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Today I’m thrilled to have Jean Alicia Elster here to share about her new middle grade story THE COLORED CAR that released on September 8, 2013. It’s the story of 12-year-old Patsy’s journey from Detroit to Tennessee to visit her grandmother in the summer of 1937 and what she learns that summer about how African Americans were treated. Just reading the blurb makes me want to read it. And Jean is also the author of the award-winning WHO’S JIM HINES?

Here’s a blurb about THE COLORED CAR from Goodreads:

In The Colored Car, Jean Alicia Elster, author of the award-winning Who's Jim Hines?, follows another
member of the Ford family coming of age in Depression-era Detroit. In the hot summer of 1937, twelve-year-old Patsy takes care of her three younger sisters and helps her mother put up fresh fruits and vegetables in the family's summer kitchen, adjacent to the wood yard that her father, Douglas Ford, owns. Times are tough, and Patsy's mother, May Ford, helps neighborhood families by sharing the food that she preserves. But May's decision to take a break from canning to take her daughters for a visit to their grandmother's home in Clarksville, Tennessee, sets in motion a series of events that prove to be life-changing for Patsy.

After boarding the first-class train car at Michigan Central Station in Detroit and riding comfortably to Cincinnati, Patsy is shocked when her family is led from their seats to change cars. In the dirty, cramped "colored car," Patsy finds that the life she has known in Detroit is very different from life down south, and she can hardly get the experience out of her mind when she returns home-like the soot stain on her finely made dress or the smear on the quilt squares her grandmother taught her to sew. As summer wears on, Patsy must find a way to understand her experience in the colored car and also deal with the more subtle injustices that her family faces in Detroit. By the end of the story, Patsy will never see the world in the same way that she did before.

Elster's engaging narrative illustrates the personal impact of segregation and discrimination and reveals powerful glimpses of everyday life in 1930s Detroit. For young readers interested in American history, The Colored Car is engrossing and informative reading.(

Hi Jean. Thanks so much for joining us.

1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Michigan and a Juris Doctor (I’m licensed to practice law in the state of Michigan) from the University of Detroit. I no longer practice law but, rather, am a full-time professional writer. In my “day job,” I am a grant writer for a nonprofit organization that serves homeless teens and young adults. In addition to The Colored Car and Who’s Jim Hines? (a 2009 Michigan Notable Book), both published by Wayne State University Press, I am also the author of the children’s book series Joe Joe in the City, which includes the books Just Call Me Joe Joe (2001), I Have A Dream, Too! (2002), I’ll Fly My Own Plane (2002), and I’ll Do the Right Thing (2003). I was awarded the 2002 Governors’ Emerging Artist Award by ArtServe Michigan in recognition of the series. 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.

My interest in writing started when I was a youngster, watching my Grandmother Ford— who was a prodigious letter writer—writing long letters using an ink pen which she dipped in an inkwell. The process fascinated me. I’ve been writing stories since I was 6 years old, old enough to know how to write and construct a sentence.

2. I’m an attorney too. And I’m hoping for a job change like you’ve done. Share how you came up with the idea for your story.

In the acknowledgement page of The Colored Car, I thank my mother and her oldest sister “for their willingness to share more tales from their youth” because listening to them and gathering their oral histories about their family life in 1930s Detroit gave me the crux of the story that became this book. In particular, I was singularly struck by the intensity of emotion my aunt still felt as she shared with me that fateful train ride to Clarksville, Tennessee and her first experience on the colored car.

3. That’s awesome how your aunt’s experiences inspired this story. THE COLORED CAR is set in 1937 during the Depression. And the setting moves from Detroit to a journey to Tennessee, which were very different places during that time period. What historical research did you do for this book? Do you have any tips for authors considering writing historical fiction?

