Each Book is a Leap of Faith
December 27, 2018
I think I just sent an old newsletter to my entire newsletter mailing list. Oops! I'll blame it on the eggnog and hope you'll forgive me.
This is what I meant to send:
I'm sure most people see a book only as a finished product, and while they can easily imagine the satisfaction and pride an author must feel when seeing her book on the shelves of a bookstore they have no idea what has gone into the creation of it.
Some books are easier to write than others. I have published ten, all with major publishing houses. This means I came up with an idea, my literary agent gave it a green light, and then a publisher chose to take it on. Just getting a book deal is a huge accomplishment. Once the proposal is sold to a publishing house, however, then the real work begins.
My most recent book was a challenge in many ways. Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York (HarperCollins/Greenwillow 2018) is the first biography of a woman who is sometimes called the Rosa Parks of New York. My goal was to write her back into history.
I had been reseraching her story and the era for many years as a hobby of sorts when a writer-friend gave me a nudge (a very big nudge; more like a shove) and said I had a responsibility to pull it together and turn it into a book. She was right. But what a responsibility!
I wrote it for middle-grade students because that's the age when most American children first learn about Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights heroes. Writing about someone who was famous and then forgotten one hundred years prior to Rosa Parks's arrest, however, required that I provide a tremendous amount of context. Because so little is known about the era by most Americans, many adults are buying the book, too.
Looking at the stacks of boxes of research in my home office, I felt overwhelmed. Why on earth was I taking this on? It was one thing to do the research (a journalist's idea of fun) and another thing to write a book. Even after I had written the basic narrative, I needed to add sidebars and timelines. I spent countless hours looking for the right illustration, photograph, or painting to go with each part of the story, and then acquiring the rights to use each one.
Again, I felt a strong sense of responsibility. I had grown attached to my subject. Elizabeth Jennings was a woman of great courage. Unknown to most people today, segregation was rampant in the North, includiing Manhattan. Miss Jennings, a black schoolteacher and church organist, was assaulted and removed forcibly from a streetcar in Manhattan meant for whites. She had hoped the streetcar conductor would let her ride, rather than making her wait for a car bearing the sign for "Colored People." She didn't want to be late to church. Her actions that day led to the first significant step in the fight to desegregate New York City's public transportation.
And yet no one had written a biography of her. This year marked 164 years since she was assaulted and 163 years since her unlikely victory in court.
But again the word that defined my decision to be the person who wrote it was "responsibility." Yes, it was a joy. Yes, I am proud. The critics gave it two thumbs up. The book received a coveted "starred" review from both Publisher's Weekly, which called it "a book that belongs in any civil rights collection" and Kirkus, where the reviewer wrote that the book is "completely fascinating and unique." And, of course, I'm thrilled.
I'm also relieved. The satisfaction of having created the book is a lot more complex than simply seeing it displayed on the shelves of bookstores. I know what went into it. I know the hard work, the late nights, the cups of coffee consumed, the dinners I missed with family. I gave this book everything I had, including a chunk of my life and a piece of my soul. The writing of Streetcar to Justice was, put simply, a leap of faith. That's the part you don't see when you hold the book in your hand.
Wishing you all the best in 2019. Happy reading!