Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on The Youngest Marcher

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynthia Levinson‘s most recent book has a direct correlation to one of her previous titles. I talked with her recently about writing her first picture book, social justice and biscuits.

Tell us about the process of transforming We’ve Got A Job into a picture book.

You’re right—The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton (Atheneum, 2017) evolved out of We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, 2012).

When my agent, Erin Murphy, called to tell me about interest in the book proposal I’d written on this remarkable event, 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 10 to 14 year olds.

The idea for a picture book, though, never went away. But, how could I reduce a 176-page volume about four children who protested segregation, a vicious police chief who aimed fire hoses and snarling dogs at them and 3000 others and then sent them to jail down to a 40-page illustrated book for six- to ten-year-olds? What could I leave out? What could I leave in?

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.” So, her experiences drove the story. She didn’t know that Martin Luther King spent time in solitary confinement. She knew him as her parents’ friend Mike, who came for dinner and wolfed down her momma’s Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter. So, the famous Letter from Birmingham Jail got chucked, and the rolls stayed.

This also meant that Audrey’s voice had to narrate. She and her momma “coo-ooked!” At church meetings, she “sang and swayed…her voice spirited and spiritual.” Marching to protest, she knew she was going “to j-a-a-il!”

Also, just about everything had to come in the traditional picture-book threes. “Front-row seats, cool water, elevators with white-gloved operators—laws said those were for white folks.”

But, can you send a nine-year-old to jail in a picture book?

Yes. Because Audrey was actually sentenced to jail—for a whole week. She was even threatened with solitary herself.

Yet, kids instinctively know that nine-year-olds triumph. And that’s what really makes this a book for them.

The timing of this book couldn’t be more perfect – millions of people have been out marching for a cause recently. How did you manage that?

Well, of course, I didn’t! Timing is pretty much out of the control of authors and illustrators. And this book was no exception.

The Youngest Marcher was originally slated to publish in January 2015. But, Vanessa Brantley Newton is, for good reasons, a hugely popular artist. After she agreed to take on this book, she received offers to illustrate several others, which took precedence. So, ours was delayed twice, for a year both times.

I admit I was a little grumpy! This was my first picture book, and I couldn’t wait to see how she was going to bring Audrey to life. But, you’re right again—the timing could not be more fortuitous. The book came out at exactly the right time, though in a way no one could predict.

Our country is bitterly divided—nearly in half—over what our government should and should not do, over who is president and how we pick her or him, over immigration, race relations, possible terrorism, and much more. Protests since the president was inaugurated in January have been larger and more persistent even than ones I remember from the civil rights period and the anti-Vietnam War era.

Audrey not only inspires people to raise their voices—she inspired me to go to Washington, DC for the Women’s March!—she also gives them hope that protest works.

On some level, your books all have a social justice tie-in. When you started writing for children, did you see yourself as a social justice writer? 

Yes, they do all relate to social justice. But, no, I didn’t intend that to be the case. In fact, when the first book, We’ve Got a Job, came out, I didn’t know if I’d ever write or publish another book. But, I should have guessed that, if there was one, it would somehow be related.

The second book was Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree Publishers, 2015).

It’s about social justice through circus arts. Basically, youth circus programs bring together kids who would not otherwise meet—and, in fact, if they did, they might well be enemies—and have them perform such dangerous tricks that they have to support each other!

In this case, the kids I highlight are Jewish Hebrew-speakers and Muslim Arabic-speakers in Israel (including a hijab-wearing contortionist!) as well as white, black, poor, and wealthy Americans in St. Louis. Some are even gang members, and there’s an uncanny connection between them and tribes and clans in the Middle East.

It’s undoubtedly my most diverse book.

But, remarkably, the kids all get along so well that, while I was writing it, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough conflict to keep readers interested! For better or worse, there were tiffs, accidents, crime, and derring-do to make things lively.

Many people might disagree but my biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton, subtitled, Do All the Good You Can, (Balzer + Bray, 2016) focuses on her Methodist drive to do good in the world. I think that’s literally what has made her run.

Of course, the book also looks into her mistakes, including those that set the country back, such as the healthcare debacle. But, she truly cares about young people and families.


The next book, too—as yet untitled—could be said to have a similar slant. At the suggestion of my Peachtree editor, I’m co-writing it with my husband, Sandy, and it’s on the problems with the U.S. Constitution.

He has written for many years—and convinced me—that the Constitution is the source of many injustices in the country. One of our examples is the Senate, which gives every state, regardless of its size, two senators; as a result, small states and their needs outweigh large states in Congress. Another of our examples is the Electoral College, which is also affected by the two-senators-per-state arrangement.

