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Shadyside author's children's books open window on black family bonds

Tuesday, February 08, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Her voice is soothing, and her words are so simple they could transport a 5-year-old child to the complex post-Civil War world of Reconstruction.

  Children's author Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard will read from her latest book Saturday at Barnes & Noble at Waterworks Mall. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)
But on this day, Shadyside author Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard isn't talking to a child, but to an adult. She draws you in as she reads aloud from her latest children's book, "Virgie Goes to School With Us Boys."

It's her eighth picture book, and as in the others, her characters are not fictional, but based on members of her large, tight-knit black family. Virgie, the feisty heroine who wants to go to school like her older brothers during Reconstruction in Tennessee, is really her great-aunt.

Howard, who is as graceful as the characters in her books, will read her work at a storytime at 11 a.m. Saturday, at Barnes & Noble at Waterworks Mall, Fox Chapel.

Howard is writing the kind of books she never saw as a young girl growing up in Boston. All the picture books of her childhood had illustrations of only white boys and girls.

"It was as if all books were supposed to be about white kids," she says. "We realize now how important it is for kids to see themselves" in literature.

"A lot of other books show the hardships and tribulations of African-Americans. That is needed," she says. But Howard's books do something else - they focus on the loving bonds between members of a middle-class black family.

"She writes about an overlooked world, how middle-class African-Americans lived, how they had a stable life, how close they were," says Marjorie Murray, a fellow children's author who lives in Regent Square. "She writes about it in a way that children today can understand. It is very down-to-earth."

  Black History Month

Visit PG Online's Black History Month page for a calendar of local events, timelines, Post-Gazette articles and Internet links.


Howard has always loved to read. As a sixth-grader who devoured "Little Women," she vowed to be an author.

But it wasn't until after she lived a full life - graduating from Radcliffe College, marrying and having three daughters, becoming a children's librarian in Boston, moving to Pittsburgh, becoming a professor of children's literature and library science at West Virginia University and later a doting grandmother - that she sat down to write.

She followed a very basic rule: Write what you know.

In 1988, a year after her first grandchild was born, her first book, "The Train to Lulu's," was published. It was based on the train rides that she and her younger sister would take when they were only 7 and 4. Called by their childhood nicknames of Beppy and Babs, the two little girls would ride the train alone from Boston to Baltimore to visit their Aunt Lulu, and would obediently follow their mother's instructions to eat their packed lunch when the train got to New Haven and to eat dinner in Philadelphia.

"I can still remember those train rides as clear as can be," Howard says smiling distantly.

"I can still feel like it was for her and her sister to be on the train," says Sharon Flake, a children's author who also works in public relations at the University of Pittsburgh. "There is just this very warm feeling I get when I even think about her books. She just writes the way children speak."

Howard's most popular book , "Aunt Flossie's Hats (and Crabcakes Later)", is based on her kind aunt who paid half her tuition at Radcliffe. Aunt Flossie never threw anything out, including her vast hat collection. The book mixes in real memories with fictional twists and turns.

We pick up our hats and try them on. Aunt Flossie says they are her memories and each hat has its story. One Saturday afternoon, I picked out a wooly winter hat, sort of green, maybe. Aunt Flossie thought a minute. Aunt Flossie almost always thinks a minute before she starts a hat story.

The Howards' Edwardian house is filled with dozens of photos of family, and the living room walls are lined with paintings of the evocative illustrations from her books. Seven different illustrators worked on the eight books, which have been published by Clarion Books and Simon & Schuster.

Writing the text of a picture book is much harder than it looks. In just 500 words or so, you have to pack in a plot, characters and dialogue.

"It is like ballet. They might make it look effortless but it is not," Murray says. Howard, she says, "writes beautifully for young children. Her characters just come alive. You feel like you know these people."

Weaving history into a book for children age 5 to 8 is also tricky. "You take a tiny, tiny slice of history," Howard says. She put in details from the Spanish American War in her books, "Chita's Christmas Tree" and "Papa Tells Chita a Story," starring a beloved cousin, Chita.

Though her books feature black children, Howard said children of all races seem to relate equally well to them.

"It doesn't seem to matter. There are more connections than differences. Most kids have an Aunt Flossie."

Howard also does author visits and sometimes attends children's literature conferences. In 1995, Howard traveled to South Africa and talked to teachers and librarians about the importance of writing stories about their own families.

Her family, especially her father, Mac Fitzgerald, has always been grateful she wrote about them. Mac, the star of "Mac and Marie and the Train Toss Surprise," loved reading his daughter's books over and over.

Sadly, Mac and some of the other relatives have died since Howard's books were published.

But Mac and Virgie and Chita and Aunt Flossie live on in her words.

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