When I read New Shoes several weeks ago, I knew I had to invite author, Susan Lynn Meyer to my blog. Susan takes a micro-fact in the history of the Jim Crow era and turns it into a story of resilience and courage in the face of injustice. New Shoes (illustrated are by Eric Velasquez) reminds us that injustice is never big or small, it’s simply wrong. And Susan reminds us that time travel through story can help readers, old and young, explore valuable – even if difficult – events of our ongoing history.
It’s with great pride that I welcome, Susan Lynn Meyer talking about her picture book New Shoes.
Time Travel for Kindergarteners
The past can feel impossibly remote to kids. I often tell my daughter stories about my own childhood, stories that feel quite immediate to me. I mean, how long ago was it that a certain boy used to torment me by following me home from school shouting “Hi Ugly”? How long ago was it that I found a small black dog asleep on a discarded mattress in our carport and persuaded my parents to keep her? I feel as if I could reach out my hand and touch those memories, as if I could blink and be there again.
But I realized something recently. Do you remember how long ago and far away your parents’ childhoods felt when you were growing up? That’s how long ago and far away—how almost unreal—our childhoods feel to kids now. “Really?” I want to protest. “It’s different because . . . .”
No, it isn’t different. Our pasts feel impossibly long ago to children now.
And the events that happened before even we, the adults, were born—that past can feel even more unimaginably far away.
How can young children travel in time? How can they feel what it was like to live in another era? Enter: THE HISTORICAL FICTION PICTURE BOOK!
If I were teaching an elementary grade, I’ve been thinking (I teach older students), I might decorate a time travel capsule for my class. You could make tickets for the box providing transport to particular eras.
You could have books at the ready that vividly represented life in that time—and maybe also a few appropriate artifacts to go along with each book. A child could reach in and pick out a ticket. And then it would be time to read aloud a book.
If the card said, for example, “1950s America,” you might read my newest picture book, New Shoes. Maybe you could show your class a pair of saddle shoes too. (Yes, they still make them! I found mine on Zappos—I wanted a pair to wear when I visit elementary schools to talk about my book.) Ella Mae, the main character in New Shoes, is an African-American girl who yearns for a new pair of saddle shoes for school—but getting them isn’t as wonderful as she had hoped.
I wrote New Shoes because I’d been reading about the Jim Crow South and I came across a fact that I hadn’t known before. Throughout the country, before the mid-sixties, in many stores African-American customers were not allowed to try on shoes before buying them. No trying on of clothes or hats either. And what if a black customer took the items home and they didn’t fit? No returns.
I was stunned by this fact and somewhat embarrassed that I hadn’t known it. I wondered a lot about about what it would have been like to encounter this discriminatory practice for the first time. What would it have been like to be a child in a shoe store, watching white people try on shoes, eagerly waiting a turn—and then to discover that you couldn’t try on shoes yourself? That you were expected to trace your feet and accept the shoebox that was handed to you?
I mulled this over, and gradually the story of New Shoes shaped itself in my head. It is the story of Ella Mae, a girl who has this experience as her mother is buying her back-to-school shoes.
I imagined my way into Ella Mae’s life as well as I could. But I’m not black, and there’s no substitute for actual experience, so I asked some black friends to read an early draft of the manuscript. One told me that something felt off to her—that Ella Mae’s mother wouldn’t have stated point-blank that what had happened was wrong, as I had her doing in my early draft of the story. Instead she would have tried to protect her daughter by emphasizing the positive. I thought about my own older relatives, and I thought about how I behaved as a parent, and that comment felt so intuitively right to me. I changed the text (thank you, Anita!), and now the mother tells Ella Mae to think about how nice her feet will look for school.
But of course Ella Mae has paid attention what has happened. We try to protect our kids, but they live in the world and they notice everything.
So the hardest part about writing this story was coming up with an ending—one that was affirmative, yet realistic. Ella Mae can’t fix the problem of discrimination at the age of seven. What can she do?
I wrote twenty-three different versions of New Shoes over the course of several years. I wasn’t happy with any of them. Then one day I thought about how much my young daughter liked to play store and to sell things like lemonade at stands in front of our house. I thought too about the “clothing exchange” of second-hand clothes that used to take place in a town where I once lived, a common practice that dates back to the frugal days of the second world war. Things came together in my head, and suddenly I had my ending—one where Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte offer an alternative shoe shopping experience to people in their community. In Ella Mae and Charlotte’s shoe store, Ella Mae says proudly, the customers can “try on all the shoes they want.”
I’ll never forget some of the historical fiction (and nonfiction) my teachers read aloud to me. I have vivid memories of my fifth grade teacher reading aloud Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes and The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig. Listening to those books, the past came alive for me. Does my book New Shoes allow kindergarteners to experience time travel? To inhabit, however briefly, another person’s experience in another time and place? I hope so.
What are some of your favorite books for time travel?
Susan Lynn Meyer is the author of two picture books, New Shoes and Matthew and Tall Rabbit Go Camping. She is also the author of two middle-reader historical novels, Black Radishes (winner of the Sydney Taylor silver medal) and Skating with the Statue of Liberty (forthcoming from Delacorte in 2016), both inspired by her father’s experiences as a Jewish boy in France and then in America during World War II. She has taught middle school students and now teaches English and creative writing at Wellesley College.