The success of the 2018 film release Green Book has helped to dramatically lift sales for a backlist picture book of historical fiction that Lerner Publishing Group released in 2010 under its Carolrhoda imprint. This past November, the month that Green Book was released, sales of Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey with Gwen Strauss and illustrated by Floyd Cooper spiked by 233% compared to November 2017.
The increase in sales continued in December and January, with a 158% year-to-year increase in December, and a 195% increase in January. In January and February, Green Book won the most prestigious awards bestowed by the film industry: the 2019 Golden Globe Award for best picture in the musical/comedy category and 2019 Oscars for best picture and for best original screenplay.
Lerner does not have final sales numbers for February, when the Oscars were broadcast, but publicity manager Lindsay Matvick says they expect February and March sales figures to maintain the upward trend. Ruth and the Green Book is currently in its 14th print run, though Lerner declined to supply the number of copies in print.
The Green Book that both the movie and the book refer to is The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was first published in 1936 and then annually (except during World War II) until 1966. The Green Book provided African-American travelers with lists of hotels, restaurants, and gas stations throughout the nation that would accommodate them during the Jim Crow era, when there were laws on the books segregating the races.
“It’s amazing, so many people didn’t know about it before the movie came out,” Matvick said. “That’s why we’re seeing such a spike in sales. People want to talk about it with their children and this book hits the sweet spot.”
While the Green Book film focuses upon the unlikely friendship formed when an African-American musician from New York City goes on tour in the South in 1962 with his racist Italian-American chauffeur, Ruth and the Green Book tells the story of an African-American girl who encounters discrimination when she and her family take a car trip from Chicago to Alabama in the early 1950s. The family is refused service at gas stations and at motels along the way, until a friendly gas station attendant sells them a copy of the Green Book.
PW’s review, which called the book “charged with emotion,” stated that “a sense of resiliency courses through Cooper’s (Back of the Bus) filmy illustrations—beatific portraits of the Esso worker who sells the family their Green Book and the owner of a ‘tourist home’ where the family spends the night radiate strength, kindness, and hope for a better future.”
Ramsey, 68, a playwright who grew up in North Carolina, told PW during a phone interview that he had never heard of the Green Book until, as an adult, he attended a funeral for the son of a friend, whose grandfather mentioned that he was returning to the South for the first time in years, since the era when there was need for the Green Book.
After finding two copies in an Atlanta library and talking with African-American elders about their experiences, Ramsey wrote a two-act play that was first produced in 2005 called The Green Book, about a middle-class family taking in travelers. It has since been produced by various theater groups around the country, including, last spring, the Pegasus Theater in Chicago.
Soon after writing Ruth and the Green Book, Ramsey wrote another children’s book, Belle, the Last Mule at Gee’s Bend (Candlewick, 2011), about the two mules that pulled the farm wagon carrying Martin Luther King’s casket through Atlanta before his funeral.
Ramsey said that he started writing plays in 2001, when he was 51, because he wanted to “live my dream.” He subsequently decided to write a children’s book about the Green Book because, he said, it became clear to him during conversations after his play was produced that few people knew of the existence of the Green Book, particularly those who came of age in the ’60s and afterwards. Ramsey felt that it was especially important that children be made aware of the Jim Crow era and what African-Americans had to do to maintain their dignity in a segregated society.
Ruth and the Green Book “just came to me: everything fell into place,” he said. “It was a labor of love.” Ramsey already knew of Cooper’s work, and so he contacted him. Ramsey recalled that once Cooper heard of Ramsey’s story idea, he put aside other projects to illustrate the book, “He liked the story so much. Floyd said, ‘The story is the important thing.’ I was surprised to hear an illustrator say that.”
Disclosing that the Cleveland Opera Theater will be adapting Ruth and the Green Book into an opera for young audiences, Ramsey added that he will be involved in the project, and is scheduled to visit Cleveland in January 2020 to meet with executive artistic director Scott Skiba and others involved.
Reflecting upon the success of Ruth and the Green Book, Ramsey said that he expects that, due to the movie shining a spotlight on the Green Book, more children’s books will be published about it, noting, “There’s a big push for kids to know about it. But, right now, there’s nothing out there but Ruth and the Green Book.”