Pittsburgh-set ‘Down on James Street’ aims to engage young readers
An alum’s newly published children’s picture book with social justice undertones is rooted in lessons learned at Carlow University.
“Down on James Street,” a work of fiction by 2008 alumna Nicole McCandless, was inspired by a 1930s event on Pittsburgh’s North Side that McCandless learned about in a Carlow history class. The incident reportedly involved the closing of a popular James Street jazz bar because of interracial dancing.
“That story just kind of stuck with me,” McCandless said. “When I started to write seriously, this was the first story that I wanted to do. The question was, ‘How do I turn an event that I really don’t know anything about into creating a story for children?’”
The book, illustrated by Byron Gramby, features characters Dorothy, a Black woman, and George, a white man who must decide between white privilege and helping his friend reopen the dance. “A big part of Catholic social teaching is when to lead and when to follow, and George learned to trust Dorothy and to follow her,” McCandless said.
McCandless said she is motivated to write books that address racism, police violence, white privilege and other issues that are not easily discussed with children.
McCandless said the book contains jazz music and dance moves as well as serious issues. “But it is also a fun book where kids learn about the Lindy Hop and different kinds of sounds and music styles as well,” she said.
While there, she led a student Peace and Justice Club that focused on labor abuses in sweatshops and advocated for Carlow’s participation in the Worker Rights Consortium. She later worked as a labor organizer in Pittsburgh, Pa.
“Down on James Street” was presented via Zoom April 30 by the Cultural Theory Historical Practices Lecture Series and The Social Justice Institutes.
Joel Woller, assistant professor of history, was McCandless’ student advisor and narrator for the book presentation.
“As a student activist, Nicole heard cries for justice from women and girls of color, often from the other side of the world. Yet she also understood that these seemingly distant sweatshop workers are in fact an essential part of our Carlow community, since they make the uniforms and bookstore merchandise that bears our logo,” Woller said. “She recognized their dignity and responded with mercy and solidarity.”
Woller said her book embodies the creative, ethical, scholarly and activist spirit of Carlow.
“Nicole vividly re-creates the fun and excitement of 1930s jazz and swing dancing. The result is an engaging, entertaining, educational and thought-provoking antiracist story for ages 6-12 and up,” he said.
College of Arts and Sciences Dean Matthew Gordley, PhD, said McCandless’ work is a unique combination of historical investigation, artistic imagination and creative expression to help young readers engage with a complex and timely issue.
“Nicole’s book is a great embodiment of Carlow’s values, as it demonstrates how a liberal arts approach to understanding the human experience can help us reflect on the past to inform the present and to foster the perspectives that can lead to a better future,” Gordley said. “It is really wonderful to see the creative and important work that a history graduate like Nicole has been able to produce.”
McCandless resides in Pittsburgh’s South Hills with her husband Ben and children Jeffrey, Sarah and Samuel.