The book after that? Who knows?!


Cynsational Notes:

Kirkus called The Youngest Marcher “a vivid reminder that it took a community to fight segregation and the community responded.” Simon & Schuster produced a  Common Core curriculum guide prepared by Myra Zarnowski, and Alyson Beecher and Michele Knott developed a classroom discussion guide.

Vanessa Brantley Newton recently did a live illustration for the New York Times and talked about Audrey with Maria Russo, children’s book editor, as she drew.

The launch party for The Youngest Marcher included making protest signs and singing protest songs. Several Austin children’s authors and their families helped celebrate the event.

Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby assisted with sign making. Harper and her classmates
shared what they learned from a recent school visit as part of Cynthia’s presentation. 

Christina Soontornvat and her family made signs too.
Cory Putman Oakes and her daughter make a sign.

Author Interview & Giveaway: Sebastian Robertson on Writing His Father’s Rock and Roll Biography

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My love of music outweighs my love of the written word. So, I am delighted when I find children’s
book biographies written about any of my favorite musicians. I rush to devour them and learn more about the creative geniuses whose beautiful lyrics and magical melodies have lifted my spirit or given me comfort throughout my life.

I am honored to shine Cynsations’ spotlight today on Sebastian Robertson (Mohawk/Cayuga), a children’s book author, musician and composer doing that work.

Sebastian has written about rock and roll legends – including his father, Robbie Robertson, the award-winning lead guitarist and primary songwriter for The Band. In Rock and Roll Highway (Henry Holt, 2014),

Sebastian chronicles his father’s musical path as a child playing guitar with his First Nations relatives in Canada to playing on the road professionally by age fifteen. The picture book biography also talks about Buddy Holly’s advice for Robbie, recording and touring with Bob Dylan, and having The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, filmed by Martin Scorsese.  

Sebastian graciously agreed to share thoughts about his work and give away two signed copies of Rock & Rock Highway to Cynsations’ readers.

What excites you about writing children’s literature? 


As a teenager I taught Mommy and Me classes and felt a really strong connection with the kids. It wasn’t just a job it was a passion of mine for many, many years. In fact, it was through my experience teaching that the idea for Legends, Icons and Rebels was birthed.

Monitoring how the children reacted to and engaged with the music that we would play during class time was a lot of fun, especially when I could get them grooving to some James Brown or Aretha. Tapping into a mind that isn’t jaded or isn’t already made up is probably the most exciting aspect of writing for children.

Which do you enjoy writing the most – fiction, nonfiction, picture books, novels or something else? 


At this point, my three works consist of non-fiction with a focus on music and history. It’s just where I’ve ended up. I didn’t strive for this specific type of storytelling but it’s most certainly a good fit for me. I do have a couple fiction ideas up my sleeve that I’m pretty excited about, though.

What was it like writing about your father’s life in Rock and Roll Highway? 


It was a blast. It kind of took me back to a more child-like place as if I were doing a book report on my dad. We would meet for lunch and I would ask him all kinds of questions.

When I was near completing the book I realized how important this interviewing process was so I asked the publisher if I could include a short Q&A in the back of the book. They agreed, and if I could convey any message through that book, it would be for children to interview their parents.

As parents we sometimes forget relatable details that I found extremely interesting. Little things, like who was your best friend, what was your favorite thing to eat and how much homework did you have?

Tell me about the relationship between writing books and music in your life? 


The relationship has become that I’m always looking for a musical angle to tell kids about in my books. It’s what I do and it’s what I know so coming from a place of that much passion feels very intuitive.

What is your writing process?


I try not to think too much. My truth is that more often than not, my first idea is the best one. For instance, in Rock And Roll Highway, my first thought was to mirror The Last Waltz and begin the book at the end of the story. It felt right, I got a charge from it so away I went, full steam ahead. That and a lot of staring at a blinking cursor.

What has been the most challenging part of being a writer?

The balance between my music career and my writing career can make things difficult. Time management! I wish I was more disciplined.

An indigenous writer? 


Being indigenous has provided more opportunities for me at this point. It has opened up the world of possibilities creatively. After collaborating with my dad on Hiawatha And The Peacemaker (Abrams, 2015), I am now looking at writing more books based on my heritage.

The importance of indigenous culture is not a priority in our country, which is a travesty. Without sounding grandiose, if I can contribute on any level to bringing this culture more to the forefront it will be an incredible success for me.

