I had the pleasure of chatting with the lovely Cynthia Levinson, author of the 2012 award winning “We’ve Got a Job,” that highlights four youngsters who took active roles in the Civil Rights Movement. One of those children was Audrey Faye Hendricks, the subject of Cynthia’s newest book, “The Youngest Marcher,” illustrated by the fantastic Vanessa Brantley Newton.
LI:1. How did you decide to focus on Audrey Faye Hendricks after writing We’ve Got a Job?
Cynthia Levinson: The idea actually came from Atheneum. When my agent, Erin Murphy, called in 2009 or 2010 to tell me there was interest in the book proposal I’d written about the Birmingham Children’s March, she said there were two offers—one for a picture book and the other for a middle grade. What did I want to do? My instincts told me the story needed multiple perspectives, and I opted for a book for ten- to fourteen-year-olds. After We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers) came out in 2012, I asked Erin to find out if Atheneum would still be interested in a picture book. And they were!
We’ve Got a Job focuses on four young marchers. One of those four children was only nine years old. With a protagonist the same age as my readership, Audrey Faye Hendricks instantly became the main character.
LI:2. Was it more difficult to write the picture book or the YA book about the Civil Rights Movement and kids’ involvement in it?
Cynthia Levinson :Both! We’ve Got a Job was my first book. So, I had to learn to conduct interviews, find photographs, keep track of all of the research, write a book, get edited… It was a real learning experience in so many ways.
But, so was writing a picture book. Honing in on younger readers, cutting and shaping text, and considering page turns are very challenging. And, for the first time, I experienced working with an illustrator—the fabulous Vanessa Brantley Newton.
LI:3. Did you meet any of Audrey’s family in real life?
Cynthia Levinson: Indeed. I interviewed Audrey at her home and saw where her mother made Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter, where Dr. King sat at her dinner table, and where her church choir director practiced protest songs on her upright piano. Then, Audrey’s sister, Jan, filled me in on details about how feisty Audrey was! And, she gave me the recipe. That was like gold.
LI:4. Do you have a favorite illustration or scene from the book?
Cynthia Levinson: I have two favorites. One is the spread at the dinner table where Audrey and her mother both have one eye open and the other closed during Dr. King’s prayer. Audrey looks saucy and her mother disapproving—it’s perfect! The other is the spread where Audrey is lying on her side on her cot in jail, with her back to the reader, staring at the wall. It’s both brilliant and heartbreaking.
- Age Range: 5 – 10 years
- Grade Level: Kindergarten – 5
- Hardcover: 40 pages
- Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (January 17, 2017)
I had the pleasure of chatting with author/illustrator Lisa Papp, whose newest book is titled, “Madeline Finn and the Library Dog,” published by Peachtree Publishers. Lisa has illustrated numerous picture books, but I was captivated by this one that celebrates the idea of using therapy dogs in libraries to help struggling readers. Lisa and I are both pet owners of rescue cats and my lovely rescue cat, Lucy, is by my side as I am writing this blog post!
LI: What inspired your idea for Madeline Finn and the Library Dog?
Lisa Papp: This story comes straight from the heart. When you meet these beautiful therapy dogs and their owners, you can’t help but fall in love. They are such a tremendous gift to our communities. I discovered the Reading-to-Dogs program at my local library. My husband, Rob, and I were returning books when we saw a long line of dogs waltzing in the side door. We couldn’t help but follow them in. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I remember these gorgeous dogs sitting in a large, bright room with lots of windows. There were about twelve dogs that day along with their owners. A couple of minutes later, the kids came in. That’s when the smiles started. For an hour and a half, we watched kids read to the dogs. The children chose a book, then chose a dog. Some of the parents told us they couldn’t get their child to pick up a book at home, but they would come to the library for this.
It was so inspiring to watch. Many of the children were self-conscious at first, but that all changed when they got next to a dog. Dogs have that wonderful gift of unconditional love. That wonderful gift of accepting you just as you are. The children responded to that immediately. They read them story after story, petting the dogs and stroking their ears while they worked out the tough words. And they stayed at it – the entire hour and a half! The bond between the children and the dogs was pure magic. These wonderful therapy dogs and their owners let me tag along for the better part of a year. I count them as dear friends now. They, and the children they help, are the inspiration for the book.
