate the post release phase as you write by keeping notes of ideas for teachers, presentations, blog posts, and special ways to share your book. Also start lists of people and institutions to acknowledge, and of places and people who should receive a copy of the book.
All great advice and ideas. Thank you, Beth for stopping by for this interview. I really enjoyed talking with you.
Thank you, Maria! I appreciate the opportunity! And I also appreciate all the interviews and posts you do about authors and books!
To find out more about Beth Anderson, or get in touch with her:
Review - Lizzie Demands a Seat:
Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights
One of the lines early in the book encapsulates the story for me - "late-for-church wasn’t as important as late-for-equality." Although the Northern United States had not participated in slavery, they participated in discrimination, both overt (having "colored allowed" streetcars) and systemic ("shutting them out of neighborhoods, jobs, and schools.").
Although many study the civil right movement in school. Few know that almost 100 years before Rosa Parks' famous bus ride, Elizabeth, "Lizzie," Jennings fought for the equal right to ride a New York streetcar. This is a wonderful "slice of life," or moment, in Lizzie's life-long fight for justice and equality.
Lizzie Demands a Seat:
Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights
Author: Beth Anderson
Illustrator: E.B. Lewis
Publisher: Calkins Creek (2020)
Ages: 7- 10
Equal rights, discrimination, perserverance, and justice.
One hundred years before Rosa Parks took her stand, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings tried to board a streetcar in New York City on her way to church. Though there were plenty of empty seats, she was denied entry, assaulted, and threatened all because of her race--even though New York was a free state at that time. Lizzie decided to fight back. She told her story, took her case to court--where future president Chester Arthur represented her--and won! Her victory was the first recorded in the fight for equal rights on public transportation, and Lizzie's case set a precedent. Author Beth Anderson and acclaimed illustrator E. B. Lewis bring this inspiring, little-known story to life in this captivating book.
In 1854, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jennings, an African American schoolteacher, fought back when she was unjustly denied entry to a New York City streetcar, sparking the beginnings of the long struggle to gain equal rights on public transportation.
What I Loved about this book:
I appreciate nonfiction books which expand our collective knowledge, in this case of the struggle for civil rights. This one demonstrates that discrimination had occurred, and been fought, in the north many years before Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King engaged in their struggles and introduces us to a strong, determined woman whom history had almost forgotten.
One day, in 1854, as Lizzie hurried to church, she was forcibly thrown from a New York streetcar by a conductor, who objected to her riding his car because of her race. There was no law against her riding the streetcar. The conductor simply didn't want her on his car. After all, there was "a tradition of separate streetcars." Even though it was a tradition "most people ignored."
Text © Beth Anderson, 2020. Image © E.B. Lewis, 2020.
Although she was born free in the North, she had often "been rejected, restricted, and refused by schools, restaurants, and theaters." Lizzie had been fighting all her life. Her wealthy, well-educated, abolitionist parents had raised her to fight for equal rights. She'd "attended meetings . . . signed petitions . . . [and] became a schoolteacher, determined to educate black children." As she gathered herself together, a white man stepped forward and offered to be a witness for her. Lizzie realized that fighting this treatment was "about dignity, about justice." And that she had to take her fight to the "one place where justice for one could mean justice for all. A courtroom."
Using beautiful, lyrical language Beth Anderson puts the reader into Lizzie's shoes. Allowing us to feel her emotions and join Lizzie in the indignity of the conductor's discrimination. She follows Lizzie into the courtroom where five white jurors decided if the Third Ave Railway Company was responsible for the conductor's actions and the streetcars must "carry all respectable, well-behaved people," regardless of their race. An in-depth author's note, Beth examines why Lizzie was the right person to lead this fight, what became of her lawyer, and how she was connected to Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, over a hundred years later.
I am fascinated with E.B. Lewis' choice to dilute the backgrounds in the illustrations. To show the onlookers as silhouettes and the streetcar as roughly outlined windows. It really focuses the attention on Lizzie and the people she is interacting with. And leaves a lot for the readers to fill in.
Text © Beth Anderson, 2020. Image © E.B. Lewis, 2020.
This book will be invaluable in expanding discussions about civil rights, dignity, and justice. Especially in an evaluation of our current treatment of our citizens and immigrants and a determination of what we have, or still haven't, learned in 165 years. And a great introduction to an almost lost heroine. It's a perfect book to encourage young and old to stand up for the fair treatment of ourselves and others.
- try the "lemon peel exercise" with family, friends, or classmates. After taking the time to memorize your lemon, mix them up in a bowl and find YOUR lemon. Now peel them and mix them up again. Can you find yours? (https://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/social-justice-activities-students.shtml);
- write a story or draw an image of an injustice you have witnessed or experienced. How did you react?
- using a tea box or tissue box, construction paper, crayons or markers make your own trolley;
- ideas for speaking up against bullying and making your school more just (https://www.stopbullying.gov/resources/kids#stand).
If your in New York, think about visiting the New York Transit Musuem:
MIDWINTER RECESS FAMILY PROGRAMMING—CELEBRATING ELIZABETH JENNINGS GRAHAM
Friday, February 21 | 11:00 Am - 3:00 Pm Free with Museum Admission
Corner of Boerum Place & Schermerhorn Street
Brooklyn, New York
100 years before Rosa Parks, Elizabeth Jennings Graham refused to give up her seat. Join us for special family programs celebrating the story and spirit of this civil rights pioneer.
Author Storytime: Beth Anderson, Lizzie Demands a Seat!
11:00am-11:30am, Screening Room, Mezzanine
Join children’s book author Beth Anderson for a special, conversational reading of her new book, Lizzie Demands a Seat! Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights. Ages 5-12 and accompanying adults .