Have you seen your writing evolve over the years? 


Most definitely, I’m not as terrible as I used to be.

What are you writing now? 


I have two books I’m currently developing but I’ve gotta’ keep ‘em on the down low. One is a non-fiction inspired by my First Nations background and one is a fiction idea that is based in music. Who would’ve guessed?

Sebastian Robertson,
photo by David Jordan Williams

Cynsational Notes

Before Rock and Roll Highway, Sebastian Robertson co-authored Legends, Icons & Rebels: Music That Changed the World (Tundra Books, 2013), with his father, Jim Guerinot, and Jared Levine. It introduces young readers to 27 pioneering musicians and singers across several genres of music and includes two CDs with a classic track from each artist with the hardcover version.

When he’s not writing children’s books, Sebastian works as a composer and songwriter. He has written music for many major television series, ads, video games and films. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.

Although Traci Sorell had heard many of Robbie Robertson’s iconic songs with The Band, she did not know of him until she bought his 1994 third solo album, Music for the Native Americans, which is still one of her favorites. Since then, she has enjoyed sharing his music and Sebastian’s books with her family and friends.

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Guest Post: David Jacobson on Trusting the Illustrator & the Publishing Process

By David Jacobson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

For the last eight years, I have worked for a small Seattle book publisher called Chin Music Press.

I’ve done everything from fact checking and copy editing to developmental- and line-editing, from setting up book tours to reading through the slush pile (a task I actually enjoyed).

But during all that time, my name never appeared on the cover of a book.

That changed this September with the release of my first title, Are You an Echo?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. A picture book, it’s both biography and anthology of a much-loved Japanese children’s poet, whose work has yet to be introduced to English-language readers.

Becoming an author, I learned, is a humbling experience. I had to endure the red-penciling of my not-so-flawless prose (something I used to dish out myself), and the frustration of waiting for each cog in the publishing machine to take its spin—editing, illustrating, book designing, leveling, printing, marketing, reviewing, even mailing—as deadlines came and went.

The experience opened my eyes to the anxiety authors feel as they lose more and more control over their creation, something that had not really dawned on me despite my years working in publishing.

As a staff member at a publisher, I had dealt with authors who continued to rework small details of their text until the bitter end, who agonized over each cover illustration, or who fretted over how their book page appeared on Amazon. Indeed, the degree to which authors continued “meddling” in their books sometimes affected how well we worked with them.

But being on the author side of the equation taught me just how important it is to give up control, regardless of the anxiety it might cause. That was particularly true of my interactions with Are You an Echo? illustrator Toshikado Hajiri.

David

When it came time to decide which cover to use, I requested multiple cover sketches, asking for one thing after another to be changed. But I couldn’t get satisfied.

 Finally, since I was unsure of how to proceed, I asked our book designer Dan Shafer for advice. He recommended limiting how much I was trying to steer the illustrator. Illustrators, he said, do their best work when they have freedom to react to the text in their own way.

Ultimately, I left Toshi to his own devices and he ended up producing a glorious painting of Misuzu and her daughter at sunset.

We went with that.

During my time at Chin Music, there have been many occasions when interactions between writer and editor, or writer and designer have produced unexpected results.

Current author A. V. Crofts tells of her own positive experience of letting go how she thought the cover of her book should look. In another of our titles, Todd Shimoda’s Oh! a Mystery of Mono no Aware, book designer Josh Powell brilliantly conceived of the idea of printing the entire book (both text and illustrations) in shades of black-and-white except for the very end.

Photo credit below.

Though initially intended to reduce the cost of the book, his solution resulted in a final explosion of color that dramatically enhanced the conclusion.

Writing is often thought to be a solo activity where one can wield total control over ones craft.

Oddly enough, its twin, publishing—the business of connecting writers to readers—is more of a team sport, requiring the combined input of different players with different skills and sensibilities.

So, as an author, don’t try to control everything in your book. Find really good people to join your team. Then let your editor, illustrator, designer, or translator bring something of him or herself to the process.

The result may surprise you.

interior illustration from the book

Cynsational Notes

Photo of Misuzu, Courtesy of Preservation Association of Misuzu Kaneko’s Work.

Review of the Day: Are You An Echo? by David Jacobson from Elizabeth Bird at A Fuse #8 Production. Peek: “I hope that the fame that came to Kaneko after the 2011 tsunami will take place in America, without the aid of a national disaster. And I hope that every child that reads, or is read, one of her poems feels that little sense of empathy she conveyed so effortlessly in her life.”