LI: Do you have any pets/rescue pets?
Lisa Papp:As a matter of fact, we have three rescued cats. All siblings. My husband and I had gone to a flea market in search of a sprinkler. We came home with three kitties instead. Who could resist? We told ourselves things like…oh, so and so loves cats, maybe she’ll want one.….and this one looks like our real estate agent’s cat, she’ll probably want another one just like him, etc. That was eight years ago and we couldn’t be happier to have kept all three. They are wonderful little beings, even if a bit naughty at times. Can’t imagine life without them. I guess you could call them therapy cats because they definitely keep me and my husband sane. There’s nothing better than a kitty snuggle after a hard day. And when we take life too seriously, they are the first to remind us to lighten up – a “who can catch the ball in the air” game does wonders for the soul.
LI: What future projects are you working on?
Lisa Papp: I have the unfortunate habit of working on multiple projects at once. With that in mind, I can tell you I do have a few Madeline Finn adventures up my sleeve, as well as a couple of novels midstream. All illustrated. It seems, no matter if I’m dreaming up picture books or novels, they always center around animals.
LI: What advice would you give to today’s kids who love to draw?
Lisa Papp:I would say, “Keep doing it!” All the time. Anywhere you can. All those characters, all those stories you’re dreaming up will stay with you somewhere. It’s like an invisible basket you’re filling up. All that imagination, the practice of making something from nothing, the pure joy of creating – all of that will serve you well. Because that’s what will sustain you – even if you don’t become an artist. You will know how to reach inside yourself, into that basket of freedom where your imagination has no limits. When you learn to tap into that creativity, it’s something you’ll enjoy the rest of your life.
- Age Range: 4 – 8 years
- Grade Level: Kindergarten – 3
- Lexile Measure: 370
- Hardcover: 32 pages
- Publisher: Peachtree Publishers (October 1, 2016)
I grew up in Queens, New York, in a small apartment complex where gardening/lawn maintenance was done for the tenants. My family never owned their own home. I’ve always loved flowers, but I never gardened while growing up, except on one occasion where I planted some seeds from a flowering tree I admired in nearby Whitestone Park.
Imagine my surprise when a few years later a small tree began to sprout in our little shared garden plot. Beginner’s luck. When I bought my first home as an adult, there was lots of land. A front yard, big backyard, and plenty of other side plots next to the left and right of our house to garden. When we first came to view the house, it was in the late winter and I was only looking at the inside of the house with a young mother’s eyes. Would there be enough room for our two daughters to grow inside?
The next spring, to my surprise, little purple sprouts popped up next to our driveway. Soon, some pretty purple plants were showing. I googled some images and found out they were hyacinth. On the right side of our house dozens of daffodils grew quickly. I loved flowers and soon began to plant our front garden with the help of my young daughters. To my dismay, however, everything would be eaten by the local roaming deer population. It took a few springs until I could research what to buy and plant that wouldn’t be decimated by deer.
Geraniums, tulips, lilies; all were experiments in growing and were quickly consumed by the deer, groundhogs, wild turkey. But annuals like marigolds and perennials- the daffodils, newer planted gladiola and butterfly bushes, in all colors of the rainbow, thrived. After about ten summers, my garden and my daughters have grown. And as I started to spend more time writing during my summer vacations from teaching, my younger daughter, who has a natural green thumb, has become the primary gardener in the family.
Now what does this all have to do with writing, you may ask? Well, I have always loved to write. I won writing contests and awards in elementary school, wrote for college and professional newspapers as an adult, but put it on the back burner for a while. As a children’s librarian, I started to see a void in kids literature, so I decided to try my hand at writing biographies for kids. Two years, almost three, since my story seeds were first planted and watered. A big NYC publisher gave me a chance with my first non-fiction children’s manuscript, but then my story, like the first plants I had tried to grow, withered and died. In May of 2015, devastated by the rejection of almost two years of edits to my first story, I almost gave up entirely.
Just like the first flowers in my garden, my first stories needed editing to grow. New ideas were more successful than the first ones and I finally sold a first story this spring. Four summers of writing have passed and I have five manuscripts to show for it and am starting on a sixth this summer. Just as I had to nurture and find the right seeds for my garden, I have persevered and am planting story seeds that will grow tall and strong.
