Cynthia Levinson on We’ve Got a Job

Cynthia LevinsonToday, I’m thrilled to have a guest post from brilliant author Cynthia Levinson, whose debut book has garnered more awards than a Steven Spielberg movie.

Cynthia’s We’ve Got a Job is an stunning non-fiction book that tells the amazing story of how, 49 years ago, hundreds of children in Birmingham, Alabama, went to jail for the civil rights of themselves and their families.

Cynthia has talked a lot on the blogosphere about the research and interviews she did to write this book. When I invited her on my blog, I wondered how she felt post-release, going from all the uncertainty of a new author to the whirlwing of all her well-deserved praise.

Here’s what she said:

Except for feeling vastly relieved, I don’t know what I expected would happen when We’ve Got a Job was finally published. And, I certainly had no specific hopes. In retrospect, that sounds loony or literally incredible. But, since this is my debut book, I was too naïve to know the possibilities. It’s now been out for four months, and I’m thrilled—as well as exhausted!

I’d started working on it in 2007, took an extended break for 18 months in 2008-09, during which time about 20 publishers rejected the manuscript. Then I picked it up again when Peachtree Publishers bought it. But, even then, there were periods when steady writing, frenetic research, intense re-writing, and frantic photo quests were interspersed with prolonged fallow periods while I waited for responses from my editor. All of this is pretty routine, I gather. The peaks, valleys, plateaus, and gullies kept me focused on the work itself, as well as on a few other projects I was developing, rather than on the aftermath of publication.

Responses starting popping when Peachtree began distributing ARCs (advanced reader copies) in the fall of 2011. A class of fourth-graders in Round Rock, Texas, led by one of the world’s greatest teachers, Mrs. Christa Armantrout, agreed to write and produce a video trailer of the book. Meeting with the kids and talking with them about the four people who tell their stories in We’ve Got a Job was a thrill. And their trailer, which had its world premier at the book launch in Austin, was a thrill for all of us.

At the same time, a class of 11th- and 12th-graders in Cambridge, MA read and discussed the book, focussing on heroes. I got to observe their discussions, which were fascinating. Some kids were angry that they’d never before learned about Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth; others were so intrigued by the four principle “characters” in the book that they concluded that everyday heroes are more important than well-known ones, such as Dr. King. So, I could tell early on that young people were likely to find the book appealing.

We've Got a JobEven before its February 1 release, a few reviews trickled in. Oh my goodness, ***STARRED*** reviews! First, Kirkus, then Booklist and, soon, Publishers Weekly. Naively, since this is my first book, I didn’t know that some journals publish reviews before the official publication date. And, some waaaay after. Horn Book provided a wonderful review recently, and School Library Journal announced a fourth ****STARRED**** review over three months later.  I was so naive, I didn’t even know which journals gave stars.

The biggest surprise was The New York Times, which provided a brief review on its children’s Bookshelf of Black History books in mid-February and followed that the next week by naming it an Editor’s Choice. This is a list of “books of particular interest,” both adult and children’s. As one friend who happened to see it said, “holy moly!”

And blogs! My friends at EMUs Debuts, the blog for the gang of first-time-published writers who are clients of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, planned a week-long release party that was the equivalent of getting balloons, cards, and cake every day.

Then, more blogs. And interviews. And, newspaper articles. I won’t list them all. But, I confess that every one is posted or linked on my website, making for a total to date of 23 reviews and a dozen interviews.

Requests for school and library visits started drifted in, too—which meant preparing PowerPoint presentations. And, since my older daughter is another one of the world’s best teachers, I knew I needed to make them interactive. So, I scripted a Reader’s Theater in which kids take roles, read quotations from real people, sing civil rights songs, and march. And, each “character” gets a prop, which I needed to construct. I also got permission to use contemporary newsreel footage of children being attacked by dogs and washed down the street by powerful water hoses, which I incorporated into my slides—but which required a lot of technological assistance and, ultimately, my buying my own video projector.

In addition, bookstores and libraries in Birmingham, Austin, Washington (twice!), and Boston offered to hold signings, and a friend hosted a book party at my publisher’s home in Atlanta—a very generous gift from both of them. I was invited to work with teachers in Delaware on incorporating nonfiction narrative into classrooms. And, I also gave a presentation at the International Reading Association in Chicago on Joseph Campbell, a scholar of myths and folk tales, and nonfiction writing.

On top of all this, a wonderful publicist, Kirsten Cappy of Curious City, suggested that I prepare video clips of interviews with my four main sources and post them on YouTube, entailing multiple SOS exchanges with audio-video consultants and expansion of  my website.

The most recent development is that Random House is producing an audio version of the book, and I was able to both read the Author’s Note at their studio in New York as well as to help select the narrator, who is wonderful. I’m also providing interview clips for an expanded version of the book on CD.

And, all of this happened, unexpectedly, in about a four-month period. A pell-mell and breathless, four-month period.

Every bit of it has been exhilarating. But, the most gratifying aspect has been sustaining the friendships I made with the principals whose stories propel the book. Audrey Hendricks, unfortunately, died three years ago. However, her sister, Jan Fuller, not only came, with many, many of their cousins, to the book launch in Birmingham, she also spontaneously sang the song Audrey sang while marching to jail. And, the 75 or so other people there sang along. Jan also let me record a copy of the title song “We’ve Got a Job,” from an album on which her father sang with the Birmingham Movement Choir. This song, too, is now incorporated into my presentations at schools.

Arnetta Streeter Gary, alas, has been sick recently. But, I’ve visited her in the hospital, and I’m keeping a scrapbook of all the reviews, interviews, articles, and blog posts, including this one, for her.

Washington Booker and James Stewart have participated in several book launches and have visited schools with me. They’ve even started doing school visits on their own. The conversations we’ve had with adults and kids following our presentations have been heartfelt and candid. Nearly fifty years later, the residue of the Civil Rights Movement continues to reverberate.

While the book’s reception has been a joyous surprise, it is this recognition—that, as a country, we still have much to say and to share about race, discrimination, and inequalities—that has been the most stunning and stirring revelation. To the extent that the articles, reviews, blogs, interviews, presentations, visits foster these ongoing conversations, I will consider the book to have fulfilled the goal that I was unaware I had while I was writing it.

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