Formerly an attorney, Jean Alicia Elster is the author of the novel The Colored Car—for ages 8 and older—published by Wayne State University Press and released in September 2013. The Colored Car was selected as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan. Elster is, also, the author of the companion novel Who’s Jim Hines?—for ages 8 and older—published by Wayne State University Press. Released in August 2008, it is now in its second printing. Who’s Jim Hines? was selected as one of the Library of Michigan’s 2009 Michigan Notable Books. She is also the author of the children’s book series “Joe Joe in the City,” published by Judson Press.
The Colored Car by Jean Alicia Elster is a continuation of the Ford family’s story, based on real events in their history as an African American family in Detroit in the 1930s, as first introduced in Who’s Jim Hines?. Each summer, life for May Ford and her four daughters revolves around the summer kitchen—that hot and steamy, white-washed two-room wooden building that stands behind the wood yard that is a part of the Douglas Ford Wood Company. Toiling in the summer kitchen, when fruits and vegetables are ripe, May cans--put up in jars--food for the family to eat for the rest of the year.
In the summer of 1937, May Ford’s decision to take a break from canning and bring her four daughters with her as she visits her own mother down in Clarksville, Tennessee sets in motion a series of events that prove to be life-changing for the oldest daughter, twelve-year-old Patsy. From the time Patsy, her mother and sisters enter the plush first-class train car at the Michigan Central Station in the heart of Detroit to the time they disembark at the small cramped train station in Clarksville, Patsy’s life—and her outlook on life—are changed in ways she could never have imagined. In The Colored Car, Patsy learns about notions of justice – and injustice – not only in America below the Mason-Dixon line, but in her own neighborhood back home in Depression-era Detroit.
• Speak about your family history and how it relates to The Colored Car.
The Colored Car is based on real events in my maternal family’s history. My grandparents came to Detroit in 1922 and my grandfather started a wood business, the Douglas Ford Wood Company. My grandmother was an integral part of that business—taking orders, keeping the books—but she also managed the household with canning, sewing and caring for their five children. My grandparents were also central to the stability of their neighborhood. This story explores their relationship within the community while we witness their oldest daughter, Patsy, as she experiences events foreign to the world as she knows it.
• What is your interest in the 1920-1930 in Detroit and how it relates to The Colored Car?
I have a particular interest in the early 20th century. It is my favorite historical period, both in American history in general and African American history in particular. Per Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was the best of times for African Americans as many new avenues in life were opening up, particularly regarding educational possibilities and expanded opportunities to make a living and support their family. It was the worst of times because African Americans were still confronted with rampant segregation throughout the country—both Jim Crow (by law) and de facto (in practice) as well as the horror of lynchings throughout the South. The Colored Car takes place in a time of a racial turmoil within our country as well as great possibilities and opportunities for African Americans.
• How long did it take you to write The Colored Car?
The actual chapter book, I spent about 2 years writing. However, parts of the plot were first developed as a picture book, about a dozen years ago, when I was writing the proposal that I submitted to the publisher of my Joe Joe in the City series. I submitted chapter outlines for 5 books. The publisher, Judson Press, selected 4 of the book outlines for the seroes. The 5th outline formed the basis for a few chapters of The Colored Car.
• Are the names of your characters in your novels important?
Only 3 names of the immediate members of the Ford family are their actual names: Douglas Ford, Sr., Douglas Ford, Jr., ad Jean Fuqua. The other names: Patsy, Laura, Annie are names of some of my maternal ancestors.
• Why do you like about writing for children (as oppose to adult literature)?
I like creating characters in adolescence or at the cusp of adolescence. There’s quite a bit of freedom as a writer in being able to create adult-like situations that a young character is experiencing or reacting to for the first time. I enjoy molding my characters in that way.
• Tell us about the cover art for your book: Who designed it? What do you like about it?
Cover art designed and created by Baltimore artist Lauren Castillo. What I particularly like about this art work is how it captures the essence of Patsy’s experience on that fateful train ride and draws the reader into the story.
• What is the message you want readers to take away from The Colored Car?
A central message of all my books is that there will always be challenges in life, but they can be overcome.
• What got you interested in writing?
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.
• Do you have a favorite author?
I have a few: My favorite English-speaking writer is Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre. My favorite American author is Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird. My favorite contemporary author is Edwidge Danticat, author of The Dew Breaker.
• Tell us a little more about yourself: What do you do when you’re not writing books?
I’m a grant writer for a nonprofit agency that provides shelter for homeless youth and young adults. I like to walk and hike, visit museums and galleries. I’ve been known to go on knitting binges. And, in keeping with the Ford family tradition, I have made one quilt. • Do you have advice for other writers and authors?
Finish what you start. I say that because so many people come to me and begin “I’d like to write a book…” or “I have this idea for a book…” At least start it and then, most importantly, finish it.
• How can we contact you or find out more about your books?
Please visit my website: www.jeanaliciaelster.com If you enjoyed this post, please consider becoming a member of SORMAG's community - Join Today
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