Children’s Book Written By Professor Susan Lynn Meyer Has Received Several Literary and Multicultural Awards And Award Nominations

January 15, 2016
The cover image from Professor Susan Lynn Meyer's book "New Shoes"

In just one year on the shelves, a children’s book written by Susan Lynn Meyer, professor of English, has received several literary and multicultural awards and award nominations. It has also had an impact in libraries and classrooms across the country. The book was illustrated by the acclaimed Eric Velasquez.

illustrated by the acclaimed Eric Velasquez
illustrated by the acclaimed Eric Velasquez

New Shoes (Holiday House), which was first published in February 2015, is the story of Ella Mae, an African American girl living in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. In the story, Ella Mae is excited to pick out her first pair of new shoes but is humiliated when she finds out that because, of her skin color, she isn't allowed to try on any of them on.

Meyer said, at the time she began researching the book, she knew “what most people know about segregation,” about segregated seating on buses, segregated water fountains, segregated restaurants and segregated lunch counters. She said, “When I came across the fact that in many places, African Americans weren't allowed to try on clothes, hats or shoes before buying them, I was startled and appalled. I thought a lot about what it would have felt like to be slapped in the face by that practice for the first time.”

In an interview with her publisher, Meyer said she hoped the book helped readers, young and old, to learn about this injustice in America's past. “I hope the situation in the shoe store will immediately feel shocking and wrong on a gut level to children,” she said, adding, “…I hope young readers will feel Ella Mae's and Charlotte's courage and determination and confidence—and that they will see that by small positive steps, things can be made better.”

This past fall, Meyer visited a Las Vegas middle school to speak with students. After the visit, she received a note from the staff member who arranged the visit. The note read, in part, “[As] an inner-city school all our children have witnessed or experienced poverty and discrimination, no matter their race, but never to the degree in your book. They felt Ella Mae's humiliation and experienced pride when she came up with a solution to overcome prejudice and discrimination.”

Meyer, who teaches the popular course English 205: Writing for Children, said she worked on the story intermittently for several years, trying to come up with a satisfactory ending. “When writing a story for children, you want to have the child protagonist come up with a solution to the problem she faces, or at least a partial or symbolic solution to the problem—but how could a seven-year-old girl solve the problem of Jim Crow?” 

Meyer said the answer for her book came to her when she started thinking about the many subtle ways black people resisted segregation. She said also thought about the way her own young daughter loved to sell things like popsicles and lemonade in front of her family’s house—and the ending of the story, in which Ella Mae and Charlotte create an alternative "shoe store," came to her.

The book was awarded the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) 2016 Charlotte Huck Honor Book  for “outstanding fiction for children,” and is nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the “outstanding literary work for children” category. About the Image Award nomination Meyer said, “I'm so honored to be recognized by an organization so committed to social justice and with such as impressive history as the NAACP…I'm so happy and touched and honored that it is one of the five nominees.” 

New Shoes has also been named an American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book Nominee for 2016; one of the “Best Multicultural Books of 2015” by the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature; among the Chicago Public Library’s “Best Picture Books of 2015;” a Teaching for Change “Favorite Books of 2015;” an Open Circle Curriculum Recommended Book for Social Awareness; and a Top 2015 Mighty Girl Book for Younger Readers.

Meyer has a new book, Skating with the Statue of Liberty, (Penguin Random House) which is due out in April. “It’s the companion volume to my first novel for children, Black Radishes, which was inspired by my father’s experiences as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France,” she said. Most of the book takes place in New York in 1942. It, too, explores themes of discrimination. Meyer will give a reading from Skating with the Statue of Liberty at French House on Monday, May 2.