Dec 22, 2019

LIZZIE Demands a Seat: And Demands to be Read

January brings me to the eighth anniversary of launching this blog about picture books. When I wrote my first post I had no idea I would continue this long or that it would lead me to so many other activities involving the picture book format I love and respect deeply 
Now, I've moved far beyond featuring my own favorite or thematic titles, although that still happens. Since I've received more and more requests to review current releases, I included a page to describe my selection guides for choosing which titles to feature. I welcome such requests, but ask authors and publishers to check this page first.

Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills Press. January, 2020
When a copy of LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT: Elizabeth Jennings Fights for Streetcar Rights  found its way to my inbox, there was no question that I would want to share it here. I know that the author, BETH ANDERSON, incorporates deep and detailed research that provides insights into her subjects' stories, intentions, and habits. Her historic narratives read with the urgency and relevance of contemporary events, inviting reflection and investigation into people and choices that shaped our current lives.
The illustrator for this title, E. B. LEWIS, was an equal guarantee that I would love this book. He calls himself an "artistrator" for good reason. Any single page or spread from any of his picture books can stand alone as admirable art. But in the context of each story, his images also enrich and engage readers with research-inspired details and artfully interpreted emotions in gesture, facial expressions, colors, and luminous focus.
For those reasons alone, I would have welcomed reading this advance copy (received from publisher as PDF). The subject matter added to my enthusiasm. I'm always longing to read more about hidden or underreported history, especially stories that take a step away from the most  common and popular subjects.That's especially true of stories involving civil rights and racism. 
All too often, the stories on these subjects that spring to mind involve Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, or Ruby Bridges. They are typically placed in Southern states and explore widely publicized events. 
But each of the most momentous changes in our nation's laws and attitudes was preceded by many individual efforts, often with much less public attention or support.
I wrote about one such example in a prior post, HERE. 

THE FIRST STEP: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial. Written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, the story of equal-education-seeking young Sarah Roberts couldn't be in better hands.

Did you notice that E. B. Lewis illustrated this picture book, too? Goodman makes the point in the back matter of that historic account that the equal rights case described in the story LOST when it reached the court. Even so, it was a first step of many that led to the eventual BROWN vs BOARD OF EDUCATION ruling. In addition, it revealed discrimination and inequality in lives in the northern states, not only in former slave states. A line Goodman uses midway through the story is this:
"Every big change has to start somewhere". 

LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT also demands to be read.

As a twenty-four-year-old free Black woman in New York City in 1854, Lizzie Jennings was not good at waiting- for anything. The illustrations reveal what back matter later articulates: Lizzie was educated, came from a well-to-do family of abolitionist activists, and lived a full life with many community responsibilities. In the opening scene, she relied on the horse-drawn streetcar to reach her church in time to play the organ, tapping her heels impatiently until it appears.

The "tradition" in NewYork City was that Black people could ride the public streetcars if no White people on board objected. If they did, then dirty, unreliable streetcars would eventually come by, displaying a sign: "Colored People Allowed in the Car."
The opening encounter reveals that Lizzie was denied a seat by the conductor, not because of complaints from passengers, but from his open racism- in a FREE Northern state! Lizzie confronted him, indicating the many empty seats. He shoved and shouted, but she held her ground. A crowd gathered as the streetcar and horses waited in place. Even after she was dumped on the street, she scrambled aboard and hung on tight.
The conductor resumed the ride, but hailed a police officer only five blocks further on the route. He soon put Lizzie out, despite her claim to prevent having her rights violated. The officer dared her to file a complaint, saying ti would have no success.
The following sequence of events reveals surprising support: from a White witness, from her internal debate about making things worse if she lost a case, and from an organized community determined to move ahead in the name of justice. 

"The gavel sounded, and the case began—
Elizabeth Jennings v. The Third Avenue Railroad Company."

Remember, this happened more than a hundred years before Rosa Parks's similar protest led to the bus boycott in Montgomery.  Despite a jury of only White men, Lizzie;s case had the support of a qualified attorney, a White male witness, and Lizzie's own willingness to assert her rights. 
She won the case.  
Others were inspired by her success and launched cases against other individual streetcar companies. They, too, helped move the balance of justice toward equality. 

This historical picture book has a satisfying and inspiring conclusion, followed by a note from the author that offers an equally stirring elaboration on the details of Lizzie's life and times. The primary and other resources cited in the back matter invite further investigations and allow readers to confirm details as they wish to do so. 

This book is an exemplary nonfiction title that will appeal to early elementary readers as well as older ones, including adults. Particularly at a time in which we might despair at local and global issues, this serves as a reminder that standing up, speaking up, and sustaining our sense of self is worth the effort. That being knocked flat, denied, and insulted will not lock the door on change. Like Lizzie, we can climb aboard and hang on, accept help from advocates, and seek support from our communities. 
Individual efforts can be cumulative, can become the stepping stones for those that follow. 
I urge everyone to share this book with youth of any age.
It releases on January 7, 2020, and is available for preorder now.

I received the PDF advance file for this title with no promise of a positive review. 

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