Author Interview: Debbie Levy on I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Happy Election Day! Go vote!

We welcome author Debbie Levy to talk about her new picture book biography. 

From the promotional copy of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016):

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has spent her lifetime disagreeing . . . with creaky old ideas. With unfairness. With inequality. She has disagreed. She has disapproved. She has objected and resisted. 

She has dissented!



Disagreeable? No. Determined? Yes! 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has changed her life, and ours, by voicing her disagreements and standing up for what’s right. This picture book about the first female Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court shows that disagreeing does not make you disagreeable and that important change can happen one disagreement at a time.

See also the Glorious RBG Blog (click to view 11 entries).

Welcome to Cynsations, Debbie! We’re both graduates of The University of Michigan Law School. Did you practice law or go straight to writing for young readers like I did (or rather like I did after clerking)?

I did practice law for several years after law school. But writing books for children is the only job I’ve held for more than six years. Lawyer at a big Washington, D.C. law firm: six years. Newspaper editor: six years. Then I took a class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, with the excellent Mary Quattlebaum. (Check out her books, and her reviewing work!)

Writing for children: This was a vocation with long-term potential.

Michigan Law School Reading Room

Hey, I have a newspaper background, too–so much in common! You write fiction and nonfiction across formats and age levels. Often I hear from new writers that they feel pressured to pick one focus. What has your range of pursuits done for you in terms of craft and career?

I think the writers you’re hearing from are telling a truth: There can be pressure to pick one focus or, to put it otherwise, to establish a “brand.”

I think I must have subconsciously scoffed at the notion that I could ever be a brand—ha, a Debbie Levy brand!—so, for better or worse, I’ve mostly followed my interests and allowed serendipity a role in choosing projects.

Also, one solution for writers who do want to be multi-focal is to have more than publisher. I realize that doesn’t solve a beginning writer’s problem, who may be looking for Publisher #1. But it is an option once you start getting published.

Congratulations on the release of I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley (Simon & Schuster, 2016)! What about Ruth Bader Ginsburg called to you as a writer?

Thank you! Like many people, I knew that the Glorious RBG was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States and the first Jewish woman on the Court.

I knew that, before that, she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C., and, before that, one of leading lawyers in the field of equal rights for women and girls.

What I didn’t know, until I started researching more deeply about her, is that she has been disagreeing with unfairness and with things that are just plain wrong from the time she was a little girl.

I mean, she objected to being excluded from shop class in grade school, and being required to take cooking and sewing instead! When on a car trip with her parents, she disagreed with she saw a sign outside a hotel that read “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.” Later, of course, she went on to disagree, resist, object, and dissent her way into big things.

And she’s been doing this for years with a voice that is not loud (people lean in to hear her words), in a manner that is not obnoxious (more benefit of the doubt than bashing, more insight than invective), and in service of justice.

So, I realized, the story of her life offers this inspiring lesson: Disagreeing does not make you disagreeable, and important change happens one disagreement at a time. Is it any wonder, then, that I thought she was a great person to introduce to young people in a picture book?

Agreed! Many of my favorite people disagree strongly with injustice. What were the challenges (research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the story to life?

I feel lucky to live in the Washington, D.C. area, because although Justice Ginsburg didnot find time for an interview with me last summer when I was working on this book, she did grant me access to her papers on deposit in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress (practically next door to the Supreme Court!).

I’ve gone through at least one Manuscript Division collection before, but none like this. So tidy! Meticulous! Her speeches typed on 4 x 6 cards: impeccable! Her handwritten notes on yellow legal sheets discussing and advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment that never got adopted!

Although I didn’t absolutely need to read piles of drafts of legal briefs and memoranda, I dived into this stuff with gusto; you do get a sense of a person from their papers.

Oh, wait. You asked for challenges. It is a challenge to write about someone, a living, active person, without having an interview. But there were many, many print and video interviews of RBG for me to consult. Many scholarly articles, by and about her.

And she did review the manuscript last October. She sent a nice little note, and wrote in some handwritten notes in the margins of my typescript. I took all her edits!

Since you’ve specifically mentioned “psychological challenges”—I lost my mother three years ago.

Debbie’s mother kayaking on the Wye River

She was a vibrant, ever-curious, outgoing woman, someone always interested in another person’s story, someone who as a girl dreamed of being a journalist (she ended up in the wholesale costume jewelry business instead), and she would have been over the moon to know that I was writing a book about RBG, to know that I was elbow-deep in RBG materials at the Library of Congress, to know that RBG looked over my manuscript pre-publication.

