For today’s Michigan author post we feature Jean Alicia Elster, author of award-winning children’s books.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I am a lifelong Michiganian with an undergrad degree in English from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of Detroit. Formerly a practicing attorney (I’m still licensed to practice law in the state of Michigan). I am now a full-time professional writer. In addition to Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car (both published by Wayne State University Press and both selected as Michigan Notable Books by the Library of Michigan), I am also the author of the “Joe Joe in the City” children’s book series (Judson Press) for which I received the Emerging Artist Award from ArtServe Michigan. I have edited several books including The Death Penalty and The Outbreak of the Civil War (Greenhaven Press, an imprint of The Gale Group, Inc.), as well as Building Up Zion’s Walls: Ministry for Empowering the African American Family and Playbook for Christian Manhood: 12 Key Plays for Black Teen Boys (Judson Press). In addition, my essays have appeared in national publications including Ms., World Vision, Black Child, and Christian Science Sentinel magazines.
I was awarded residencies at the internationally acclaimed Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois, in 2001, 2003, and 2005. In 2012, I was selected as the inaugural visiting author for The Lori Lutz Visiting Artist Series at The Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. And in 2014, I was a guest speaker for the Vander Veen Center for the Book Program Series at the Grand Rapids Public Library in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
What drew you to write for younger readers?
When I embarked upon my writing career, it was not my goal to become a youth lit author. However, I established a connection with a national testing service and began writing juvenile testing passages. I found that I enjoyed writing for a younger audience. Doors then opened for me to write the four volume “Joe Joe in the City” series for Judson Press as well as Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car for Wayne State University Press.
How did you come to write The Colored Car?
I wanted to write (and my publisher encouraged me in this as well) a companion book to Who’s Jim Hines?, whose protagonist was a twelve-year-old male, that would tell a different but connected aspect of the Ford family saga from the point of view of a twelve-year-old female. Equally as important was the fact that my aunt had shared with me her experience on the colored train car, and I was struck by the fact that this was still a strong memory for her after so many decades. My goal was to portray this very important part of American history in a way that would be engaging, as well as challenging, for today’s readers.
Did you do a lot of research for The Colored Car?
Yes! Authenticity is important to me—for both plot and character development—and The Colored Car is rooted in historical accuracy. That means that I did quite a bit of research in order to create a sense of believability as well as a connection with the time (1937) and circumstances. My husband is a historian and was a great help to me as we visited libraries and collections of archives looking for information on Detroit and the southern United States during the 1930s that was relevant to the story line. I also took a lot of oral histories of relatives whose characterizations were featured in the book to obtain bits of family lore that would add to the strength of the plot.
What do young people ask you when they have read the story?
The students of each school, library, and book club visit are, of course, as unique as the age range, school environment, and location. The questions are as varied as the students! However, some of my favorite queries are (and, yes, I keep a file!)—
How does segregation relate to the Holocaust?
Would Patsy have healed without the quilt?
Did you like the book when you wrote it?
Would you like to be a character in one of your books?
What kind of changes did you make when you were revising the book?
Do you ever run out of ideas?
Do you get much sleep when you write?
How important is the sense of place in your writing? Does being a Detroit author give you a special perspective?
Place affects everything I write, and the city of Detroit is at the core of The Colored Car (and its companion Who’s Jim Hines?). My grandparents began their married life in Detroit and this is where they started their family as well as their very successful wood hauling business. The story, as it is, could not have taken place anywhere else and maintained the authenticity that is crucial to everything I write. Even the plot development of my “Joe Joe in the City” series, which is set in a nonspecific urban center, is rooted in my Detroit urban experiences through the portrayals of peer pressure, racial stereotypes and social dislocations as they affect urban youth.
What kind of advice do you give to young people who want to be writers?
The advice I give is always the same—Read good books! I explain that if you are a good reader, you will of necessity become a good writer. You will internalize proper grammar and punctuation, you will understand the flow of a strong paragraph and you will instinctively know how to construct a well-crafted sentence. In addition, you will understand the history of the English language and the various ways writers from all over the world have used this language to construct compelling and strong tales. Having this kind of background is crucial for anyone who wants to become a writer!
Do you have anything new in the works?
Yes, definitely! I recently met with my editor at Wayne State University Press and have the go-ahead to begin work on book three of the fictionalized account of my family’s history (following Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car). This third volume will weave the lives of the four, college-educated Ford sisters in post-World War II Detroit into the story of their mother’s upbringing in Clarksville, Tennessee in the early 1900s.