Being the 1st is not enough.” I’ve heard these words from editors who probably receive way too many picture book manuscripts about someone who did something first. Authors scramble to uncover inventions and accomplishments, discoveries and honors, breakthroughs and court victories. Being first is commendable and implies individual greatness, but it’s not always interesting, engaging, and meaningful reading for kids.
I was fascinated when I learned about Elizabeth Jennings and the FIRST courtroom victory against segregation on transportation in New York City, 1855: Elizabeth Jennings v. Third Avenue Railroad Company. But…was there more than an interesting FIRST? I needed to dig in and see if it was story-worthy for kids.
First of all, the FIRST has to hook into the lives of children. Can kids relate? That’s the first test. Is segregation on transportation of interest to kids? Kids depend on public transportation and school buses to get to school all over the country. Though their concept of what “unfair” is might be limited, kids know the feeling well. Too many know the pain of prejudice. And I would bet every child has witnessed bullying. That adds up to the potential for a personal emotional connection.
The bonus question to ask yourself here is if there’s also a curriculum connection. Kids learn about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and the civil rights movement. 1960s. But here was a story similar to Rosa Parks’ that happened a century earlier. Before the Civil War. In a free state. Wouldn’t it be great to expand their civil rights and social justice awareness (and mine!) into a time and place that doesn’t generally make it into history books?
While the hook is essential, it’s the character that will make the story. When I first read about Elizabeth Jennings, it was her character that stood out. She had guts. But she also had grit. And grace. I was in awe. Reading her words, her account of the incident when she was refused entry to a streetcar due to her race, was a window into her world, into her anger and exasperation with traditions of the time. But it also informed me of her own sense of dignity and the values with which she’d been raised. Wide reading and deep digging helped me begin to understand the times, the stakes, her motivation, hopes, fears, and strength. Elizabeth Jennings was truly an inspiring woman.
Then, I needed the all-important “take away.” What some call the “so what?” What can we glean from her story that will serve kids today? The court victory? That doesn’t mean a lot to kids. As I dug into the aftermath, I found the movement she sparked. One person after another stepped up, carrying on the fight for transportation rights. It needs to keep going, and growing.
This FIRST had a potential kid connection, an emotionally engaging character, and a take away to work with. Could I find the “heart”? That’s what makes a story sing. It springs from the author’s connection to the story, a unique perspective and personal investment that results in a special angle or thread that runs through the telling and leaves an idea that lingers after the story is told. The “heart” of Lizzie’s story was elusive, maybe because the challenge of social justice looms so large. (And also because I hadn’t even begun to wrap my head around this essential idea of “heart” when I tackled this story.) 90+ revisions. Changes in structure. Shifts in perspectives. I saw “standing on shoulders” and “following footsteps”—human connections. But there was more. Shadows in the background. We are all in this narrative, black and white. And I believe we all have a role to play. After more wide reading on themes, my thoughts finally coalesced as I read about the problem with the hero narrative— that we just wait for courageous individuals like Elizabeth Jennings to challenge the system, do the hard work, take the risk. That’s not the narrative I want young people to believe. We need our heroes, but I want kids to understand that our heroes need us, too. And, like Martin Luther King, Jr. said…
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
A FIRST is an interesting fact. But it’s the larger human truths behind it that make a story worth telling.
If you want to learn more about how to find the heart of a story, check out the blog posts in the “Mining for Heart” category where a wide range of authors share their process.