All the Things

A blog by Holly Papa.

Mary Jane by Dorothy Sterling

by | Mar 28, 2009 | Blog | 3 comments

A novel by an amazing author who, sadly, passed away only a few months ago. Dorothy Sterling was a pioneer in historical literature, traveling throughout the South conducting interviews and research to use in writing more than 30 books, primarily non-fiction, that challenged traditional ‘confederate’ thinking about African Americans. Mary Jane was one of the books that resulted from these efforts.

When Mary Jane decides to be one of the first students to integrate at Wilson Junior High, she doesn’t understand why everyone in her family is making such a big fuss. On her first day of school, she realizes that life will be harder than she expected, but she is determined to survive.

“Mary Jane thought Mamma didn’t understand how hard things were at Wilson. Truth to tell, Mamma understood more than Mary Jane knew. Every night she talked with Daddy about transferring her to Douglass. Every day she paced the porch, fearful that some harm had come to her little girl.”

A compelling, insightful tale that not only gives you a glimpse into the difficulties of achieving integration, but gives you glimpses into the culture of that era. Dorothy was born in 1913, and wrote her books based on first-hand experience and primary resources- both signs of her journalism background. This, in my opinion gives her books more authenticity. Some protest that the reactions of families and communities was wrong- but she wrote it how it was, not how some people like to clean up the past and put it on a pretty plate so people will want to look at it.

What others are saying about Dorothy Sterling:

“In 1957, she [Sterling] toured several Southern states to collect interviews with black children who were integrating white schools. Their stories of courage in the face of beatings and verbal harassment by hostile whites formed the basis of “Tender Warriors” (1958), a nonfiction book with photographer Myron Ehrenberg, and “Mary Jane” (1959), a novel.

She fought to publish “Mary Jane,” which portrayed the desegregation battle from the point of view of a black girl in a newly integrated school. Initially boycotted in the South and in some Northern cities, it eventually became a bestseller and was printed in several languages.”

**LA Times tribute article

Some of Dorothy’s books are difficult to find and out of print- I found this one listed on ebay as an antique, but didn’t need to buy it since my Mom has a copy in her home library. I apologize that there is no picture, but I don’t know how to work my Mom’s scanner- there are nice pictures of the book on ebay and amazon, if you care to go look.


  1. Tara Lester

    I read Mary Jane over 40 nyears ago. This book has left such an impression on my life. I am in the process of for a copy. Thank you, Tara Lester

  2. Adela, the CR

    Mary Jane was one of the first books I could read myself and I have really enjoyed it. It was my ritual for many years to go through it again at a beginning of a new school year and read about all new clothes etc. I especially like the part about a trip with teachers to her grandfather.
    As a small kid I had absolutely no experience with minorities so I did not take it as an anti-racial but generally as a survival kit for an unfriendly environment.
    I have come across your blog when searching for Mary Jane, if she was a historical figure – because now my daughter is reading it and she wants to know:-)
    The only (I think) Czech translation was published at the turn of 70ies /80ies with illustrations by Kamil Lhotak, a really famous Czech artist.

  3. hollybookscoops

    Adela- I’m glad to know that Mary Jane is still being read and loved. I think Mary Jane is a composite character made up of all the people the author interviewed, although it would be wonderful to have just one person to attribute her to. I would also love to see the illustrations in the Czech translation version.


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