Cynthia Levinson: “The Youngest Marcher”

Interview with Cynthia Levinson, author of The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2017)

AG: Thanks for helping us to launch M is for Movement!

CL: Thank YOU for giving me this opportunity!

AG: I’m so glad to get a chance to talk with you about The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton.

This true and powerful story of a child activist seems a perfect way to help start this blog’s discussion.

First, can you talk about your own introduction to activism? Has this shaped what you write about?

CL: I wish I could say that, like Audrey, I was an activist at age nine. Alas, I was something of a political late-bloomer. Going to college outside of Boston in the early- to mid-1960s woke me up. At that point, I got involved in protests against the Vietnam War, and I worked in Roxbury, a largely black and low-income neighborhood, to support kids and families.

AG: What initially drew you to Audrey Faye Hendricks as a character?

CL: I learned about Audrey’s audacity while researching my first nonfiction middle-grade book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012). The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has conducted many dozens of interviews not only with community leaders but also with “foot soldiers,” the everyday but very brave people who contributed their time and sometimes their bodies to the cause of civil rights. When I read the transcript of Audrey’s interview, in which she described carrying her board game on a protest march and then to jail, I knew I needed to talk with her.

AG: The picture book form can challenge a writer to get to a story’s conflict very quickly. In the first few pages of The Youngest Marcher, you introduce Audrey, her mother, and leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. You also define segregation and discuss the possibility for change. And, there’s food! It’s seamless. How did you decide where to start the story?

CL: Although this is my first picture book, and I worked on it very hard to get it right, opening the story with Audrey in the kitchen with her mother seemed obvious from the start. First of all, every child can identify with food, especially cooking with a mom. So, I knew that starting with that scene would allow all readers, regardless of their backgrounds, to enter.

In addition, the dishes, such as sweet potato soufflé and hot rolls baptized in butter, that Audrey and her mother cook convey a specific cultural setting. On my first research trip to Birmingham, Audrey invited me to her home—she was still living in the house in which she grew up—and she made a point of showing me her kitchen, including the stove where, she told me, Dr. King would lift a lid from a pot and ask her mother, “What’s cooking, Lola?” It was the fact that they were preparing meals for Dr. King and other activist ministers that allowed me to move quickly into the politics of the time.

In fact, food is political. Protesters picketed segregated restaurants. They sat-in at lunch counters where waitresses ignored them and bystanders poured catsup on their heads. One of the other young people featured in We’ve Got a Job, Washington Booker, told me that what he most craved was an ice cream sundae at Newberry’s but, as a black child, he wasn’t allowed inside. After the city rescinded the segregation codes, just three months after the children marched, both he and Audrey were able to sit at the counter, just as the book shows. So, food, I knew could both open and close the story in meaningful ways.

I was grateful to Audrey’s sister, Jan, for giving me their recipe for Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter.

AG: Vanessa Brantley Newton’s illustrations are incredible and pair so wonderfully with your text. The warmth and vibrancy of food and family is gorgeous. The discomfort and defiance while Audrey is in jail is so moving. I was particularly struck by the spread of Audrey’s small body on the bare mattress in jail, her back to the reader, her pink ribbons trailing down. “At night—a bare mattress with one thin sheet for a cover.” It’s heartwrenching. How did you think about the emotional beats in this story?

CL: That scene is one of my very favorites, too. Vanessa captured Audrey’s loneliness and anguish in a stunning way.

As for thinking about the emotional beats, candidly, I was so new to picture-book writing that I’m not sure I did! It so happens, though, that Audrey’s experiences follow a true narrative arc. One of the stumbling blocks I faced, though, is that because Audrey was a resolute person who was completely dedicated to the cause, she seemed unafraid. In fact, as a child, she accompanied her parents to scenes of racial violence, and she calmly told me, “There wasn’t a bombing I wasn’t at.” She also said that she was convinced that the four white men who interrogated her were going to kill her. (These details are included in the middle-grade book but not the picture book.)

As a result, I wasn’t sure how to convey what must have been her anxieties in a way that conveyed her courage but also her youthfulness. We succeeded in doing that, I think because the text is neutral, almost flat, in its spare description of her surroundings and experiences in jail. But, Vanessa’s illustrations supply the emotional punch.

