The Power of Her Pen (Hardcover)

The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne

By Lesa Cline-Ransome, John Parra (Illustrator)

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 9781481462891, 48pp.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

List Price: 17.99*
* Individual store prices may vary.


“A solid treatment of an important but little-known figure, and it may prompt kids to think about the role and composition of a free press.” —BCCB
“Cline-Ransome tells [Ethel Payne’s] story with economy and drive. ‘Somebody had to do the fighting,’ she quotes Payne saying, ‘somebody had to speak up.’” —Publishers Weekly

Renowned author Lesa Cline-Ransome and celebrated illustrator John Parra unite to tell the inspiring story of Ethel Payne, a groundbreaking African American journalist known as the First Lady of the Black Press.

“I’ve had a box seat on history.”

Ethel Payne always had an ear for stories. Seeking truth, justice, and equality, Ethel followed stories from her school newspaper in Chicago to Japan during World War II. It even led her to the White House briefing room, where she broke barriers as the only black female journalist. Ethel wasn’t afraid to ask the tough questions of presidents, elected officials, or anyone else in charge, earning her the title, “First Lady of the Black Press.”

Fearless and determined, Ethel Payne shined a light on the darkest moments in history, and her ear for stories sought answers to the questions that mattered most in the fight for Civil Rights.

About the Author

Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of many award-winning and critically acclaimed nonfiction books for young readers, including Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams; My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey; and Before She Was Harriet. She is also the author of the novel Finding Langston, which received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award and five starred reviews. She lives in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Learn more at

John Parra’s illustrations for Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos, written by Monica Brown, earned the book a New York Times Best Illustrated Book designation. He also illustrated Green Is a Chile Pepper: A Book of Colors by Roseanne Thong, which received a Pura Belpré Honor and the Américas Book Award: Commended; Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, which won the Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration and was a Bank Street Best Book of the year; and Hey, Wall, by Susan Verde, which School Library Journal called “a must-purchase” in a starred review.  Learn more at

Praise For The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne

It would have been near-impossible to predict that a Chicago South Side girl, the granddaughter of slaves, would end up firing pointed questions at U.S. presidents, serving as a critical information conduit for Black newspaper readership, and opening doors for Black and female journalists. Ethel Payne followed her passion for writing and storytelling from her high school English classes, into her job as a social director at a military base in post–World War II Japan, and onto a permanent position with the venerable African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender. There her coveted White House press pass put her face to face with chief executives, many of whom found themselves cornered by her questions about civil rights policies (“Ethel wrote the stories that the mainstream media refused to. It was her questions to presidents that finally made readers of all races pay attention to the plight of African Americans”). Parra’s stylized acrylic paintings place figures with the knife-edged crispness of paper collage against the textured surfaces of illustration board, and intersperse well-placed vignettes that suggest the length and breadth of Payne’s long career. This is a solid treatment of an important but little-known figure, and it may prompt kids to think about the role and composition of a free press. An author’s note expands information, and source credits, a brief adult bibliography, and a list for further reading are included.  EB

Chances were few for young women of color around the Great Depression, but when Ethel L. Payne’s (1911–1991) Chicago high school wouldn’t let a black student work on its newspaper, she got it to publish her first story; then, during college, she took writing classes at a local school that offered free tuition. After organizing locally during WWII, she seized the opportunity to become a correspondent in Tokyo and found herself with sudden global influence: “One of Ethel’s articles about black soldiers stationed in Japan had made its way across the seas.” After several years writing for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, she was issued White House press credentials and served through four administrations. “I’ve had a box seat on history,” she said, “and that’s a rare thing.” Folk-style portraits by Parra couple maturing images of Payne with historical emblems, and Cline-Ransome tells her story with economy and drive. “Somebody had to do the fighting,” she quotes Payne saying, “somebody had to speak up.” An author’s note and bibliography conclude. Ages 4–8. (Jan.)

— Publishers Weekly