On her blog, Beth Anderson describes writing as “mining” — from digging deep to find little-told stories to digging deep to find the heart of a story once she’s ready to write. I certainly share her desire to tell stories of the past to readers of today. And I so admire the way she’s taken a well-worn bit of writerly advice — to use the five senses — and given it a lovely refresh, both in her essay below and in her newest book, Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings’ Fight for Streetcar Rights (Calkins Creek), which is evocatively illustrated by E.B. Lewis.
For some reason, the manuscript that would become Lizzie Demands a Seat: Elizabeth Jennings’ Fight for Streetcar Rights came alive with sounds from the very start. One piece of imagery in particular took hold early on and drove the story forward, moving from outside to inside the main character, from literal and physical to deeper levels of Lizzie’s being.
Footsteps. Think about all that you can hear in footsteps: determination, sense of purpose, timidity, stealth, hurry, leisure, playfulness, a limp, and so much more. Think about the implication of action. Think about the idea of leaving footprints, marks of others you follow, marks of your own that others may follow. The idea of footsteps held so much potential within the story.
The story opens as Elizabeth Jennings rushes to the corner to catch the streetcar in 1854 New York City. She’s in a hurry. Late for church. Click-click-click-click. Like a clock. “Lizzie’s heels ticked off the seconds.” We’re at the surface level, but even so the tension cranks up a notch knowing she’s in a hurry.
Then the conductor delays her, and we feel her anxiety. But when he degrades her and refuses to let her ride, that hurry hits at the emotional level—that long painful wait for equality. “Suddenly, late-for-church wasn’t as important as late-for-equality.”
With this, that “beat” we heard in Lizzie’s hurried footsteps moves to her heart, pounding as the level of urgency, determination, and anger intensifies. In this moment, her voice breaks free, and she publicly rejects the traditions that dictate her place in the world. And now one of the opening lines “the kind of hurry she couldn’t hold back” takes on stronger meaning at the emotional level. After she is physically ejected, she climbs back on the car. Action that came from the heart, from the hurry.
A few spreads later after a police officer forces her off, we hear footsteps again. First, “…the clippety-clop of horses hooves faded and onlookers slipped away.” To me, that’s tradition carrying on, as if nothing she did mattered. Then, as she starts on her way home, “footsteps followed,” and a bookseller offers to be a witness if she needs one. She has inspired someone else to action, to step forward for what’s right.
When it comes time for her day in court, instead of her footsteps ticking like a clock in the beginning, the sound becomes slower and goes deeper—“the click of her heels matched her heartbeat.” Those footsteps connect us to her core. How will the white jury judge her? Would they see her as “respectable”? Would they see beyond race?
Finally, I ended the story with feet in motion, feet in a hurry, just like Lizzie in the opening. Literally stepping up, others tested the verdict by boarding more streetcars, pushing forward until segregation on transportation ended in New York City. In the back matter, I share how kids have stepped up, inspired by her courage, taking action to honor Elizabeth Jennings. I wanted to leave the reader with the idea that heroes don’t do it alone, that we all need to step up and play a role in fighting racism.
Just like Elizabeth Jennings was inspired to act by her parents and people like Frederick Douglass, she inspired others by her actions. In classroom visits, I bring this idea to kids as we make our own “Path of Inspiration.” Who inspires you? How? Who would you like to inspire by your actions? How will you do it? [downloadable PDF and Power Point for this activity on my website]
The imagery of footsteps is tied to the heart of the story—of urgency and action, of stepping up. Finding a way to use this imagery on multiple levels not only enabled me to show and develop the emotional depth of the text, but also provided a way to connect her story to kids.
Visit Beth’s website for free downloadable Educator’s Guide https://bethandersonwriter.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/educator-activities-lizzie-demands-a-seat.pdf
and Classroom Activity: A Path of Inspiration. https://bethandersonwriter.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/path-of-inspiration.pdf
Kid Lit TV: Storymakers https://kidlit.tv/2020/03/storymakers-with-beth-anderson-lizzie-demands-a-seat/
Beth Anderson loves digging into history and culture for undiscovered gems, exploring points of view, and playing with words. A former educator who has always marveled at the power of books, she is drawn to stories that open minds, touch hearts, and inspire questions. Born and raised in Illinois, she now lives in Loveland, Colorado. Author of AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET (S&S 2018), LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020), and “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES: HOW JAMES KELLY’S NOSE SAVED THE NEW YORK CITY SUBWAY (Oct. 2020, Boyds Mills & Kane), Beth has more historical gems on the way. You can connect with Beth on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest @BAndersonWriter. You can also visit her website or Facebook.