I’m answering your questions, Cyn, the morning after the book launch for I Disssent, which we held at D.C.’s great Politics & Prose Bookstore. Many friends who had known my mother attended.

I said there, “I cannot help but think that had my mother still been alive, she would have figured out a way to get me into RBG’s chambers for an interview—and she along with me!”

The room was filled with knowing smiles and laughter. Someone even called out my mother’s signature phrase: “Let me ask you a question”—her way of getting people to open up to her.

That helped with the pain of not having Mom there. (And, really, she would have snagged me an interview.)

Talk to us about disagreeing. It sounds like a negative focus for a children’s book. Is it? In either case, why do you think it’s important in the conversation of youth literature?

Yes, let’s talk about disagreeing! The theme of disagreeing is really what sold my editor at Simon & Schuster on this book.

From the very beginning, we were really excited about creating a book that said to all kids, and to girls in particular, that disagreeing does not make a person disagreeable, and that you can accomplish big things for yourself and for the world through dissent and by finding another way when the world says “no” to you.

It’s a positive message, but it’s also a message that says you don’t have to be positive—that is, you don’t have to sound or look positive, you don’t have to just say yes and smile and go along with things that you believe are wrong—to be a good person.

At the same time, simply disagreeing without more isn’t really enough if you want to change your life or anyone else’s. On the back of the book, we’ve put this RBG quote: “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Seems simple, right? But it’s that second sentence that is so hard to pull off.

Many authors discover reoccurring themes in their work? Is this true of you? If so, could you tell us about it and how I Dissent fits in?

I seem to return to the theme of Outsiderness. My mother, protagonist of the nonfiction-in-verse The Year of Goodbyes (Hyperion, 2010), being an outsider as a girl in Nazi Germany in 1938. Danielle, protagonist of my young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (Bloomsbury, 2013), who finds an unexpected antidote to her feelings of being the outsider in an unlikely friendship with the six-year-old boy she babysits one summer.

The African American individuals and communities, outsiders in their own country, in my nonfiction picture book We Shall Overcome: The Story of A Song (Disney-Jump at the Sun, 2013).

Today we may look at RBG and see the ultimate insider—she’s a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, for heaven’s sake! But she overcame the outsiderness of being a Jew in a sometimes hostile Gentile world, of being a young woman in the (then) overwhelmingly male-dominated world of law school, of being a female lawyer in a (then) man’s profession, and of being an advocate for legal and social changes that went against the grain of society’s traditional norms. There’s my theme.

What do you love about your writing life?

Other writers. What good communities and friendships I’ve found!

What do you do when you’re not writing or out-and-about in your author hat?

Walk in the woods or along the nearby Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Kayak in the Chesapeake Bay area. Fish in the Chesapeake Bay area. Read.

Think about whoever my next dog will be.

Apologize to my cat for thinking about my next dog.

You know, the usual.

What can your readers look forward to next?

In February 2017, Soldier Song, A True Story of the Civil War (Disney-Hyperon). An 80-page picture book for older children about a remarkable event that occurred after the Battle of Fredericksburg. Illustrated by the excellent, creative Gilbert Ford, with lots of room for excerpts from soldier’s letters and diaries. I’m excited about this!

Don’t miss The Glorious RBG Blog!

New Voice & Giveaway: Donna Janell Bowman on Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Donna Janell Bowman is the first-time author of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A Horse that can read, write, and do math?

Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. 

Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

This question ties so perfectly into my belief that there’s a piece of us in everything we write.

In 2006, I read a book about Beautiful Jim Key, authored by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow 2005/Harper Paperbacks 2006). It was a given that I would be drawn to a horse book. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where life revolved around raising, training, and showing horses, and caring for the myriad livestock and other animals. I have always been an animal lover, and I know firsthand how powerful the human-animal bond can be—how the combination of time, trust, and affection can create such synergy that you can practically read each other’s minds.

Courtesy of Tennessee State Library and Archives.

That kind of relationship bonded William “Doc” Key and his horse, Beautiful Jim Key. While the horse was what drew me to the story, I was immediately awed by Doc. His greatest historical contribution was an unmistakable message about kindness, in a time of extreme racial prejudice, and brutal treatment of animals.

How could I not love the story of a man who overcame so much to make a real difference in the world?

Thanks to Doc, “Jim,” the horse, became a sort of poster child for the emerging humane movement, while Doc overcame injustices, broke racial barriers, and helped change the way people thought about and treated animals. Doc was awarded a Service to Humanity Award, and Jim was awarded a “Living Example” award.

