Emma Gelders Sterne (1894-1971) is best known for her “All About” children’s books, three of which (No Surrender, Amarantha Gay, M.D., and The Calico Ball) are set in Birmingham and reflect the city’s development during and shortly after the Civil War. Another of her books, Some Plant Olive Trees, is based on the early nineteenth-century French settlement of Demopolis.
Sterne was born in Birmingham on May 13, 1894, to Louis Gelders, a businessman who owned real estate and operated a restaurant, and Blanche Loeb, a member of a pioneer Mississippi family who was active in cultural circles. The eldest of her parents’ three children and the only daughter, young Emma spent the first two years of her life in the Opera House Hotel in Birmingham. The remainder of her childhood was spent in a large house on Red Mountain, where a favorite pastime was horseback riding through the woods with her father.
Gelders wrote stories from an early age and contributed to both her high school and college literary magazines. After receiving a B.A. from Smith College in 1916, she returned to Birmingham, where she became active in the suffrage movement and developed an interest in social welfare; in 1917, she started a school for delinquent children. Subsequently, she was employed by a Birmingham newspaper as a columnist writing about women’s interests.
In 1917, Gelders married Roy M. Sterne, a lawyer. After the birth of their two daughters, Ann and Barbara, the Sternes moved to New York, where Roy Sterne became general counsel and secretary of Liggett Drug Company. While in New York, Emma Sterne’s interests as writer and social activist solidified. She sold her first story in May 1923 and then entered the writing program at Columbia University in 1923 and the New School for Social Research in 1925. Her lifelong social activism led her to join a number of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She identified herself as a Democrat and an atheist and noted that friends and family wondered if she were a Communist.
The move to New York marked the beginning of a writing and editing career that was to remain virtually uninterrupted until her death. Her career focused on two primary interests: children’s literature and history. Combining the two fields, she produced 44 books, many of them historical and biographical works especially adapted and illustrated for children. Her subjects included adaptations of the King Arthur legends, Native American topics, and even topics such as slavery. Her works were well received, particularly those in the field of children’s literature, and were included in a number of educational programs. Toward the end of her career, from 1959 to 1966, Sterne co-authored a dozen juvenile books (the Kathy Martin series) with Barbara Lindsay, her younger daughter. This series appeared under the pseudonyms of Emily Brown (Sterne) and Josephine James.
The final years of Sterne’s life were spent in San Jose, California, where she continued to write and practice social activism. She died in San Jose on August 29, 1971.
Selected Works by Emma Gelders Sterne
All About Peter Pan (1924)
All About Little Boy Blue (1924)
Loud Sing Cuckoo (1930)
Amarantha Gay, M.D. (1933)
Drums of Monmouth (1935)
Some Plant Olive Trees (1937)
European Summer (1938)
The Pirate of Chatham Square (1939)
America Was Like This (1940)
We Live To Be Free (1942)
Printer’s Devil (1952)
Long Black Schooner: The Voyage of the Amistad (1953)
I Have a Dream (1965)
They Took Their Stand (1968)
Burke, W. I., and Will D. Howe, eds. American Authors and Books, 1640 to the Present Day. Revised edition. New York: Crown Publishers, 1972.
Fuller, Muriel, ed. More Junior Authors. New York: H.W. Wilson, Co., 1963.