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Five questions for Cynthia Levinson

Cynthia Levinson credit Cat Laine

Photo: Cat Laine

In 2012, Cynthia Levinson published We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March. In telling the larger story of the civil rights movement, she focused on the lives and work of four African American young people. One of those people was Audrey Faye Hendricks, who at the age of nine was arrested as part of a coordinated effort to “fill the jails…with children!” Levinson’s new picture book The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist (Atheneum, 5–8 years), illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, brings Audrey’s courageous and inspiring story to a younger audience.

1. You first told Audrey’s story in We’ve Got a Job (Peachtree, 12–16 years). What made you want to revisit it in a picture book?

CL: Several publishers, including Atheneum, had expressed interest in my original book proposal on the Children’s March. I was offered contracts both for middle-grade and picture books, but I wanted to begin with the fuller story. Audrey is one of four children featured in We’ve Got a Job. In combination, their stories give a detailed view of the march. As the youngest child to protest and go to jail in Birmingham, Audrey was unique, and I knew her story could stand alone. After We’ve Got a Job was published (by Peachtree), I went back to Atheneum, and they agreed that, all by herself, Audrey portrayed the heart and courage of the children of Birmingham for younger readers.

2. The text’s rhythm and cadence are conversational, yet a lot of information is relayed. How did you strike that reader-friendly balance?

CL: First, thank you! In regard to the information, my research for We’ve Got a Job — including visits to Birmingham and interviews with Audrey (as an adult), her sister, Jan, and many others — deeply informed The Youngest Marcher. I knew the songs the kids sang, the signs they carried, and the streets they marched down. I knew that Klan members were called “Ku Kluxers.” The conversational tone comes from several places. As I wrote, I could hear Audrey and Jan talking (in my head), so Audrey’s personality comes through. Also, the story is told in a mix of third person and first person, which allowed me to both provide background information and channel Audrey’s sass and grit. In addition, the book opens and closes with yummy food. What kid doesn’t love that?

levinson_youngest marcher3. Were you able to talk to any of the marchers’ parents to find out how they felt about their children going to jail for the cause?

CL: I had hoped to talk with Audrey’s parents, but her mother was unavailable and father was deceased — that was true for the parents of most of the teens who had marched in 1963. Audrey’s mother, Lola, was very active in the civil rights movement, so she supported Audrey’s involvement. Audrey’s parents even took her to the church where the marches started and assured her she’d be fine! So did her grandparents and teacher. Many of the teens, however, fibbed to their parents and snuck out of school. One boy’s mother and father watched him get arrested on the evening news.

4. Who are your other personal heroes for social justice?

CL: Before I wrote these books, I would have named famous leaders — John Lewis, Malala Yousafzai, Cesar Chavez. Now, I realize that foot soldiers are equally important. The Women’s Marches on the day after this year’s presidential inauguration had an impact not only because of the people who spoke, but also because of the volume of people who showed up. So I revere everyday heroes — the Clinton Twelve, tribal members who massed at Standing Rock, and students who are rallying now in support of their undocumented classmates.

5. How can children today best effect change?

CL: Fortunately, there are many ways to bring about change without going to jail! Children are collecting books for kids who don’t have them, writing to Congress about issues they care about, urging their neighbors to plant gardens. One of the best ways is simply to treat each other justly and kindly.

From the March 2017 issue of Notes from the Horn Book. For more resources from The Horn Book on social justice and activism, visit our new Making a Difference landing page.

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