So, back to your question, Cyn, about what inspired me to write this story—it spoke to my heart. I dived into research with zeal.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

There were a number of challenges to writing this story, but three that most stand out:

First, the research. It was claimed that Beautiful Jim Key could read, write, calculate math problems, compete in spelling bees, identify playing cards, operate a cash register, and more. I had to get to the bottom of how this could be possible.

I used the adult book as my jumping off point, but I wasn’t satisfied to rely solely on somebody else’s research.

This is a story that straddles the 19th and 20th centuries, so I read a great deal about the period, including slavery, the Reconstruction Era in the distinct regions of Tennessee, the history of the humane organizations; the related World’s Fairs, Doc’s business interests, etc.

Emotionally, the most difficult part was reading about how animals were treated in the 19th century, and, more importantly, how enslaved people were often treated with similar brutality. Only a tiny fraction of my research appears in the book’s back matter, but it all deeply affected my approach to the story.

I visited the Shelbyville (TN) Public Library and skimmed through their microfilm. Then I spent some time at the Tennessee State Archives, donning white gloves as I perused the crumbling scrapbooks from the BJK collection.

During that 2009 trip, I also visited the humble Beautiful Jim Key memorial in Shelbyville, TN, and Doc’s grave site at the Willow Mount Cemetery. (I might have shed a few sentimental tears.) We then tracked down what I think was Doc’s former property, though the house is long gone.

This kind of onsite research, along with old photos and local news accounts, allowed me to imagine the setting of Doc’s hometown. Back home, I collected binders-full of newspaper articles, playbills, and promotional booklets. Through these, I got a feel for how people thought about Doc and Jim.

And, most importantly, I found some of Doc’s explanations for how he taught the horse. What became clear was, though we may never know exactly how the horse was able to do so many remarkable things, the countless news reporters and professors who tried to prove trickery or a hoax, never found anything beyond “education.” Jim only rarely made mistakes.

Ultimately, what Doc and Jim did for the humane movement is even more significant than what the horse performed on stage.

Originally, I had planned the story for middle grade audiences until my agent (who wasn’t my agent yet) suggested that I try a picture book version. I already had half of the chapters written by this time, so I was aghast at the thought of starting over. And I didn’t know how to write a picture book biography. I spent the next two years analyzing and dissecting a couple hundred picture book biographies to figure out how they work.

I decided to blog about some of my craft observations, using the platform as a quasi-classroom for myself and anyone else who might happen upon my site.

Many, many, many drafts later, I had a manuscript that attracted the attention of a few editors. Lee and Low was the perfect home for Doc and Jim.

There was a built-in challenge in writing this story about a formerly-enslaved African American man. Because I don’t fit any of Doc’s descriptors, it was doubly important that I approach the subject with respect and sensitivity.

I couldn’t merely charge through with the mindset that I’m just the historian sharing documented facts.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, moving forward with your literary art?

It is so exciting to finally be crossing the threshold into this new role. The past nine years, which is how long I’ve had the story in my head and in my heart, have felt like the longest-ever pregnancy.

There’s a mixture of joy, relief, and fear during this delivery stage. Fortunately, so far, very nice starred reviews have praised the book, and each reviewer wisely sings the praises of Daniel Minter’s spectacular lino-cut acrylic art.

As I think ahead to marketing and promotion, I’m planning for the Oct. 15 release, the Oct. 23 launch party, and how the book might raise awareness of the need for more kindness in the world—not only toward animals but toward each other.

From my very first draft, nine years ago, I knew I’d revive the original Beautiful Jim Key Pledge—originally signed by two million people during Doc and Jim’s time.

I plan to incorporate the pledge into my author presentations, and it will be downloadable from my website soon. I also hope to align with some humane organizations to help them raise awareness.

I have two more books under contract, several others on submission or in revision, and a novel-in-progress.

In 2018, Peachtree Publishers will release En Garde! Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, illustrated by S.D. Schindler, followed in 2019 by King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara, illustrated by Adam Gustavson.

Such is the author’s life, right? We write, we rewrite, we revise, we sell, we wait, we celebrate, then we do it all over again. Because we can’t imagine not writing something that moves us. And we can’t imagine not writing for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Book Launch! Join Donna Janell Bowman at 3 p.m. Oct. 23 at BookPeople in Austin. Donna will be speaking and signing.

