Grand History: Cynthia Levinson Interview

It would be hard to ignore the timing on this one.

As we wake on the other side of  the national holiday that honors Martin Luther King Jr., I could not be more pleased to welcome Cynthia Levinson and her gorgeous book, WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH, to the blog.

This is my kind of book. And even though you might think I don’t know you that well, it’s your kind of book, too. I have been aching to get my hands on this one since I first learned of its existence three years ago.

I want every teacher and librarian and school media specialist to read this. I want my daughter and son and husband to read it. My sisters and my dad. My friends, too. And then I want to have a fun party where we talk about it all night. Who’s in?

In case you’re not a star-watcher, to date WE HAVE A JOB has received three starred reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist). I predict more.

Without further ado (because that was plenty of ado), my interview with the woman of the hour, Cynthia Levinson.

Did any part of your body explode when you read your reviews or saw the stars? For example, I’d have spontaneously lost a limb upon reading this from a School Library Journal blog: “This title…may be the most important historical account of the Civil Rights movement.” What has this experience, this wave of raves, been like for you?

That’s a very funny question, Audrey! My body parts are intact. But I’ve been grinning so much and so hard that I think I could pick up a trombone and play about as well as Quincy Jones, right off the bat. (Sorry, I had to get baseball bats in this interview somewhere.)

At the same time, though (there had to be a ‘but,’ right?), I feel like the photo of my three-year-old niece sitting in her sandbox, surrounded by toys, and pouting. Or, maybe I’m like Godzilla. Stars are so much fun, I’ll take them wherever I can get them. I bonked my head on the overhead rack on a plane recently and thought, “Oh, goodie. More stars.”

Really, though, it’s gratifying to have my work, the extraordinary efforts of my editor, Kathy Landwehr, and the contributions of the four main narrators of the book recognized. As Kathy said, she knew it was a marvelous book, and it’s nice that other people are validating that.

Can you share with us the process by which the Birmingham Children’s March transformed from something you knew about to something you needed to write about?

That process took roughly a nanosecond. It’s true that I knew about the Birmingham Children’s March, although it wasn’t called that in 1963. It was called, according to newspaper headlines at the time, “mass demonstrations” and “rioting Negroes.” What I missed for the following 44 years was the “children” part of it. Even though I taught American History in middle school and high school, somehow I failed to notice that the bodies that were assaulted by vicious police dogs and firemen’s hoses were short. The moment that I made that belated discovery, while researching an article on music in the civil rights era for Cobblestone magazine, I knew the story had to be shared.

I know your research for this book was especially vigorous. Did you have any especially gratifying or exciting discoveries along the way?

Audrey in fifth grade

The four people I interviewed most extensively—Audrey, Wash, Arnetta, and James—continually shared gratifying (and sometimes heartbreaking) stories with me. Audrey, who was nine when she was arrested and spent a week in jail, talked about the board game she carried with her. Visualizing Audrey clutching her protest sign in one hand and her board game in the other as she climbed into a paddy wagon was such a sweet yet jarring image.

Wash told me about his conversion from rock-throwing truant (he was definitely a “rioting Negro”) to peaceful protester. When he heard a girl sing “The Lord’s Prayer” in jail, he knelt and bowed his head. Arnetta described how she and her younger sister bawled when their father tried to sit in the front of the bus to protest segregation; they were panicked that he’d be arrested, and they’d never see him again. James carried the casket of one of the four girls murdered in the church bombing four months after the marches.

The connections between these individuals, these normal yet singular teenagers, and the grand history of the movement that we read about in textbooks were immensely gratifying.

Thank you so much, Cynthia!

WE’VE GOT A JOB‘s official on-sale date is February 1, but it’s never too early to pre-order or check with your local library to make sure it’s on their radar.

You can learn more about Cynthia and her book by visiting her website. Be sure to drop by the EMU’s Debuts blog the week of the book’s release, too.

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About Audrey Vernick

Audrey Vernick writes books for young readers.
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6 Responses to Grand History: Cynthia Levinson Interview

  1. Agreed with everything you have said. I am reading WE’VE GOT A JOB now–it is truly extraordinary!

  2. Jeanne Ryan says:

    This sounds like such a great book! I’m so looking forward to getting my hands on it and sharing it with my children. This will also make a fantastic gift for my school-teacher sisters who can share the story with the kids in their lives.

  3. Mirka Breen says:

    Thank you for this post. I keep thinking of a nine year old in jail for a week with her board game, no ‘get-out-of-jail’ card. This is an amazing story.

  4. Count me in for that discussion party, Audrey. One of the most amazing things about this is that it is a missing fact in history about kids. It makes me feel a little more like anyone can make a difference, and I think that is a message that needs to be spread in a day and age when politicians spend millions on ads, etc. Real people of any age can change the world. Like, for example Audrey, Wash, Arnetta, James, and yes, Cynthia. And Audrey Vernick too, who brings such inspiring stories to us regularly here! Thanks to all of you!

  5. Wow! Sounds like an amazing book. Thanks for this interview, Audrey, and for introducing me to Cynthia’s book.

  6. Can’t wait to get my hands/eyes/heart on that book. I’m waiting until our reunion so Cynthia can sign my copy. Great post; wonderful questions.

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