Author interview: Cynthia Levinson


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?


Thank you!


     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.

Learn more at Cynthia Levinson‘s website. She also blogs with her agent mates at Emu’s Debuts.

CRITIQUE WEEK Finale- Shelley Ann Jackson, Cynthia Levinson, Samantha Clark

         Battling blog design gremlins here. Bear with me:)---------------   Here we are in the final critique week interview. Welcome to three lovely and talented authors.                 Shelley Ann Jackson is an author, illustrator, and arts educator who recently relocated to Austin, Texas with her equally talented author/illustrator husband, Jeff Crosby. Shelley's illustrations have appeared in numerous children's books, magazines, and posters. Her next author/illustrator collaboration with Jeff, HARNESS HORSES, BUCKING BRONCOS & PIT PONIES (Tundra Books,) will be released October 2011. Check out Shelley's blog.                         Cynthia Levinson has twenty-five years of education experience fueling her love of children's literature. She is a prolific nonfiction author with countless articles appearing in children's publications including the COBBLESTONE group of magazines. Her short fiction has been featured by such publications as HIGHLIGHTS, SKIPPING STONES, and THE MAILBOX and has garnered her contest awards. Cynthia's first book, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN'S MARCH will be published by Peachtree in 2012. Check out Cynthia's blog activity.    
           Samantha Clark has enjoyed a long career as a journalist and editor and now, as co-founder and editor of Disc Dish, an online movie review site that  offers insider interviews, and in depth reviews of the latest DVD and Blu Ray releases, plus information about the latest disc technology available. Her true passion is as a middle-grade novelist. She is involved in the Austin SCBWI community and is actively seeking representation for two completed middle grade novels. Check out Samantha's blog.            
What is the secret to a successful critique group?     S.A.J.  I don’t know if it’s a secret, but it might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, I think it’s one of the most essential elements of a successful critique group: an equal dedication to writing. All of the other differences can be overcome. If members aren’t on the same writing plane or haven’t had equal critique group experience, aren’t equally successful, don’t use similar writing styles or don’t work in the same genres, you’ll grow together, learn from one another, raise each other up and get over those hurdles. But if members aren’t all dedicated to the craft, this will show in their dedication to the group and the effort that they put into their critiques and their revisions. It’s mostly true that you get out of something what you put into it, but with critique groups, you also get out of it what your partners put in.          
C.L. (1) First, say something—anything—positive. Even if all you can muster is “nice font.” Then, be scathingly honest. If you wouldn’t want a publisher or, god forbid, a reader to know that you’re in the same critique group as the person who wrote this drivel, don’t let it get out of the critique group. (2) A mixture of writing levels can be useful. I can learn from everyone. (3) Have patience—but only a limited amount of patience—with learning about everyone else’s children, grandchildren, parents, spouses, pets, vacations, plumbing leaks, allergies... S.C. 1. Guidance for my writing. Getting feedback helps me know if I'm on the right track with my story, if what I intend is coming across. Writing is so solitary. Only the writer truly knows all the ins and outs of the story and the full back stories of the characters. You don't want to reveal too much or the reader will be bored, but you also can't reveal too little or the reader will be confused. Critique group partners can let you know if you're on the right track. 2. Ideas. Sometimes, being so close to a story blocks me from seeing some things that could provide more drama or laughs or whatever is needed. My critique group partners have given me ideas. Some I've used and some have helped me step up to an even better idea. 3. Support. I'll say it again, because this is important: Writing is solitary. Unless you're writing with a partner, you're the sole creator of an entire world. You're responsible for the ideas, research, writing, editing. And then when you're done, you're responsible for the kick-butt synopsis, query letter, submissions, rejections. And for most of us, this is all done in the spare seconds we stash away between our jobs, laundry, kids, spouses, grocery shopping, bills, etc. Critique group members all go through the same thing, and as such, we can all help each other, whether it's encouragement, commiserations, or whatever's needed.
How has being part of a critique group helped your writing?
S.A.J.  Being part of a crit group has helped me to get work done; nothing motivates like a deadline! And self-imposed deadlines are nothing compared to the thought of submitting a poor manuscript to a group of your peers! It’s not only embarrassing, but it’s a wasted opportunity. Being part of a group has also helped me to accept the things that need to be changed in my manuscripts. I often see things that, deep down, I know aren’t working, but for one reason or another, I like them and so I keep them. But when others point them out, I know that they are real problems and need to be revised or cut. And finally, being part of a crit group has helped me to see new things in my manuscripts. Sometimes, you just can’t see the forest for the trees and you need someone else (or several people at once) to yell, “Forest!!!”       