In addition to the oral histories from my mother and my aunt, I also visited the Burton Historical
Collection that is housed in the Detroit Public Library. The Burton Collection contains a wealth of information on Detroit’s history, and I was able to zero in on the era of the 1930s. I looked at the archives of the Michigan Central Station which included train schedules and cancelled train tickets. I consulted books on historical costumes to make sure the clothing worn by May Ford and her daughters was authentic. Would there have been zipper or button closures on the dresses? What kind of fabric was available? What kid of collars would have been worn on the dresses? These kinds of details are important to make the story authentic and the plot believable.

My advice for any author wanting to write historical fiction is to research both the big picture as well as the mundane details of the story. One incorrect fact can taint the entire book and cause the reader to question the basic premise of the story.

4. That’s great advice to focus on researching the big picture and the small details. Voice is so important in any story and especially in middle grade stories. You had the extra challenge of getting the voice right of a girl in 1937. What are your tips on getting the voice of your characters right?

The primary way for a writer to maintain a consistent, authentic voice for each character is to know each of those characters inside and out. I particularly made a note of verbal tics or favorite expressions. Consistency in expression is so important! In addition, I was fortunate to have found, in my parents’ personal library, a dictionary that was published in the 1930s. I consulted that dictionary regularly to see if certain words had the same meaning or even existed in that decade.

5. That’s a great idea to make lists of character physical traits. Tell us three things you love about Patsy.

Though her innate sense of fairness has been shaken, Patsy still wants desperately to believe that there is justice in this world.

Patsy embodies the core of adolescence: a child testing the waters of an adult world.

Patsy loves her sisters and enjoys being around them, even though she has the heavy responsibility of being the “big sister.”

6. Patsy sounds awesome. And she has no many challenges to overcome. What has your road to publication been like?

I have been very fortunate in the fact that for much of my writing career, publishers have been the ones to approach me about creating various books or embarking upon different writing projects. When I have made “cold calls,” publishers have been very open to my ideas. This was especially true in the beginning of my career as a freelance writer when I was submitting memoir/essays to various national publications.
I have also been blessed to have, for each of my book projects, very excellent editors. I think most writers will agree that an editor can make the tasks of writing and creating either a positive experience or a hellish pursuit!

7. That must have felt so good to have the publishers contacting you. Your books have been published by smaller publishers. What has your experience been working with them? What should authors look for in considering signing with a smaller publishing company?

I am always quick to encourage writers to consider a small to mid-size publisher or a university press for this reason: My publishers have been willing to give my books time to develop a following and find a niche readership. They have also been very generous, to a fault, in marketing and promoting my books. I would advise anyone considering a smaller publishing house to look at their current list of authors and titles, as well as the backlist, as a good indication of the stature of that publisher within the broader publishing community.

8. Share your advice on marketing a middle grade book both online and reaching readers in other ways.

One of the first questions my webmaster asked me in our initial discussions was, “Who are you trying to reach with this website?” I decided early on that my marketing efforts would be focused on the gatekeepers—those who purchase books for or, at least, make recommendations on behalf of the middle grade audience. I also maintain a full calendar of visits to libraries and schools and those gatekeepers are the very ones who reach out to me to schedule presentations and appearances.

9. That’s great advice to consider who you’re trying to reach. What are you working on now?

I’m working on the first book of a three-volume teen series. However, all of the action in this series takes place in the 21st century!

Thanks for sharing your advice, Jean. You can find Jean at http://www.jeanaliciaelster.com and http://thecoloredcar.com

Jean’s publisher, Wayne State University Press, has generously offered a copy of THE COLORED CAR for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower (just click the follow button if you’re not a follower) and leave a comment through November 30th. I’ll announce the winner on December 2nd. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, please leave it in the comments.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. You must be 13 or older to enter. This is for US/Canada residents only.

Here’s what’s coming up:

On Monday I’ll have a guest post by Martina Boone, a blogger friends who blogs at Adventures in YA Publishing, a fantastic blog. She’ll be talking about a new Tumblr blog being started by her and other YA authors. Her debut gothic YA story BEHOLDEN will be released Fall, 2014. And I can't wait to interview her about it!

