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An Interview with Cynthia Levinson

cynthiaCynthia Levinson is the author of numerous nonfiction articles and short stories for young people. She also conducts writing workshops and presentations both for children and for adults looking to write for children. Her first full-length book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, is a finalist for the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award. It tells the amazing story of the 4,000 black children who participated in organized non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, when many of the adults of the city were too poorly organized or committed to do so. Cynthia was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.

You’ve written numerous magazine articles and short fiction, but this is your first full-length book. Why now? Why this book?

I love this question because it asks, in effect, “What took you so long?!” The short answer is that, before I started educating young people through my writing, I was an educator in a more traditional sense — a teacher, a consultant, a policy specialist. Since I can’t do more than one thing at a time, I couldn’t handle those jobs and also write.

But also implicit in the question is the recognition that the topic of We’ve Got a Job, the story of how 4,000 black school children desegregated the most racially violent city in America, is a galvanizing one. I was a high school senior in 1963, when these events occurred, and I prided myself on keeping up on the news. I went on to study American History in college and then to teach it to middle- and high school students. Nevertheless, I didn’t learn until about five years ago that the protesters who faced down the fearsome Birmingham police force with their water canons and German shepherds and who spent days sweltering in packed jail cells were kids.

Once I did, I knew I had to write a book. There was no alternative. It became a compulsion to learn more about these children and to share what I learned with others.

The Civil Rights Era has a huge body of literature for all ages, including several other high profile books for youth just this year. How much of this literature were you familiar with before you started writing this book?  Were you intimidated to add your voice to this body of literature?  What do you think your book, in particular, adds to the story of Civil Rights?

we've got a jobI immersed myself in civil rights literature of all kinds — fiction and nonfiction, for young readers and adults — as well as movies and documentaries. I was surprised to learn that, although the Children’s March was mentioned in several books for kids, only two books focused on it. These were books published in the education market and didn’t become available until well after I started my research and writing. So, the specific topic was barely treated.

Nevertheless, I was thoroughly intimidated! How could I presume to add anything to Ellen Levine’s wonderful Freedom’s Children [Putnam, 1993] for instance? And, what made me think I could write an entire book when I hadn’t written anything longer than 50 pages since college? But, my obsession to write it overwhelmed my fears.

Part of what I think We’ve Got a Job adds to oft-told stories about Civil Rights struggles are the voices of specific people who participated in the Birmingham March, in particular the four who carry the book. The education-market books I mentioned are overviews, as are most, though not all, of the excellent trade-market books. So, my conversations with Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta make the book special.

Beyond that, an entire chapter is devoted to what white children believed about race at the time and what they knew about the struggle. Four people, who are counter-points to the four black kids, explain what they were taught about blacks when they were growing up in Birmingham in the 1960s. This establishes a cultural context for black and white readers.

In addition, the political context surrounding the March was rich and complex. Researching the background, I suddenly understood Dr. King’s impetus for writing his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And, I had had no idea that Birmingham had two mayors, vying for control, in the spring of 1963. All of these factors relate directly to the Children’s March but had not been previously explained.

You just mentioned Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta, the four young people We’ve Got a Job focuses on — how did you decide on these four to help tell the story?

Based on my background research, including reading interviews with many dozens of activists conducted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), I sought out and met Audrey Faye Hendricks and Washington Booker III on my first research trip to Birmingham. Right away, I knew that they were shoo-ins! Audrey believed she was the youngest of the 4,000 or so marchers when she was arrested and spent a week in jail — at age nine. Sitting with me in her living room 45 years later, she described the board game her father bought her so she’d have something to do in jail. I sat at the piano where Carlton Reese composed her favorite song, “We’ve Got a Job.” Her stories were so endearing.

Wash, on the other hand, told me that he remembered thinking that kids like Audrey were crazy to march and get arrested. Why would anyone want to be sent to the Birmingham jail? Instead, he and his friends threw rocks at the police and other white people. Every story needs a bad kid, and Wash was perfect!

James W. Stewart and Arnetta Streeter took longer, almost a year, in fact, to find. They were recommended to me through the BCRI and through my own interviews with other people. Before agreeing to participate in the project, James interviewed me for nearly an hour to be sure that I would tell his story accurately. Arnetta agreed immediately because she wanted her grandson and his friends to learn what she and so many others did to secure their freedom.

I’m enormously grateful to each of them. I was seeking distinct perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. And, although they all grew up in the same community at the same time, their differences allowed me to convey the nuances of what it meant to be dark- or light-skinned, wealthy or poor, supportive of the movement or dubious about it.

Because the Children’s March touches on so many different aspects of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights Eras, you end up having to provide the reader with a lot of context for the main story, which in my opinion you do seamlessly. Was it difficult to decide how much context and background to provide? How did you go about the task of integrating the history of post-slavery with this one event?