C.L.  The people who have helped my writing the most (like you, Donna) are those who (1) write well themselves, (2) explain how they do it, and (3) take a pencil to my ms and show me exactly how I can do it. Vague directions like “try heightening the language here” or “show don’t tell” aren’t nearly so helpful as “how about ‘gash’ instead of ‘cut.’” S.C.    BOOZE! No, just kidding. Although I would say that chocolate would be welcome at any meeting. No, the key to a successful critique group is honesty and respect. We all have to be honest with each other. No writer will get better if their critiquers tell them "This is brilliant!" when they don't really think so. We go to critique groups to get advice on how we can make our writing better. If you're going to a critique group to hear "This is brilliant!" stay home. Show your writing to your family instead. Critique groups are for growth, and we only grow if we know what's working and what's not. And respect. As I mentioned, writing is not easy. It's not about putting words on a page — it's about putting the right words in the right order to illicit the best emotional response and entertain and inform. It's about digging deep into our soul and translating what we see. And when we do that, to have a critique partner say "This sucks!" or "I hate this!" is crushing. The most important thing to remember as a critiquer is that writing is subjective. Sure, there are some aspects of a story — developed, believable characters; realistic dialog; character arc; plotting — that we can all critique on, but story-wise, we might not like something that someone else loves. Millions of people love the Harry Potter books and others find them boring. Subjective. So who are we to say something "sucks"? We have to respect our fellow writers.          
Where does your critique group meet? Why did you choose that environment?
S.A.J.  I’ve had a few groups and all, except my online group, have met in coffee shops. They are nice, casual places. They aren’t so quiet that you feel you’re disturbing others by talking, and not so loud that you can’t hear your group members speak. Plus, you can write off coffee and a piece of cheesecake!      
C.L.  We’re peripatetic. For years, we met at Barnes and Noble because one of our group members drove in from Kingsland, and it was convenient for her. She needed to drop out, so we moved to Central Market, where we meet upstairs when we’re not meeting around the dining table at a member’s house.    
S.C.   We meet at an office conference room after hours, which is nice because it's quiet and there aren't any distractions. But I've got other friends who meet at someone's home and others who meet over Skype from their individual homes. And my former critique group, before I moved, met at a Barnes & Noble. The important thing is that it's convenient for everyone and it's a place where you can talk freely without having to stay quiet (a library's maybe not a good place) and it doesn't have distractions.    
What are the biggest challenges of critiquing someone else’s manuscript?
S.A.J.  I think the hardest thing for me is telling someone when part of their manuscript is wonderfully, beautifully written, but doesn’t further their story. I know that if I love that phrase or sentence or section, they probably do, too, and are going to have a hard time cutting it. In my own work, I often get attached to those bits and they are the hardest things for me to cut. I count on the group to tell me when they aren’t working, and I know they count on me to do the same.        
C.L.   Our group tries to meet weekly and read each others’ mss aloud. As a result, we limit what we bring to 5 pages. It’s hard to read a novel 5 pages at a time, to capture the arc, the character development, the sub-plots. I like the discipline of weekly deadlines but I’d also like to grasp larger chunks of the ms at a time.        
S.C.  I'd say the biggest challenge is remembering that it's not our story. When we read something and get ideas, we can start to feel ownership over it and expect the writer to do everything we say, but it's not our story. Plus, we're only reading a small section of the story. So it's important to just pass along whatever advice we can — in a supportive, non-judgmental way — then leave the rest to the writer.    
What are the biggest challenges of having your own manuscript critiqued?
S.A.J.  Listening. Just really, really listening. Not getting defensive or trying to explain, but just absorbing and understanding what the problems are.      
C.L.  Keeping my mouth closed and not defending why I can’t change a word or “explaining” that “that will become clear later.” Cynthia, repeat to yourself: if it’s not clear now, it doesn’t matter if it’s going to become clear later; later is too late.   S.C.   Not getting offended. Critiquers usually don't mean to offend, but some are less objective than others (remember the grandma?), and like I mentioned before, writing is subjective. Critique partners will tell you that they don't get your work, that they don't like it, that it's not their thing. Critiquers have told me before that they would have put my book down if it wasn't for the fact that they had to get through it for our critique session. Sure, part of me wanted to say, "Hey, no one had a gun to your head. You could have stopped. I don't care." But I didn't. I just nodded and smiled and listened to what they had to say. The other challenge is sticking to your story. It's very important — and to me, this is one of the most important things a writer has to consider — that the writer knows his or her story and does only what's best for that story. At a critique group, listen to what others have to say, digest it and then only use what works for the betterment of the story. This is an extreme example, but if you're writing a family drama and a critique group member suggests you add a bit of excitement with an alien invasion ... DON'T DO IT! That will completely change your story, and you have to remember it's YOUR story.          
