I’m so delighted to have a special guest blogger with me today. Please welcome author Jean Alicia Elster who has written a fascinating article that is as much a history lesson as it is an overview about each of her books.
Formerly an attorney, I am a professional writer with a focus on writing for children, middle graders, and young adults. I am also an editor, essayist, writing instructor, and grant writer. While wearing each of these hats is fulfilling in its own way, I find my greatest joy in writing for youth and young adults.
My most recent book — Who’s Jim Hines? — is based upon real events in my family’s history. It is a coming of age story where twelve-year-old Douglas Ford, Jr. comes to terms with the racial realities of Depression-era Detroit. However, my current books also include the Joe Joe in the City series.
The impetus for the series emerged while considering the very real concerns my husband and I shared as parents raising two children in an urban environment. In particular, I felt it was incumbent upon us to prepare our children to respond appropriately to negative peer pressure, racial stereotypes, and the pervasive drug and gang cultures. I was well aware that other parents of every ethnic background shared these same concerns — I wanted to address those concerns in a set of books for young readers that would be entertaining and edifying for the youngsters and a source of support and reinforcement for parents and other caregivers.
The literary approach I seized upon was to combine historical facts within a fictional narrative. And thus Joe Joe in the City was developed. In each volume of this series, ten-year-old Joe Joe Rawlings learns life lessons when he reads about heroes from African American history. In Just Call Me Joe Joe, he reads the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues; in I Have a Dream, Too! Joe Joe reads about Mary McLeod Bethune; in I’ll Fly My Own Plane he learns about the Tuskegee Airmen; and in I’ll Do the Right Thing, he discovers the legacy of Ralph Bunche. I, in fact, researched and wrote the book passages that Joe Joe reads throughout the series.
My primary criterion for selecting the historical figures to be featured in each volume was that these be authentic yet overlooked heroes of African American history. Most school children of all races are exposed to the deeds of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and that is a wonderful thing. However, I felt the need and the obligation to assure that other equally compelling figures receive notice.
I selected the Negro Baseball Leagues as a starting point because the game is “all-American.” In addition, this allowed me to correct some common errors such as the fact that the first African American to sign on with a major league team was Moses Fleetwood Walker in the 1880s, not Jackie Robinson in 1945. I also decided to focus on James “Cool Papa” Bell for two reasons. First, most readers, if they know anything about the Negro Baseball Leagues at all, know the name Satchel Paige. Second, while Josh Gibson was also well known, my research indicated it was no secret that he battled a drug addiction problem. Bell on the other hand was not only a renowned pitcher, but his reputation was impeccable.
I chose Mary McLeod Bethune as the hero in book two of the series because of her compelling life story. She was the first person in a family of sharecroppers to learn to read. In addition — as an inspiration to all young people — she fulfilled her dream by starting the school that eventually became Bethune-Cookman College with only $1.50 in her pocket! I like to share with young audiences that an equivalent amount today would be $32.48!
In volume three, the Tuskegee Airmen — during World War II they became the first black pilots trained by the United States Air Force — serve as the fulcrum of a storied history of black Americans in aviation beginning with the two early twentieth century pioneers Bessie Coleman and Eugene Bullard and taking us to the black astronauts of the space age. The history of the Tuskegee Airmen is a stellar example of the results of hard work and unflappable courage.
It was my honor to present Ralph Bunche as the historical figure in the final book of the series. He is one of the unsung heroes of American history. When I ask students to name the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, they all call out the name of Martin Luther King. However, Ralph Bunche carries that honor. In 1949, he accomplished what many thought was impossible: He brokered the first peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. For that deed, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.
By following the stories of these heroes of African American history, the series offers crucial lessons for youth, particularly urban youth, of all backgrounds: Joe Joe summons up the courage to return and face a local shopkeeper who accuses him of being a part of a gang that has just trashed his store in Just Call Me Joe Joe. In I Have a Dream, Too!, Joe Joe realizes that with hard work, dreams can come true. I’ll Fly My Own Plane finds Joe Joe turning away from an opportunity to make “quick, easy money.” And, Joe Joe learns the value of being a peacemaker in I’ll Do the Right Thing.
Readers can contact me as well as see updates about my books and appearances via my website www.jeanaliciaelster.com. They can also find information at my publishers’ websites www.judsonpress.com and wsupress.wayne.edu/.
Filed under: Featured Authors | Tagged: African American children's books, books for urban kids, books for urban youth, Historical books for children, I Have a Dream, I'll Do the Right Thing, I'll Fly My Own Plane, Jean Alicia Elster, Joe Joe in the City series, Just Call Me Joe Joe, LinkedIn, Too!, Who's Jim Hines |