Fundraiser: Step Right Up and Help The Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Human Society: “They are horses, donkeys, and ponies that are helpless and hopeless. And they are hurting. The lucky ones land at Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. Under the loving care of professional staff and volunteers, the animals are medically and nutritionally rehabilitated, then placed with trainers to prepare them for re-homing/adoption.” See also Interview: Step Right Up Author Donna Janell Bowman by Terry Pierce from Emu’s Debuts.

Enter to win two author-signed copies of Step Right Up:  How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016).

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Cover Reveal: Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Check out the cover for Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World about Kindness by Donna Janell Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee & Low, 2016). From the promotional copy:

A horse that can read, write, spell, and do math? Ridiculous! 

That’s what people thought in the late 1800’s – until they met Beautiful Jim Key.


Born a weak and wobbly colt in 1889, Jim was cared for by William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-taught veterinarian who believed in treating animals with kindness, patience, and his own homemade remedies. 

Under Doc’s watchful eyes, Jim grew to be a healthy young stallion with a surprising talent – a knack for learning! For seven years, Doc and Jin worked together, perfecting Jim’s skills. Then it was time for them to go on the road, traveling throughout the United States and impressing audiences with Jim’s amazing performances. In the process, they broke racial barriers, and raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals.


Here’s a true story of an extraordinary horse and the remarkable man who nurtured the horse’s natural abilities. Together they asked the world to step right up and embrace their message of kindness toward animals.

Author Interview: Heather Lang on Fearless Flyer & Writing Strong Women

Visit Heather Lang’s official author site & @Hblang

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Congratulations on your new picture book biography Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine (Calkins Creek, 2016) and the starred reviews from Booklist and School Library Journal! 

I was captivated by your account of Ruth Law’s record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York City one hundred years ago, and Raúl Colón’s illustrations are magnificent.

You are creating a wonderful collection of books about strong women from our past. How do you choose the women you write about?

I love to read and write about lesser-known women, who dream big, pick themselves up when they fall, and stay persistent.

These women might face poverty, racial or gender discrimination, disability, or other hardships. They’re not afraid of failure. They inspire me to step outside my own comfort zone and be brave.

What drew you to this story about Ruth Law?

Sometimes I’m drawn to writing about topics I fear. With fear, there’s always fascination—like when you don’t want to watch a scary movie, but you can’t help yourself.

I’m a nervous flyer, so I’ve always been intrigued by those who dared to fly the flimsy biplanes made in the early 1900s. Ruth Law opened doors for women aviators like Amelia Earhart to enter this male-dominated field.

I loved how Ruth immersed herself fully in flying, even mastering the mechanics of her plane. She could tell what was wrong with her motor by the sound of it!

Her passion and personality came through in her words—she had a lovely voice. I wove her words into the text, so Ruth helps tell her own story.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Fearless Flyer. Can you talk a little about your process? 

Every book I write is a treasure hunt. I never know where a clue might take me. My initial research involved reading a lot of newspaper articles, and in one of those articles Ruth mentioned she kept a scrapbook. I tracked it down at the National Air and Space Museum archives.

Heather researching Ruth Law’s scrapbook

Her enormous scrapbook was stuffed with newspaper articles, mementos, photos, and her own handwriting. It was a goldmine.

While I was there I visited the early flight exhibit at the museum, educated myself about her biplane, and learned about the evolution of flight. A lot of questions popped up about her plane and how she operated it, so I found a retired Navy Commander who pilots and builds these old-style biplanes. He had incredible insights.

I also consulted with the folks at the Glen H. Curtiss Museum and the National Air and Space Museum.

I am always amazed how generous people are with their time and how eager they are to help.

What is one of your favorite things about writing for children?

Other than being able to wear sweat pants or pajamas all day, I’d have to say one of my favorite things about my job is the community. I can’t imagine a more supportive group of people than writers, teachers, and librarians. We all have the same primary goal—to have a positive impact on children, giving them books they can relate to and books that open them up to new people and places and dreams.

From Heather’s The Original Cowgirl, illustrated by Suzanne Beaky (Whitman)

I’m in two critique groups. We share the highs of clever endings, successful revisions, and accepted submissions. We share the struggles of faulty plots, poor reviews, and rejection. I rely on them tremendously for support.

What are you working on now?

with Alice Coachman

I’m launching a blog focusing on Girls With Grit and having a blast creating the content.

It will include real-life stories, psychology and science, classroom activities, interviews with authors, and of course children’s books with strong female characters.

I’m also adding supplemental materials to my website so readers can get to know even more about Ruth Law and her flying machine.

What do you have coming out next?

