How It Happens


How It Happens follows the story of author Jean Alicia Elster’s maternal grandmother, Dorothy May Jackson. Born in Tennessee in 1890, Dorothy May was the middle daughter of Addie Jackson, a married African-American housekeeper at one of the white boardinghouses in town, and Tom Mitchell, a commanding white attorney from a prominent family. Through three successive generations of African-American women, Elster intertwines the fictionalized adaptations of the defining periods and challenges—race relations, miscegenation, sexual assault, and class divisions—in her family’s history.

A continuation of the plots begun in Elster’s two novels Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored CarHow It Happens continues the story for an older audience and begins with Addie’s life before the turn of the twentieth century in the South as a married Black woman with three biracial daughters navigating the relationship between her husband and Tom Mitchell. Later the story shifts to Addie’s daughter Dorothy May’s experiences both as a child and later, as a teacher who, choosing between her career and marriage to a man she barely knows, moves to Detroit. The story moves along with Dorothy May’s daughter Jean, who, with the support of her mother and the memory of her grandmother, confronts and comes to terms with her role in society and the options available to her as a college-educated Black woman in the post–World War II industrial North. While there is struggle and hardship for each of these women, they each build off one other and continue to demand space in the world in which they live.


“Elster has written an eloquent YA novel based on her own maternal family history. Readers will appreciate the intergenerational stories of Addie, Dorothy May, and Jean. They will enjoy and treasure their strength, determination, and resilience amid racism, abuse, conflicting gender roles, and family secrets. VERDICT This triumphant volume of Black women’s stories will engage readers. A strong choice of YA collections.”

School Library Journal

  • 2022 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal in Young Adult Fiction 
  • 2021 Foreword INDIES Silver Winner for Young Adult Fiction 
  • 2022 Midwest Book Award – Silver Winner in Young Adult Fiction

“…I felt like I was eavesdropping on some extremely personal and private conversations, and I thank you for allowing that familiarity…Thank you for your candor, for opening my eyes, and for choosing young readers as your principal audience. They need to have this information to move us all forward.”

—m’Arch McCarty, Artistic Director, Children’s Theatre of Michigan

“A captivating and necessary story that navigates through a difficult part of American history in a way that people of all ages can understand and connect with. In sharing her family’s story, Elster shares the story of so many of us.”

—Kelly J. Baptist, author of Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero and The Electric Slide and Kai

“A beautiful and meticulously researched novel, How It Happens takes us into the world of three memorable young Black women, Addie, May, and Jean, each living in a different generation, each seeking to achieve freedom. Looking at racism straight in the eye, Jean Alicia Elster has written a powerful and timely story of resilience and hope. A must-read novel for all young adult readers.”

—Ruth Behar, author of Letters from Cuba

“The history of slavery and oppression is white history. The story of survival is black history. Through the lens of one black family’s experience in America, Elster details racism’s vicious assault on the black family, and how African Americans have triumphed regardless. Thank you, Jean Alicia Elster, for reminding us exactly how victory happens.”

—Desiree Cooper, author of Know the Mother 

How It Happens is an excellent conversation starter. It offers a slightly different viewpoint than I’ve seen presented before—without the rose-colored softening of a fateful relationship that started with an order that, in that time and place, could not be refused.”

—Jessica Trotter, collection development specialist, Capital Area District Libraries

“A captivating narrative of struggle and determination, which does not shy away from portraying class divisions, racism, and sexual assault in American society, How It Happens is highly recommended especially for school and public library YA Fiction collections.”

—James A. Cox, Midwest Book Review

“How It Happens…is such a unique novel because it tackles racism from multiple perspectives, each written beautifully.”

—Elena, teen blogger/reviewer, Elena Reads and Reviews

“Jean Alicia Elster invites the reader into her own historical journey that is profound, educational, and inspirational. Jean has the ability to give the page turner the opportunity to get to know several characters and the many challenges they faced up close and personally.”

—Tara Michener, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (Michigan chapter)

“…powerful, eye-opening, poignant, sometimes funny too. Jubilant despite everything. Thank you for this book.”

— Fiona Robertson, author of If You’re Happy