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Elizabeth Ferguson Brown (1937-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights

coal children christmas country

Born 1937, in Newark, NJ; Education: College of New Jersey, B.S., 1959; Kean University, M.A., 1990, M.A., 1992.

Bridgewater-Raritan School District, Bridgewater, NJ, classroom teacher, 1959-61; Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District, Scotch Plains, NJ, classroom teacher, 1972-85, curriculum facilitator, 1985-92, member of school district staff development team, 1985-95, classroom teacher, 1992-95; writer, 1995—. Workshop leader, "Writing for Children: The Art, the Craft, the Marketing," August, 2002.

Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, International Reading Association.

Recommended reading list citation from American Coal Foundation, 2003, notable book citation, International Reading Association, 2004, and recommended Appalachian book for children and picture book for children, both 2004, both by Appalachian Literature Website.

Silver Burdett Science Textbook, Grade Two (teacher's edition), Silver Burdett (Morristown, NJ), 1984.

Coal Country Christmas (picture book), illustrated by Harvey Stevenson, Boyds Mills Press (Honesdale, PA), 2003.

Contributor of stories, "The Glockenspiel," to Jack & Jill, 1971-72, and "The Purple Sky," to Children's Playmate, 1974.

Wildflower Spring, a middle grade novel; Prairie Shadows and Plover Prints, picture books on endangered species; research for a picture book about the first American steam engine, the Stourbridge Lion.

Elizabeth Ferguson Brown told SATA: "Born in Newark, New Jersey, the best thing about my house was that it was just a few blocks from the movies and the public library. When I wasn't reading stories, I was at the movies watching them unfold on the big screen. Vacations, my mother, father, and I drove 'up home' to visit my grandparents in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania. My father was an avid fisherman, so there was always a lake to be found and a fishing line to be baited. Afterwards, I would stretch out on the grass and listen to my father read aloud from his favorite book, The Song of Hiawatha. To this day, I can still hear his deep, resonant voice when I read those rhythmic verses. In high school I joined the school newspaper which published my poetry. When I graduated, no one was surprised when I decided to become a high school English and history teacher.

"Once I was off to the College of New Jersey, I began to wonder about teaching high school students. My college roommate was a senior returning from practice teaching kindergarten. Listening to her talk about her experiences, I discovered what ages I really wanted to teach—and changed my major to Kindergarten Primary. A class in children's literature assured me I had made the right decision. While I still worked on the college newspaper and wrote poetry, I was happily immersed in those books I loved as a child and still find fascinating today.

"Graduating from college, I began teaching first grade and married my college sweetheart, Bob, who was teaching music. When Bob moved from elementary music to junior high, our first daughter arrived and I left teaching. Then Bob moved into a choral music department in high school, and our second daughter was born. With just two babies at home, I began writing again, but now it was stories for children. By the time our third daughter had arrived, I had two stories and a number of poems and games published in children's magazines. But time for writing ended when our fourth daughter was born.

"When our daughters entered school, I returned to teaching. This time, I finally taught kindergarten, then first grade and then second. Fourteen years later, I became a curriculum facilitator, helping classroom teachers. I loved working with teachers almost as much as working with students. Then I became a student again myself, studying for two master's degrees. By now, students Bob had taught in high school had married and started families. Some of their children went through my elementary classes and now were showing up in my husband's music groups in the high school. While it was wonderful to see all those generations of students pass through our classrooms, the time had come to retire! Bob left first, and I had just three years to go before I would finally have time to write again. Those last three years, I would spend teaching second grade.

"Happy to be back in the classroom, I encouraged my students to talk to grandparents and then write the stories they told them. As they shared them, I thought about my grandparents in Pennsylvania who raised eight children on a coal miner's salary. Money was scarce, but family love was strong. My grandfather died of the miner's black lung when I was eleven. For the next ten years we went up home to visit my grandmother until she died the year I got married. My own daughters and their children never knew my grandparents or their life in coal country. These were things I needed to write about.

"I began my research of anthracite mining in museums, books, and newspapers. I had always loved history, but this history was so personal. I found articles about the mine fire that burned in abandoned mine shafts in my grandparents' town for over seventeen years before it was finally extinguished. I actually remembered the fire burning when I visited my grandmother. I had seen smoke rising from the part of town where the fire burned and houses that had collapsed when mine shafts beneath them gave way. I recalled the sadness in my grandmother's voice as she talked about people dying in their sleep when coal gas seeped into their homes. It wouldn't be easy to write about these things coal country women learned to live with, but I wanted to try.

"I had heard my father's voice reading those rhythmic verses and my grandmother's voice talking about her life, now I had to find my own voice as I began to write. It was hard to find the right words to paint a picture in readers' minds when that picture wasn't pretty. I struggled to keep the writing sparse but rhythmic and flowing. Through it all, I tried to show the closeness and love of family in the face of hardship. By the time I retired at the end of those three years, I had finished writing my story. It would be a long time before it was published, but I never gave up believing that it would happen.

"After retirement, I not only found time to write, but also met others who loved writing as much as I did. I joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and a local critique group which helped my writing tremendously. A couple of years later, we sold our house in New Jersey and moved to Rhode Island near one of our daughters. Although that meant finding a new critique group and new writing friends, it didn't take long because there are many wonderful writers in New England.

"Now I visit elementary schools with my picture book, Coal Country Christmas. It's wonderful talking with students about writing their family stories and encouraging them to pursue their own dreams. I'm working with teachers again too, sharing a packet of teaching activities I've written for my book. I even find time to speak with parents about the importance of reading aloud to their children.

"Most of all, I continue to write. It's not surprising most of my stories have a bit of history in them. The middle grade novel Wildflower Spring is set in the 1800s. These are my new dreams, and I'll never give up on them. Never."

In Coal Country Christmas, a young girl named Elizabeth travels with her family to spend Christmas in Carbondale, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town drawn in great detail. The holiday is bittersweet for the coal country women, as so many husbands and fathers have died young from working in the mines. Nevertheless, on a tight budget, Elizabeth's grandmother—also named Elizabeth—manages to bring the warmth of Christmas into her home and the hearts of those around her. In the words of a Kirkus Reviews critic, Brown "touches lightly upon the unfortunate circumstances of living in coal country with a hint of sadness, inevitability, and acceptance." April Gaugler in Childhood Education found the book "a warm and loving Christmas story," and Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman styled it "harsh yet upbeat . . . a moving seasonal story of a real place."

With her mother, a young girl arrives in an Appalachian mining town to spend Christmas with her grandmother and learn how a holiday can be enhanced by love and meaningful traditions. (From Coal Country Christmas, written by Elizabeth Ferguson Brown and illustrated by Harvey Stevenson.)

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 15, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Coal Country Christmas, p. 416.

Childhood Education, winter, 2003, April Gaugler, review of Coal Country Christmas, p. 91.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2003, review of Coal Country Christmas.

Publishers Weekly, September 22, 2003, review of Coal Country Christmas, p. 71.

School Library Journal, October, 2003, Virginia Walter, review of Coal Country Christmas, p. 61.

Angela M. Brown Biography - Pursued Spiritual Path through Song, Groomed to be a Verdi Soprano [next]

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