2012 Highlights Founder’s Workshop- Whole Narrative Nonfiction

A visit to the Highlights editorial offices in Honesdale, PA

I’ve just returned from my second Highlights Founder’s Workshop with a renewed vigor. Not that I was in a slump before hand but when I learned who was on faculty for this event, how could I pass up the opportunity? Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Elizabeth Partridge, Peggy Thomas– they’re all rock stars in the kid-lit nonfiction arena and I’ve been a loyal fan for a long time. I’ve studied their works and admired their careers. After a week with them, I have a new appreciation for their professionalism and their personal integrity. I’ve met the “other side” of their rock star image, and glimpsed at how their own careers evolved.

And, Carolyn Yoder, the notoriously “picky” editor of Highlights and Calkins Creek Books, was on faculty, too. This was a rare chance to pick her brain, and soak in her editorial wisdoms relating to my specific manuscript. Today, Carolyn is more three dimensional to me. She’s funny, fun-loving, energetic, curious, and she shares my love of British comedies.

Check out the new Highlights Barn, aka the conference center. Can you imagine a more perfect design for this rustic setting, especially when flanked by the woodsy cabins we each inhabited? How cool is that?

The Highlights Conference Center (Barn)

I had a specific goal in mind for the week. To find clarity on a
manuscript that I’ve whittled away at for almost ten years. It’s been
through so many rewrites, so many re-envisionings, so many different
approaches, I needed to re-immerse myself in the story to get back on
track. And, I did just that.

My week was filled with structured lecture time, one-on-one sessions with my assigned faculty mentor (thank you Peggy!,) one-on-one time with Carolyn, large chunks of private writing time, and chef-prepared meals that were out of this world. But, unstructured time was equally important. I enjoyed numerous walks through the Pennsylvania countryside where conversations with my new friends flitted between craft, marketing, and personal life. There was ample time to pose my endless questions and to benefit from questions posed by others. Often, it was the impromptu discussions that offered the most insight.

Beyond the amazing workshop week, I was reminded how much I admire Kent Brown,  the executive director of the Highlights Foundation, Inc. He is
editor in chief emeritus of Highlights for Children, Inc., and the
former publisher of Boyds Mills Press, the trade division of Highlights, which he co-founded in 1990. He serves Highlights for Children, Inc. as a director. During this week, Kent was dressed down, ready for hard labor, as he supervised the construction of the new lodge being built on property. We were thrilled when he joined us for several meals. His grandparents would be proud of what the Highlights Foundation accomplishes today. Kent is the supportive and generous backbone to the organization. Rest assured, there is great heart behind the Highlights name.

During my last day’s walk, I slowed, allowing my friends to return to home base without me. I needed to meander for a change. To inhale deeply and to take in the natural setting. The sounds of rushing water, fluttering birds, and a whistling breeze centered me. It was time for me to look at the minutia of nature’s wonders. The lichen on the rocks, the beaver dam, the buzzing bees on the foliage. Nature is a part of me- the roots to my tree of life. There was no better ending to my week of rediscovery.

my cabin

Calkins Creek-behind the Founder’s home
Look who else enjoyed the workshop. My talented friend, Cynthia Levinson

from left, Ann Parr, Peggy Thomas, me, Carolyn Yoder, and Carolyn’s mother, Kay
This greeted me every morning

I tried like the dickens to get photos of the adorable chipmunks. They peered through the glass doors during our sessions and one even trapped himself inside the barn until we helped him find his way outside. I could never get my camera out in time. Until this moment. Out of the blue, as I was walking toward the Barn, this little guy ran right up to me. He paused long enough for me to take my phone out of my pocket and find the camera setting.

It was rainy for part of our week, but that didn’t stop some of us from walking. Check out the heart-shaped puddle I came upon. I find it metaphorical, really. Something about finding beauty in our work, even when we’re muddled in the mire of details.  At the end of the day, it’s all about finding the heart of our stories.



In WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH (Peachtree, February 2012), author Cynthia Levinson shines a light on a dark, oft-forgotten chapter in the American struggle for civil rights. Impeccable research, including direct quotes from marchers themselves, has resulted in an expertly crafted, three dimensional true story. More than a must read, this is a potential catalyst to spark a conversation with children and teens about civil rights and humanity.

In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was the most segregated city in America. Racist white, dictatorial community leaders had twisted into oblivion the U.S. Supreme court ruling that declared segregation of public facilities unconstitutional. Birmingham was a dam of injustice ready to burst.

Levinson introduces the ensuing flood of events through the accounts of four pivotal young protestors, Washington (Wash) Booker, III, James Stewart, Arnetta Streeter, and the youngest marcher, nine-year-old Audrey Hendricks.

African American citizens wanted nothing more than to see the end of segregation. Though black participants of the civil rights movement abided by their own “Ten Commandments of Nonviolence,” they frequently fell victim to the KKK, bombings in homes and churches, intentional attacks by police dogs, and the full force of fire hoses.

“When video of children being hosed across asphalt and charged by growling dogs appeared on the news that night, America started to pay attention to how Birmingham treated its Negro population. One child was photographed holding up a hand-lettered sign that read, ‘We’re Human, Too.'”

When negotiation efforts repeatedly failed, organizers like Martin Luther King, Jr,  Fred Shuttlesworth, and James Bevel became desperate. It was decided the only way to draw attention to Birmingham’s civil rights crisis was to peacefully and intentionally get arrested. The crusade was informally dubbed “Project Confrontation or Project C.”

“Project C would pit blacks against whites in nonviolent ways by sitting at segregated lunch counters, parks, city hall. They picketed businesses and let Birmingham know that they would no longer ‘endure the laws and custom of segregation, brutal treatment by the police and injustice of the courts…’ They were willing to fill up the jails.”

But, when the adults had to return to work to earn a living, four thousand young people eagerly rose to the challenge. They came in droves, in peaceful protest, until the city, county, and surrounding county jails were beyond capacity.

“Since the beginning of Project C, less than five weeks earlier, a reported 2,425 people, almost all of them students, had been arrested. The jails and fairgrounds were filled to bursting. Downtown businesses were empty. The whole world was watching.”

The world continued to watch until change finally came to Birmingham. “Sobered. Angry. Determined. This is the way many people of Birmingham, the country and the White House felt in September 1963. Sobered by racism. Angry about violence. Determined to gain civil rights.”

Archival photographs, informational sidebars, a timeline of Birmingham’s segregation challenges, and a map of the city are included as a supplemental bonus.

The events in WE’VE GOT A JOB pre-date my generation yet I’m left wondering why I’ve never heard of Children’s March. How could I not have known about the brave young people who, despite unimaginable adversity, shifted the balance of the civil rights movement? Children! The story, as in the era, is about cruelty, injustice, bravery, determination. It’s a story about humanity that is woven into our collective history. As they say, if we do not know where we come from, how can we know where we are going?

Though Levinson herself was an Ohio teenager during tenuous 1963, and remembers reading about the marches and the treatment of protestors in her youth, it wasn’t until she was researching civil rights music for Cobblestone magazine that she learned the role of children in the Birmingham crusade. In Levinson’s words, “Many people, I realized, needed to know how a Children’s March changed American history. So, I set out to learn what happened.”

I, for one, am very glad she did.

Stay tuned for my interview with author Cynthia Levinson.