I’m really excited about my next picture book biography, Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, illustrated by Jordi Solano (Albert Whitman, 2016), about an amazing shark scientist AKA “The Shark Lady.”

Sadly, Genie (as she liked to be called) died last year at the age of 92. I had the thrill of interviewing her in person in 2014, and hearing about her remarkable adventures. Genie also reviewed the manuscript for me.

I look forward to sharing this amazing woman with kids everywhere.

Cynsational Notes

Helen’s muses

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College.
She writes both fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies.

Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain (“Paddy Cats,” Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (“Francesca’s Funky Footwear,” Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or teaching creative writing workshops for children. Helen also serves on the on the Board of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Find her on Twitter @helenkampion.

Interview: Author Erin Hagar & Illustrator Joanna Gorham on Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures

By Erin Hagar & Joanna Gorham
For Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures is by Erin Hagar and illustrated by Joanna Gorham (Duopress, 2015). From the promotional copy:

Julia Child knew how to have fun, and she also knew how to whip up a delightful meal.


After traveling around the world working for the U.S. government, Julia found her calling in the kitchen and devoted her life to learning, perfecting, and sharing the art of French cuisine.


This delicious, illustrated middle-grade biography is a portrait of the remarkable woman, author, and TV personality who captured our hearts with her sparkling personality. “Bon appétit!”

What about Julia’s life most resonated with you?

EH: Julia didn’t find her true passion until she was almost forty. She worked hard at all the other jobs she had, but it took a long time to find the job that didn’t feel like work. I worry that today’s kids are pressured to excel at such a young age. I hope Julia’s experience speaks to them, as well.

JG: To achieve all that Julia did, she had to have courage, creativity and the willpower to withstand failure if things didn’t go as planned. I hope I can have the same strength that she showed throughout her life.

Julia Child, First Bite by Joanna Gorham, reproduced with permission.

How was this process different from other projects you’ve worked on?

EH: I also write (but don’t illustrate) picture books. Folks like me are supposed to stay the heck out of the illustration process so the illustrator can add his or her creative genius to the work.

With this book, I was asked to help to map out what the visual sequences would include and provide visual information from my research. At first, I felt very hesitant about this, but that’s what the project and the timeline demanded. The beauty of the illustrations, however, is all Joanna. I don’t take one ounce of credit for that.

storyboard

JG: When I illustrate magazine articles, I’m looking to show details about the character that tell the viewer more than what’s in the text, while capturing one moment in time. In the Julia book, the chapters show an evolution of Julia’s life.

What were some of the biggest revisions you made?

EH: Cutting, cutting and more cutting. I don’t remember most of what was cut (which means the edits were absolutely necessary) except for this one thing: There’s a long, convoluted, and funny story about how Julia flunked her final exam from Le Cordon Bleu. Word count got the best of us, so I’ll save it for school visits, I guess!

JG: Showing Julia change over the years and making sure she still looked like the same person was a challenge. I didn’t want to exaggerate her age to get the point across that she was aging, but she couldn’t look like she was thirty throughout the book. I painted and repainted her face a lot.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Erin Hagar

EH: Describing the cultural landscape of the 1950’s and ’60’s in a child-friendly way was tough for me. Today, there’s a broader conversation about food and cooking than there was back then.

Also, kids today can watch an entire channel devoted to food and cooking. There were only three national channels during Julia’s time.

JG: The timeline, for sure.

After I finished an illustration, I sent it to the art director, who reviewed it with the Erin and the publisher, sent it back for revisions, and then it was sent it to the designer to include in the book.

My job was to try my best to keep up with the schedule.

What is your favorite illustration in the book?

EH: The cover of the book really knocks my socks off, but the illustration of Julia holding her cookbook for the first time is my favorite.

This is my first book, so I can totally relate to the mix of emotions Joanna captured so beautifully.

@Joanngorham

JG: Julia’s recreated kitchen in the Smithsonian. Her own kitchen was such a personal part of her. Cooking wasn’t just a job, but a passion she took home after work.

The little girl is so excited to experience the intimate setting where Julia shared so much of herself with thousands of museum guests.

Cynsational Notes

Erin Hagar writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children. She has not yet trussed a chicken, but makes a mean molasses cookie. This is her first book.

As a child Joanna Gorham traveled all over the world. She found a love for food, exploring, and storytelling. Now she tells her own stories through her watercolors in children’s books and family magazines. She recently won two of Applied Arts Magazine’s Young Blood Awards, for the brightest up-and-coming talent. You can find her painting in a little red cottage on an island in the Pacific Northwest.