Writers are always told ” write about what you know.” So when I started to delve into the world of children’s writing , that was not great information for me; because I wanted to write nonfiction, about new and unknown subjects or places. I come from the background of writing feature news articles for adults. I have always been more comfortable reading and writing nonfiction. But after an almost two year stretch of acceptance and revisions for a nonfiction kid lit biography I wrote, came the ultimate rejection from a great publisher. I was crushed. I then decided to step out of the comfort zone and try writing fiction picture books instead of nonfiction.
Write about what you know: Family, nature, humor. I wrote my first fiction picture book about two years ago and received requests from a couple of publishers who liked it, but wanted some edits. Still haven’t sold that title, but it has led to more fiction writing. My newest manuscript is being read by a few agents and editors right now and I feel confidence in it. It’s funny and kids like funny; it has a feline main character who can read and write.
Working on tightening my fiction writing led to me recently selling my first online short story, written with a lot of dialog; way out of my comfort zone of writing nonfiction narrative. I still plan on writing kids’ nonfiction; I have started on some new ideas for researching in the next few months. But sometimes it is good to try new things and step outside of that comfortable box and stretch your goals a little. For me, the fiction writing led to better writing and revising and I can say it was worth it to take on the challenge.
Here comes another month of celebrating cultures! Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Filipino American History Month, Native American Heritage Month. While I applaud celebrating diversity, shouldn’t every day be a Diversity Day?
It is almost thirty years this month that I started teaching urban kids in Harlem. And from that time, in the mid 1980’s until today, so much has changed. We only had the books of the father of African American kid lit, Walter Dean Myers, to offer up to to middle school and high school kids who wanted to see themselves depicted realistically in books. Forget about finding any diversity in picture books then. Today we have wonderfully diverse picture and chapter books by the likes of Walter’s son, Christopher Myers, Don Tate, Kwame Alexander, Zetta Elliott, Jacqueline Woodson, just to name a few authors of color. Monica Brown, Margarita L’Engle and Meg Medina are Latina authors representing their Hispanic culture in picture and middle grade books. Not to mention this year’s multi award winner, Matt de la Pena, whose “Last Stop on Market Street,” has universal themes for kids of all colors. Joseph Bruhac continues to be the master spinner of tales with Native American settings and characters.
Publishers like Lee and Low, Tu Books, Kar-Ben and Apples and Honey Press strive to show kids of different races and religions in their publishing choices. Theses publishers were not around in the 1980’s when I first had to recommend books to kids of color. I have seen a multitude of changes in children’s lit as both a teacher and currently librarian. But I say to you, shouldn’t every day be a diversity day, to learn about a new culture? I now teach to a predominantly Haitian- American population and while we do spend a large amount of time learning and reading about African American history, which is great, I also love for my students to read about other cultures. I have had some interesting conversations with African American fourth and fifth graders about the Holocaust and how my grandfather lost many of his siblings during Hitler’s regime. If we only learn about our own culture, we are not getting the full picture of humanity. And despite what many are saying, I have seen big and great changes in the world of children’s literature over the past few decades.
I am not a mathematical person. I hated taking Statistics in college. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that for unpublished writers the odds are not in our favor. Here’s hoping that 2016, is a great year for debut, unpublished writers of kid and YA lit. There has been a renaissance of lovely picture book illustrators in 2015 and YA writers of dystopian chronicles about fictional characters in fictional lands seems to be the norm. But what about a good, old-fashioned story? I am primarily a non-fiction writer and we depend on great research and facts, woven with lyrical writing. Sometimes that makes our stories even harder to sell and market, especially for the children’s market which is highly fiction driven.
But it is a New Year. And there have been statistics, aha, that say print book sales for kids are up and e-books sales for kids are dwindling. Kids are reading again, be it graphic novels or even non-fiction picture books. It is still a delight to this kid’s librarian to see a young child holding a physical book rather than an IPad. So, to my writer friends out there, don’t give up hope. 2016 is just around the corner and kids are still reading the old-fashioned way. And since eighteen, chai, is a lucky number in Judaism, 2016 added together, 18 doubled or 36, this just might be your lucky year!