Thank you! My editor, Kathy Landwehr, and I worked hard to integrate the background information. We had a particularly challenging time with the mayoral politics that I mentioned above. In response to my first draft of this knotty issue, Kathy said that she felt as if she’d spent a month sitting in a Birmingham city council meeting. That would be dreary for anyone, let alone, say, a twelve-year-old. So, I had to pare and hone and rephrase that section repeatedly.

Kathy was excellent at discerning the stories that related to the Children’s March and those that were interesting but extraneous. For instance, we eliminated an anecdote about an early attempt to integrate the University of Alabama because, Kathy convinced me, it wasn’t sufficiently relevant to the focus of the book. I think this is why the background works seamlessly; there are no stray bits or loose ends.

When I was in elementary and middle School (in the late 80s and early 90s), the picture we got of Martin Luther King was very simplistic — an American hero who more or less single-handedly “won” the Civil Rights battle for blacks. Recent books like yours and Ann Bausum’s (Marching to the Mountaintop, National Geographic, 2012) give us a much more nuanced view of King, who made mistakes and was sometimes following the lead of others. I know he’s not the focus of your book, but I wonder if you have any insights into King that you’d like to share.

It’s interesting that you mention what you learned about Dr. King when you were growing up. My impressions of him, from when I was in high school and college in the ’60s, was that he was heroic — but also, perhaps, self-preserving. That he acted courageously but also sometimes sidestepped danger, leaving others to pick up the pieces or bail themselves out of jail after he left town. The resulting rancor, especially in the black community, as I explain in the book, was widespread and real.

In retrospect, though, I think that that reputation was not entirely fair. I wonder now if it wasn’t a refuge or an excuse that allowed me and, perhaps, other white people, who were sympathetic to civil rights but not so daring as he was, to avoid becoming involved in protest activities. Furthermore, as we learned when he was murdered, Dr. King embodied the movement. He needed to protect himself to prolong the cause.

That’s so fascinating — it seems like each generation has created a new picture of King. Moving on, really the only criticism I can make of your book is that I wasn’t particularly enamored with the textbook-style double-column format, and I’ve heard some other librarians complain (not about your book specifically, but in general) that it’s hard to get older teens to pick up oversize nonfiction. Are we way off base? Thoughts? Comments?

I’ve heard that critique from other adult readers. Although I like the format and design of the book (I had no hand in it, whatsoever), I think that, if readers and librarians find it unsettling, then the criticism has legitimacy. As a writer, I keep my audience in mind. Designers do, too. When our judgment strays from our readers’ preferences, then they and those who serve them should tell us! The target readership was 10- to 14-year-olds, an age group that might be more comfortable than older students with a double-column layout.

Were you aware of the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction before you were nominated? What does it mean for you to be a finalist?

I knew that the award existed but, as you’ll see in my remarks at the Midwinter convention, it never occurred to me that We’ve Got a Job would be a finalist. It is one of the most meaningful honors I’ve ever received. Truly.

I’ve heard a wide range of thoughts on what age level your book might be most appropriate for. Did you have a specific age group in mind?

As I mentioned above, the target readership was 10- to 14-year-olds. At one point, I wondered if the reading level was higher than fourth grade. But when I saw the video trailer made by a class of fourth-graders in Texas, I realized that we hit it right.

The first readers of the book, however, were a class of high school juniors at a charter school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They never complained that the book seemed too young for them, and, in fact, they held spirited discussions about many of the issues. I think that, because the book is complex yet accessible, it reaches, as you suggest, a wide readership.

What authors and books did you read as a young person — did they inspire the way you write for young people?

Growing up, I read books that are now classics — The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, All-of-a-Kind Family, Little House on the Prairie. Although I hadn’t thought about it until you asked, it’s possible that the verisimilitude in these vivid and moving novels propelled me to try to capture the same kind of visual scenes in my nonfiction writing.

Nonfiction books, however, used to be either (1) unreliable or (2) dreary. Until recently, it was acceptable to create scenes, make up dialogue, ascribe thoughts and motivation. These are, rightly, no-no’s now. The alternative to “enhanced” nonfiction was a plodding text: this happened, then that happened. I recall clawing through a biography of George Washington in seventh grade that turned me off to American History for almost a decade. So, I doubt that the nonfiction I read influenced me, except, perhaps, as counter-examples!

Who are your favorite writers today? Nonfiction writers?

Oh, gee — so many. OK, in no particular order or genre: Hilary Mantel, Audrey Vernick, Ian McEwan, Chris Barton, Barbara Kingsolver, Candace Fleming, David Mitchell, Patrice Sherman, Michael Chabon, J. Anderson Coats, Zadie Smith, Patricia MacLachlan, Lawrence Wright, Peggy Thomas, Anne Lamott, Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Sena Jeter Naslund…

Thank you so much for your time and your thoughtful answers, Cynthia.

— Mark Flowers, currently reading Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

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