When did you begin writing The Colored Car?
The quilting motif and portions of the final chapter of The Colored Car can be found in the proposal for a picture storybook I developed over a dozen years ago, at the same time as I was creating the Joe Joe in the City series. However, I began developing the actual plot of The Colored Car while I was writing Who’s Jim Hines?, which was published in 2008. Many of the same characters appear in both books and most of the action occurs in the same Detroit neighborhood.

What led you to select train travel on the “colored” car as such a central, defining incident in The Colored Car?
As I explain in the Prologue of The Colored Car, train travel was the primary mode of long-distance travel in the United States from the late 1800s until the mid-1950s. Train travel also became the vehicle through which many of the major civil rights episodes during this era were played out. Train travel, thereby, becomes a vehicle through which a twelve-year-old African American girl discovers some life-changing truths about her world during the 1930s both in her hometown of Detroit and in America below the Mason-Dixon line. These facts make the following aspect of the book even more compelling: the incident involving the colored car—and a train trip to Clarksville, Tennessee—is based upon an actual event in my family’s history.

In both Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car, the protagonists/main characters are twelve years old. Why do you focus on this particular age?
Twelve years old is the perfect age of adolescence: characters are beginning to test the waters of adulthood while knowing full well they can never completely immerse themselves back in childhood. Having my protagonists at this age, I am able to create plots that explore adult themes through the experiences of someone for whom it is all new and, for the most part, innocent. These old child/young adult characters allow me to take advantage of a naturally occurring tension within the plots because their responses, while genuine, are imbued with a reality of misplaced hope and trust.

What is the history of the journey to publication of Who’s Jim Hines?
This manuscript does have a history! The book’s publication in 2008 will mark the ten-year anniversary of the creation of this project. It began as a picture storybook with the working title My Father’s Wood Yard. From its inception in 1998, the manuscript had many incarnations as it went through many revisions at the behest of prospective editors who, at the end, decided that the book “wasn’t right for their list.” Finally, I decided that if the manuscript was rejected by one more of the New York publishing houses, I would shop it at home and submit it to Wayne State University Press. It was, and I did. In 2003, I received an email from Kathryn Wildfong, Editor-in-Chief for Wayne State University Press, explaining that the manuscript was not right for them in that form but expressing an interest in the book as a middle grade novel. She extended an invitation to me to submit a revised manuscript should I be interested in developing the book for older readers. I was, and I did. The result is the book that you now hold—or hopefully soon will hold—in your hands.

What is your favorite chapter in Who’s Jim Hines?
The whole book is emotionally dear to me. However, if pressed—my favorite chapter would include chapter nine which focuses on the drum and bugle corps. Why? Because I was able to weave in some history of the World War I era. That is one of my favorite periods in history—the early 1900s—from an historical, literary, as well as artistic standpoint.

What was your goal in writing the “Joe Joe in the City” children’s book series?
My goal in creating the character of Joe Joe and his supporting characters of family, friends, and neighbors was to reach the core of humanity within us all through an African American family. Who has not been falsely accused of something? Who has not been ridiculed for a seemingly impossible dream? Who has not been tempted to do something we know is wrong? When I make presentations before older children and adults, I draw an analogy between the incident in Just Call Me Joe Joe and Arab American parents who must somehow teach their children that they may be considered terrorists just because of how they look, or the sound of their last name, or their religion. Children must be able to see that there are certain common concerns, joys, and experiences that run through all individuals, all families. I created the Joe Joe series as just such a vehicle.

How do you create “believable” plots?
I try to achieve authenticity in the plots and characterizations. Hopefully, these books—the “Joe Joe in the City” series, Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car—will seem just as relevant ten or twenty years from now. Certain core issues in life cannot be escaped. The packaging may change, but the life of a young boy or a young girl growing up carries with it certain joys, struggles, challenges, and successes that can be presented in many ways while maintaining believability. The coming of age stories of a twelve-year-old boy in Who’s Jim Hines? or a twelve-year-old girl in The Colored Car will expose the same human vulnerabilities as well as strengths of character that are as present in humanity now as they were decades ago in the 1930s.

How important is it that your books have realistic yet positive endings?
I want readers to understand that it is realistic to have hope that all types of situations can work out for the good. That doesn't mean that everything will always work out in the way we would want. For instance, children at my readings often ask if Tyrone (Joe Joe’s best friend in the “Joe Joe in the City” series) will ever do the right thing. That is an excellent question and one that I am pleased they are asking. Things work out for Joe Joe. What would have to change for things to work out, perhaps in a different way, for Tyrone? These are the kinds of questions I hope readers will wrestle with, at age appropriate levels of course, as they read my books.

Why do you weave complex life lessons as well as a heavy dose of history in your books?
I like to challenge my readers. Many books for young people, I'm afraid, do not. Yet, video games offer multiple plots and action sequences. Movies do the same, and children are not only engrossed but understand the plots all too well. So I try to give my readers a more complex reading experience, perhaps without their even knowing what is happening.

Copyright © 2008-2017 Jean Alicia Elster. All rights reserved.