Behind the Scenes: “Being the 1st Is Not Enough”

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.

EJ photo
Only known photograph of Elizabeth Jennings. Kansas State Historical Society

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?

streetcar horses
Courtesy New York Transit Museum

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.

Lizzie cover hi-res JPEG
Releases Jan. 7, 2020 Now available for preorder Amazon • Barnes & Noble • IndieBoundBooks-A-Million

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.


16 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “Being the 1st Is Not Enough”

  1. Excellent post! Agree that “first” or “last” to do or achieve something may not be enough to carry a story into a book format unless the writer also does the work to uncover the heart.

    Cannot wait to read LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much for this insightful post, Beth! I’ll certainly keep your suggestions in mind as I work to craft a pb bio of my own. Congratulations on the birth of your amazing story about Lizzie Jennings. I loved reading an account of her life and activism in a middle grade book called “Streetcar to Justice” by Amy Hill Hearth (2018), and I’m looking forward to reading your picture book account, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, Beth, thanks for this insight into your process. NF writers go out on a limb, so we need to make sure that the limb is strong enough to hold us. It sounds like you did a great job finding that branch. I’m looking forward to reading your book!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Outstanding post Beth! Your journey into the writing process of writing about “first” time heroes is fascinating. And finding that “heart” nugget that will resonate with children, is complex. There are so many things to consider and a lot of research done. What a major undertaking that I can only imagine was frustrating and rewarding at the same time. I really look forward to reading your book. Love the cover!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started it in 2015 and when I look back at the process, I realize how much I’ve learned in the last few years. Instead of tackling these issues right off with this one, it was more of a “learn the hard way” path that took 90+ revisions to work through it all. Now, I look at these factors right off the bat. 🙂 Hopefully sharing this helps others who are working their way through FIRSTS.

      Like

  5. What a wonderful post, Beth! I loved reading about all of the things you needed to consider as your wrote and revised this biography. I’m looking forward to reading the story of Elizabeth Jennings and her fight for rights.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love your post, Beth. Congratulations on publishing. I’ve written a few tech articles and quite a few newsletter articles. So I have some idea of the challenge of this accomplishment.

    Liked by 1 person

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