AG: Such an important part of activism is making the choice to act on values. In The Youngest Marcher the story is grounded deeply in Audrey’s point of view. Seeing injustice and the choice to act through Audrey’s eyes challenges the child (and adult) reader to consider, if I had been in those shoes, what would I have done? This also provides an opportunity to reflect on the question, in the face of today’s struggles for racial justice, what steps am I taking? Did you think about how to convey these questions while writing?

CL: Absolutely. I made a conscious decision, first, to try, even though the book is in the third person, to look through Audrey’s eyes and speak in her voice. For instance, the question raised at the dinner table, “But what could she do?” conveys the plaintive, frustrated mood that I’m sure she felt.

In terms of helping readers ask themselves what would they do, Audrey begins to speak for them by declaring forthrightly what she wants to be able to do: “Sit down inside Newberry’s.” Any child would want that, so the reader is brought along. The issue gets more complicated when she decides to march and go to jail. By now, though, the reader is with her and has to go along for the ride—or, the march. Inevitably, a child has to ask, even vaguely, “Would I really do that?”

AG: The Youngest Marcher focuses on the power of a brave individual while also demonstrating how change takes a movement. Audrey listens to the call of a leader. She steps up and takes action alongside many others. Different tactics are on display: organizing, marching, civil disobedience, speaking up. Many children are going to their first protests this year. What do you hope kids will learn from this story about how movements work?

CL: That’s a good point. The timing of the release of this book has been fortuitous because of recently intensified interest in protest and resistance. The response to it has been gratifying; I can tell that it’s been a helpful way for parents, teachers, and librarians to discuss these issues.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t thinking when I wrote The Youngest Marcher about teaching five- to ten-year-olds about the logistics of protest. (This is a factor in We’ve Got a Job, though, where I even explain how flyers were copied in pre-computer days.) The children in Birmingham, however, were aware that numbers mattered. Certainly, the massive turnout around the world for the Women’s March in January and continuing with the Marches for Science and for the Climate cannot be ignored. The widespread fervor is impressive. So, one message is that it’s important to show up.

Another is that there are many ways to be an activist and to express one’s views—and marching remains a time-honored one. Finally, of course, you’re never too little to make a difference.

AG: You have another new book out, Fault Lines in the Constitution. What inspired this project?

CL: My editor at Peachtree Publishers, Kathy Landwehr, read one of my husband’s books for the adult/academic market, and asked if we could write one for kids. Sandy teaches at the University of Texas and Harvard Law Schools and has been critical of the Constitution, which is his specialty, for years. Although Kathy’s suggestion came out of the blue, we readily agreed. Initially, Fault Lines in the Constitution was supposed to come out in 2016 but I had to postpone it for a year to write Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can. I was sorry to delay Fault Lines; however, the outcome of the election has spurred interest in our founding document, and the book is now very timely. Because we show the relationship between the Framers’ decisions in 1787 and today, it’s also very current. In fact, we update it twice a month at the blog site www.faultlinesintheconstitution.com. We hope everyone will join the conversation!

AG: What are some of your favorite activist children’s books?

CL: Here are some of my favorites:

  • Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters by Laurie Ann Thompson
  • New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer
  • Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 by Michelle Markel
  • Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin

AG: Is there anything else you would like to add?

CL: Your readers might like to know that a portion of the proceeds from sales of The Youngest Marcher goes to the Headstart center where Audrey worked.

AG: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much, Cynthia!

 

Meet the youngest known child to be arrested for a civil rights protest in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, in this moving picture book that proves you’re never too little to make a difference. Nine-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks intended to go places and do things like anybody else. So when she heard grown-ups talk about wiping out Birmingham’s segregation laws, she spoke up. As she listened to the preacher’s words, smooth as glass, she sat up tall. And when she heard the plan—picket those white stores! March to protest those unfair laws! Fill the jails!—she stepped right up and said, I’ll do it! She was going to j-a-a-il! Audrey Faye Hendricks was confident and bold and brave as can be, and hers is the remarkable and inspiring story of one child’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.

Age Range: 5 – 10 years
Grade Level: Kindergarten – 5
Hardcover: 40 pages
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (January 17, 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1481400703
ISBN-13: 978-1481400701

To learn more about Cynthia Levinson, visit http://cynthialevinson.com/

Get The Youngest Marcher from your local independent bookstore!

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