Cynthia Levinson enjoyed a twenty-five year career in various corners of the educational system, helping make schools, classrooms, and policies better for kids. She’s also written extensively for children’s magazines like Odyssey, Faces, Dig, Cobblestone, Highlights, Stepping Stones, and others. Her evolution into the role of book author seems a natural progression.
Last week, I posted a review of Cynthia’s powerful middle grade nonfiction book, WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, February 2012.) The book hasn’t officially released yet, but it has already garnered starred reviews by Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Booklist, and is racking up similarly glowing reviews from School Library Journal and others.
Cynthia very kindly agreed to a Q and A interview for me. So, let’s dive right in to hear the story behind the story.
What inspired you to write about the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March?
In May 1963, I was a high school senior in Columbus, Ohio—just a little older than and half a world away from three of the four “main characters” I interviewed extensively for the book. We had a “colored” maid, who lived on her side of town. But, other than Betty, I didn’t know any black people—which is why I grew up only half a world, not a whole world away from Birmingham.
My father loved talking about history and politics at the dinner table. So, I knew that people in the South were protesting segregation and that some of them were being assaulted by dogs and water canons. What I didn’t know was that those people were children. And I continued to be oblivious of this crucial fact, even though I later taught American History in middle school and high school. The moment that I made that belated discovery, while researching an article on music in the civil rights era for Cobblestone magazine, I knew I had to write a book.
From initial idea to completed book, what was your journey to publication?
With sharp twists and turns, long slogs up steep slopes, and precipitous drops into ravines, the journey was definitely queasy-making. After spending three months reading everything I could find on the Children’s March and on civil rights in Alabama, I developed a proposal. Chris Barton generously looked at it and, even more generously, shared it with his agent, Erin Murphy, who signed me! That was the first peak. The next one—making a sale—took another 18 months and entailed 18 or 20 rejections. (It’s still too depressing to count them all. As I recall, one publisher rejected it twice.)
Once we found an interested—actually, very enthusiastic—publisher, two others quickly followed. And the book went to auction! The offers were wonderful in different ways, and it was a deliciously hard decision. But, after choosing Peachtree, I’ve never looked back, especially when I see the terrific book (shameless self-promotion) that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, helped me produce. I, literally, could not have done it without her.
Of the four thousand young people involved in the historic march, why did you choose Audrey Hendricks, Washington Booker, III, James Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter as your point of view characters?
First of all, they’re wonderful, candid people who want young people to know the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, especially what young people can accomplish. (I use the present tense here, though, sadly, Audrey died two years ago.) Also, because of their different backgrounds and involvement in the movement, each of them provides a window into black life, politics, and history there. The situation was complex and nuanced, and they offer personal ways to convey essential information. As well, every reader has someone to identify with. Maybe most importantly, Audrey, James, Arnetta, and Wash were willing to let me interview them for hours at a time over several years. I pursued one other person, who was ambivalent about participating but had great stories to share, for almost a year. In the end, she needed to retain her privacy, for understandable reasons.
You’ve done a remarkable job of weaving in direct quotes and photos, while laying a contextual foundation about the political environment of the time as well as the ever-evolving Civil Rights Movement. What kinds of research was involved?
As I mentioned, I started by reading. Fortunately, much has been written about the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. The events there were so melodramatic—beatings, hoses, dogs, jails. I started with two hefty Pulitzer-prize-winning tomes and, then, went on to other prize-worthy texts, including children’s books (though, at the time, nothing was available for kids on the Children’s March). I read solidly for three months.
At about that time, I discovered the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), which has an excellent website, and, even better for my purposes, video interviews with hundreds of civil rights activists. I watched snippets of these interviews online and read many dozens of transcripts.
Finally, I was ready for my first trip to Birmingham. In addition to spending days in the BCRI and Birmingham Public Library archives, I wanted to meet the people I had been reading about. But, as a new writer, with only magazine articles to my name, I wondered if busy, professional people would be willing to meet with me to talk about events of 45 years ago. Many did! I interviewed not only black people who had marched in 1963 but also white people, including a policeman, about their perspectives. This trip convinced me that onsite research is invaluable, and I ended up taking two more trips to Birmingham—one for the 45th anniversary of the March and another with my editor.
Then, while writing the book, I listened to spirituals, gospel music, civil rights songs, sermons, mass meetings. Hearing the voices of the times and the place lent a tone to the text and inspired me to keep writing.
What were the most difficult aspects of writing the book?
There were two main problems I had to grapple with. Above all, everyone knows the outcome. How do you keep readers engaged when they already know what happened? One solution, I discovered, is that, while readers know the end result, they don’t know the steps that led to it. So, including the daily details, just as the four marchers experienced them, maintains the suspense.
Some of these details, however, were arcane. In the midst of the marches, Birmingham was holding mayoral and city council elections. Figuring out how to convey the importance of municipal politics, of all things, without losing readers was tricky. Perhaps some of your readers will tell me how well I succeeded.
Is there anything else you’d like to share? Perhaps an anecdote or some such that didn’t make it into the book?
There is a funny story that didn’t fit in the final book. One of the inmates in James’ cell was a man, wearing a business suit, who got swept up in the mass arrests as he walked to work on Thursday morning, May 2, 1963. Repulsed by the tasteless food, he asked a jailer, “Excuse me, do you think I could have some hot sauce?” Even the jailer laughed. The kids, not knowing his name, called him “Hot Sauce.” They’d say, “Hey, Hot Sauce, see if you can get us scotch and soda.”
What do you hope young readers will take away from WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH?
I hope for layers of knowledge and understanding, and I hope for action. That is, the story of what children accomplished in Birmingham is not well known. So, first, I want this episode to become as familiar in Civil Rights lore as Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders. Beyond that, the fight for desegregation was not simply a matter of good guys versus bad guys or blacks versus whites. The story is complicated, and I think it’s important for young people to absorb and appreciate the complexity of society and of change. Finally, I would love to see Peace Ponies sprout around America. (For your blog readers who don’t know what I’m referring to, I urge them to read the book, including the dedication.)
What can we expect to see from you next?
My editor has two picture book manuscripts, one of which focuses on Audrey, that I hope we’ll all see some day! And, I’m working on a longer piece that also shows remarkable things that children can do.