Cynthia Levinson talks about writing, ideas, hyacinths, and reader response to We’ve Got A Job.
Peachtree Publishers recently released Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got A Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, which both chronicles and honors a moment in history when children risked their freedom and their lives to protest injustice and advocate for their rights in American society. The book has earned multiple starred reviews and feature attention in the New York Times, but even more importantly, it seems to be reaching groups of younger readers who had yet to personally connect with the depth and magnitude of the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Ms. Levinson, a fellow author with Erin Murphy Literary Agency, graciously consented to complete a web interview with me. I hope you enjoy learning more about her and her thought-provoking work!
Tell us about yourself as a writer. What age group calls to you? Fiction or nonfiction? Magazines, novels, poetry–give us the scoop!
Definitely nonfiction—both magazines and books. In fact, it was after a particularly incisive critique of what I had thought was a novel, during a Whole-Novel Workshop hosted by Highlights, that I realized that I should be writing nonfiction instead!
Describe what inspires you, and how your ideas become stories or novels.
Ideas spawn ideas. So, the idea for We’ve Got a Job came from an article I was researching for Cobblestone Magazine, as did the idea for a picture book I’m working on. Another new project rose out of one that wasn’t working; the theme is the same but the setting is totally different, and, this time, it works! I’m always on the prowl for ideas. I listen to the news, for instance, with an ear for what might interest children. I listen to myself for what might interest the child in me. I’m constantly in exploration mode.
For children and young adults interested in pursuing writing as a career–any quick advice or guidance?
My quick advice is: Don’t think you can be quick about it. “Jotting” is the word we use for quick-writing. Career-writing takes at least as long as any other career, including training, learning the ropes, finding mentors, practicing, forming good habits, persisting, and ever-improving.
Chinese take-out or fancy Italian restaurant?
Fancy Italian, please. Name the time and place, and I’ll be there!
Jacob or Edward?
Jacob (even though my first crush was on an Edward in kindergarten).
Chihuahua or Doberman?
Middle Earth or Hogwarts?
Middle Earth, just because I read it at a more vulnerable age.
Rose or dandelion?
Hyacinth—it’s close to my name.
Your nonfiction release, We’ve Got a Job (Peachtree Publishers, February, 2012), tells the true story of four black children in Birmingham, Alabama, who marched with 3,000 to 4,000 other children in what became known as the Birmingham Children’s March to protest segregation, despite threats of violence, arrest, and jail time. The book has been featured twice in the New York Times, and it has already garnered 3 starred reviews, from Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, and Kirkus. In fact, Kirkus called it, “A moving record of young people rising at a pivotal historical moment, based on original interviews and archival research as well as published sources.” Clearly, critics love it, but let’s dig a little deeper. What do the marchers you featured in We’ve Got a Job think of the story now that it’s published–and what do they think of reader reactions to the book?
Audrey Faye Hendricks died three years ago, alas. The other three marchers, however, as well as Audrey’s sister, Jan, and their dozens of first cousins (their father had 12 siblings), love both the book and other readers’ responses. One of the reasons that they allowed me to interview them—for hours and hours–was because I was writing for children. They all want kids to know the story—to know not only what they did so that children today can live in an integrated society but also what children can accomplish. The book launch at the public library in Birmingham in February, where a large integrated audience celebrated its release, corroborated their belief that the book is authentic and true to their experiences. That endorsement was very gratifying for all of us.
How do readers respond to the story at events you have attended?
So far, I’ve talked to only several groups who have already read the book beforehand. A class of high school juniors and seniors were completely captivated and held a fascinating discussion about who is a hero. They disagreed, for instance, about whether or not Wash was a hero. Was he especially courageous to march and go to jail because he was terrified of the police? Or, did he march just to “fit in?” Was he less of a hero because he threw rocks at the police, thus defying Dr. King’s ethic of nonviolence, before he marched? These are significant questions for young people to ask themselves.
In regard to audiences who don’t know the story before I come to tell them, many are incredulous. A nine-year-old girl went to jail?! And, her parents helped her??!! Some people are awed by Audrey’s audacity. Others find it hard to relate to because she and other activists changed America so much that they find it impossible to imagine life being as hard as it was then.
Have readers done anything special or unique to express their fascination with the book, or the events your main characters relate through the interviews and questions you chose? Care to share any links related to on-line reactions?
The most remarkable response so far is the video trailer that was written, acted, sung, danced, and marched in by a class of fourth-graders in Texas. (They also had some help from their wonderful teachers, especially Mrs. Christa Armantrout at Sommer Elementary School). Do check it out on YouTube.
In addition to this link, I frequently add material about the Birmingham Children’s March and about my writing the book to my website. Contemporary newspaper headlines, for instance, are available, and I’ll soon have video of interviews with Wash and James. Readers can go to cynthialevinson.com.
I would like to thank Ms. Levinson for her book, and for this interview! Check out her site for more information. This book can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, from independent booksellers, and from Amazon.