How do you handle situations when you, as the author, disagree with someone’s feedback on your manuscript?
S.A.J.  Well, you’re of course not obligated to take every suggestion that you’re given. But if you want to improve your writing, you need to at least figure out why they’ve given this feedback. Do they hate you? Are they completely insane? Or was there something there that took them out of the story? If it was your agent or editor who made the same comment would you still disagree? Or would you offer a compromise? I think if you look at it from all angles, you’ll usually find a creative solution that satisfies both the feedback and you. And you’ll be stoked when you find it.      
C.L.  Sometimes I defend or explain! Other times, I nod and utter a lot of “mmmms.”           
 S.C. I try to say very little when my work is being critiqued. If I don't agree with a note, I just nod and let them move on. I also try not to judge notes until later. I jot them down in my notebook, let them simmer in my brain for a few days, and then decide whether they make the work better or not.    
How do you handle critiquing a manuscript you're not comfortable with? For example, if you don't care for horror, or paranormal, or rhyming picture books.
S.A.J.  If you aren’t into the story being presented, you just have to look at the big picture. You can look for a strong story arc, consistency of character and clarity in the writing, no matter what the subject matter is. Or you can feign the stomach flu.       
C.L.   One member of our group has written for the Christian market. I don’t know what to do with religion-infused material or, especially, with plot resolutions that depend on God. All I can do is say so.        
S.C.  Can you really critique a manuscript when you don't like the story? Yes, but with caution. Like I said, writing is subjective. You can still critique on the standards for good dialog, characters and story, but it's a good idea to preface your critique with the fact that horror isn't your thing. If you're into the genre you're critiquing, I think you are in a unique position to be an even better critiquer, because you know what works and what doesn't. If you're critiquing a ghost story and the character flies, you can say, whether that's normal in the ghost genre or a little off the wall. Note, however, that off the wall can be good. Until Twilight, vampires burned up in sunlight. Stephenie Meyer made that her own by giving her characters skin that sparkled. Sun was still bad, but for a different reason. Off the wall for the genre, but it still worked.    
What advice would you give to a writer joining a critique group for the first time?
S.A.J.  Be brave! You can’t improve your writing without letting people read it. And, on the flip side, don’t be afraid to tell your partners what you really feel (in a nice way)! You know more than you probably think you do. Point out what is strong in your partners’ manuscripts, as much or more than you point out what isn’t working. But also, keep reading about writing and most especially, reading published children’s books and analyzing them.     
C.L.  Listen. Nod. Ask.   S.C.  Have an open mind, listen without commenting, don't take offense if someone isn't as respectful as they should be (it happens), and most of all, be confident.       "'s an anecdote from the creators of Toy Story. It goes with the "challenge of having your own manuscript critiqued" question. When John Lasseter and his team were making the first Toy Story, they did an early screening with executives at Walt Disney Studios, who were providing financing. At the screening, the execs laughed and had a good time, but when they came out, they each gave notes of things they thought would help make Toy Story even better. They went away and Lasseter and his team, thinking they had to please the studio big wigs, did every single change that was suggested. A few weeks later, they had another screening, but this time, the Disney execs barely cracked a smile. When they finished watching the movie, they said to Lasseter that he and his team obviously had no idea about moviemaking, and they wanted Pixar to move to Los Angeles where the Disney execs could keep a closer eye on their investment. Lasseter pleaded for a second chance. "Give me two weeks," he said. When the Disney execs left, he gathered his team and they went back to the cut of the film they had first shown the Disney folks and went through all the original notes one at time. This time, Lasseter and his team only did the ones that they felt helped the story.Two weeks later, the Disney bigwigs watched the newest cut of the film. They left the screening in tears from laughing so hard. Pixar didn't have to move to Los Angeles, and, well, you know what happened to Toy Story. So, the moral is: Know your story, love you story, protect your story, only follow up on notes that will help your story. Because it is YOUR story, and you're the only one who can make it great.