Next Monday, I’m interviewing Lydia Kang and giving away a copy of CONTROL, her fantastic YA dystopian story about kids with powers because of gene mutations. Lydia is also a doctor and it adds a whole fantastic element to her story.

The following Monday I’ll be off. I’m going to Florida to see my mom for a few days.

The Monday after that I’m interviewing our follower and debut author Lexa Cain and giving away a copy of SOUL CUTTER, her YA romantic horror story set in Egypt.

And don't forget our Tuesday Tips and Casey's Thursday agent spotlights.

Hope to see you on Monday!


Stina said...

Great advice on paying attention to the big picture. I would have been tempted to have just paid attention to the smaller details. Oops!

The story sounds great!

Kim Van Sickler said...

Great idea to craft your story based on a real-life family experience. And I tweeted about the giveaway!

Ann Finkelstein said...

THE COLORED CAR sounds like an interesting, meticulously research book. It's on my to-read list.

Jessica Lawson said...

What a great interview and wealth of advice for writing compelling and accurate historical fiction (as well as wonderful tips on reaching out to librarians and schools!). Congratulations to Jean on all of her success and best of luck to her on her upcoming teen series.

Thanks Natalie, and have a good visit with your mom in Florida~ I'm taking time off to visit family also.

Crystal Collier said...

I am SO jealous. I want a dictionary from the 1930's! Scratch that. I want one from 1801. *rubbing hands* Yay! Now I know what to put on my Christmas list!

~Sia McKye~ said...

I enjoyed reading the interview,Jean and Natalie. What a shock it would have been to be taking an exciting ride on a train and in first class only to be asked to move to a nasty car instead. My sense of fairness and justice would have been screaming.

Jean, I like your research tips. Those little things mean a lot to a story.:-)

Sia McKye Over Coffee

Kristin Lenz said...

Hi Jean! Great to see you here so more people will discover your wonderful books.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Jean, my experience with my small publisher has been similar - they've been supportive and given my books time to grow. They didn't come calling though!

Candace said...

I really enjoy these kinds of books that give us a look into our past. I really don't think there's enough books for middle grade (or YA) that's more recent historical (1900's and forward) that focuses on African Americans. I definitely think I need to read this one!

Denise Covey said...

Hi Natalie! I've been absent scratching out for NaNo. My first post this month! I love the sound of this book and I love the cover too. I find it very moving reading on this topic. The interview was quality. Thank you both, ladies!


PK HREZO said...

Love the sound of this book! And it sounds rich with inspiration.

Sarah Allen said...

This book sounds awesome! And fabulous interview ladies :D

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, with Joy)

Jessie Humphries said...

Wow, this is an amazing story. So engrossing. I love oral histories can inspire great literature!

Angela said...

I am looking forward to reading this book. Thanks Jean and Natalie for this interview.

Angela said...

I tweeted the contest!

Heather Villa said...

A visit to Jean's website (mentioned above) is worth the trip!

Thank you - both! :)

Gina Gao said...

This is such a great interview! There's a lot of good information here.


Anonymous said...

I'm pleased to meet the author. This sounds like a fantastic, well-researched book.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Focusing on the big picture and the small details is so important. Sometimes I tend to miss or overlook one or the other.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Jean's book sounds fascinating! She is so right about getting the details correct in HF books. Having contact with someone who is an expert (or lived) in that period is really helpful.

Lisa Gail Green said...

How wonderful to have editors contacting you! The book sounds great. And I can't wait to see Martina's post!!

Anonymous said...

I love it when I meet new authors. Jean's book sound like a must read to me. Thank you for the chance at winning a copy.


Anonymous said...

Here is my tweet for an extra entry:


Unknown said...

Sounds like a great book.
Tammy Hudson

Unknown said...

I shared on Twitter and Facebook