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Joe Joe Rawlings: a new literary hero for kids

By Alexandra R. Moses, The Associated Press
Saturday March 30, 2002

DETROIT — Her young son stood in the department store, hands stuffed in his pockets. He was just 9 years old, but Jean Alicia Elster feared that because of the color of his skin, and the way he was standing, people would think her son was stealing. 

“I felt bad because I kind of had to break his childhood bubble. But at a certain point, young, African-American males are no longer viewed as cute little boys ... they’re viewed as potential thieves,” Elster said. 

It was this experience that inspired the plot for her first published children’s book, “Just Call Me Joe Joe.” 

The book, geared toward black, urban children ages 6-10, is the first in a series about 10-year-old Joe Joe Rawlings. It came out in October. 

In it, Joe Joe is accused by Mr. Booth, a white storeowner, of trashing his store, when it was really a local gang that did it. Joe Joe is crushed that Mr. Booth would confuse him with gang members: 

“Joe Joe looked up in shock. It was Mr. Booth yelling at him. His face was red, and his eyes were bulging with anger. He shouted at Joe Joe again. ‘I said, get out!”’ 

Elster said she wanted to address racial stereotyping because it is an experience that not only black parents have to battle, but Hispanic and Arab American parents as well. She also hopes that white parents use the book to help their children understand that “life isn’t always fair and they may view certain people of color in a certain way that’s not fair.” 

The 48-year-old author lives in Detroit with her husband, William, and their two children: Elizabeth, 14, and Isaac, 12. Elster uses Negro League star James “Cool Papa” Bell, to inspire Joe Joe to work things out with the storeowner. Joe Joe reads about Bell in a book recommended by librarian Mrs. Morgan. 

Bell’s story teaches the child that even though he is treated unfairly because of his race, it doesn’t change who he is. 

At the start of each story in the series, Mrs. Morgan will give Joe Joe a new book about a figure in black history. Later topics will include the Tuskegee Airmen and Ralph Bunche, the American diplomat who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. 

Doreen Loury, a professor of sociology at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pa., said it is encouraging to see books written for black children, “so that young people, when they hear the book and when they see the images in the book, they see themselves.” 

She said that helps black children gain a sense of identity and self-confidence. 

“People don’t have to do what I had to do in the ’60s and search for stuff,” Loury said. She said when her now-grown daughter was young, she drove miles to find toys and books specifically for black children. 

“There’s nothing wrong with looking at all kinds of literature, but when all you’re looking at is Dick and Jane, and Dick and Jane didn’t get an African-American neighbor until the ’70s,” it is limiting, Loury said. 

Kathleen Odean, children’s editor at Book magazine, said there are numerous books geared toward black children coming out now. But she said because children’s books have such staying power, the recent boon isn’t enough. 

“For so many years, nobody was doing books about black kids. And in that sense there’s a ways to go,” she said. 

Elster said it is important for children today to have positive characters in books, especially if they don’t have a lot of role models in their lives. 

When she was young, she was fortunate to have many good influences around her. Her parents were educators, and many of her neighbors were professionals. “Everyone around me was African American and very successful at what they did,” said Elster, who knew when she was 6 years old that she wanted to be a writer. 

“I would write in this little notebook. And I just remember thinking to myself, ‘This is what I want to do. I just want to write.’ I was just this little kid. I knew that this was my calling,” she said. 

Her love for words is partly influenced by her grandmother, whom she used to watch write letters using an inkwell and a fountain pen. 

But after graduating from the University of Michigan with an English degree, Elster strayed a bit from writing: She went to law school at the University of Detroit and practiced law for about five years. 

“It was strictly a financial decision. ... I thought, ‘Well, I can practice law and write on the side,”’ she said. “I still pay my bar dues. It’s like my insurance.” 

Then, she and her husband, a historian at Wayne State University, started a family, and Elster left work to raise the children. In the early 1990s, she got back to her first love, writing an essay for World Vision, and then for Ms. magazine. She began writing and editing full time in 1994. 

Judson Press, the publishing arm of the American Baptist Churches in the USA, knew her from the work she did editing two books for the publisher, and asked her to submit an idea for a children’s story about an urban black boy. She submitted four ideas. 

James A. Cox, editor in chief of Midwest Book Review, called Elster an excellent writer. 

“Basically, the hook was right where it should be, right up front. ... She managed to keep a high interest level from first page to last,” Cox said. 

In a review, Cox said the book was a “highly recommended and strong story of moral conviction and justice for young readers.” 

Mark Wiragh, Judson Press marketing manager, said it was the first time the publisher has done a black children’s book. 

“It’s exceeded our expectations,” Wiragh said. He said 10,000 copies have sold and the book is now in a second printing. 

The Joe Joe series will be four books in all. The next one, “I Have a Dream, Too!,” is due out in April. The third installment comes out in October, and the fourth will be published in April 2003. 

Elster hopes to continue the Joe Joe series, with books for a slightly older audience. She also is working on a novel for adults. 


On the Net: 

Judson Press, 

End Adv for March 7-10 and Thereafter