Guest Interview: Kate Hosford & Cynthia Levinson: Children’s Authors & Circus Fans (Part III)

By Kate Hosford & Cynthia Levinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Earlier this week, we interviewed each other about our respective new circus-themed book releases.

Don’t miss the interview about Cynthia’s Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree, 2015) or the interview about Kate’s Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (Carolrhoda, 2015).

Here’s our final installment of this series:

Why do you think circus arts—and books about them—have become so popular with kids?

Kate: I think circus arts fill a need that wasn’t being met in our culture. American kids who wanted to be physical usually turn to team sports, but if kids want an outlet that is both physical and artistic, they need to look elsewhere.

Kate

Circus arts are athletic and artistic and also provide kids with an
opportunity for healthy escapism. The circus world is magical and
mysterious, and by participating in circus arts, children are able to
‘run away with the circus’ before returning to their regular lives.

For kids who serious about circus arts, another benefit is that their troupe really functions as family. They are united in trying to put on the best show possible, and in many cases have also entrusted their physical safety to their fellow troupers or to crew members.

I think your book makes it very clear that the bonds that are forged through this interdependence are profound, especially if the circus is comprised of kids from different cultures who can not always fall back on a shared language as a form of communication.

Ultimately, the circus family cannot function unless each member is fully focused and committed, and this is true whether you are a performer, director, crew member, or the circus chef.

Cynthia: Kids’ lives today are closely scrutinized, demanding, and competitive. Maybe circus—both real ones and books about them—is especially appealing now because it provides ways for kids to find an alternative to their everyday situations.

Cynthia

Unlike the rest of their lives, circus is non-competitive.
Performers have to cooperate, partly because that’s the ethos of circus
and also because it’s too dangerous not to. So they take big risks but
in a supportive environment.

One of my major takeaways from my research into circus is that, while it appears to be exotic, it is actually doable by a wide range of kids. They get to imagine themselves inside a world that is both fantastic and real.

Anyone can truly accomplish what appears to be the impossible.

Many of their peers seek fantasy online or in virtual worlds and compete with each other for grades or recognition. But circus kids help each other create an alternate reality, literally.

I don’t know if this explains why circus is becoming prominent but I hope these values come across in kidlit.

They certainly do in your book where the troupers seem out of this world—but they have to eat, like normal people! And the chef has to be flexible to figure out their very human needs.

Guest Interview: Kate Hosford & Cynthia Levinson: Children’s Authors & Circus Fans (Part II)

By Kate Hosford
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Cynthia Levinson’s book Watch Out for Flying Kids! How Two Circuses, Two Countries, and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community (Peachtree, 2015) is an in-depth look at the world of social circus —a movement that brings kids from different cultures together to perform.

Cynthia follows the story lines of nine kids in two circuses: Circus Harmony in St. Louis (comprised of suburban and inner-city kids) and Circus Galilee in Israel (comprised of Jews and Arabs).

As the kids evolve, they must overcome many physical, cultural and emotional obstacles.

Cynthia’s eye for detail, her ability to stay close to her characters, and her tenacity as a researcher makes her writing vivid, suspenseful and utterly compelling.

I couldn’t wait to see how life turned out for each one of these kids, and I’m in awe of her ability to keep all the balls in the air while researching and writing this book.

How did you conduct your research? What were some of your most memorable research experiences? What were some of the obstacles you encountered along the way when writing this book?

The research was a combination of exhilarating, onerous, and hilarious. Exhilarating because I got to spend hundreds of hours behind the scenes at circuses, seeing how kids learn to plant their feet next to their ears while lying on their stomachs, walk en pointe in toe shoes along a tight wire, and juggle clubs behind their backs.

Meghan and Hila, contortion

Also, I spent nine days living with Jewish and Arab families in the Galilee. If you’ve heard of Middle-Eastern hospitality, you’ll know what this means. The number of dishes at every meal! The multiple ways of cooking eggplant! The warm pita and fresh hummus! In addition, circus people all over the world pride themselves on welcoming everyone as family.

Circus Cynthia!

So, I moved in with the St. Louis troupe, too. All of these experiences were invaluable for immersing myself in the Middle East, the Midwest, and the universe of circus.

The research was also onerous, however, because only four of the nine kids featured in the book live in the United States. One of the Americans was in professional circus school in Canada, and the Israelis, of course, were in Israel. So, I was dealing with three time zones and two foreign languages.

Technology glitches also intervened. When I couldn’t talk with the kids face-to-face, we communicated by whichever means worked best for them—telephone, email, text, Skype or Facebook messaging and video—as long as the devices, the cell towers, and the internet connections worked. When one of those went down, so did the conversation.

Then, there was the fact that they and their coaches—who spoke, variously, Hebrew, Arabic, German, Mongolian or occasionally English—were practically my only sources of information. Unlike many nonfiction books, Flying Kids is not based on archival research.

Instead, it was a journalistic effort, with the events unfolding in recent and real time. The investigations that did not involve personal interviews and observations consisted of prowling the kids’ and the circuses’ Facebook pages and email exchanges and begging them for photos and videos.

(I did read some secondary works, which focused on the practice and history of circus, the history of the Middle East, and the growth of St. Louis.)

Frankly, the hardest factor of all was that the “main characters” were all teenagers with much better things to do than talk with me about their childhoods. I kept a log of the times that various ones of them “stood me up” (in my definition).

Cynthia practices circus tricks.

Not infrequently, what I thought was an appointment for an interview, complete with a hired translator, turned out to conflict with homework. Or rescinded cell-phone privileges. Or a mood swing. Or with an urgent need to go to the beach—the photos of which I simultaneously tracked on Facebook! I could hardly blame them.

But I gnashed my teeth. I sent so many messages to my editor explaining why I simply could not write this book that she sent me a copy of The Little Engine That Could!

The hilarious part happened when I was trying to figure out what kids aged 10-14 know about the Galilee. I asked writer friends, and one reported, “I asked my neighbor’s daughter, who is 13. Said she, ‘Isn’t that where Puff the Magic Dragon lived?’”

Actually, as amusing (and informative) as that was, the truly funny part came when I tried out circus tricks. My website has mortifying videos of me falling over a mini-tramp and rolling off of a globe.

One of the factors that makes this book so exciting is your close focus on the many story lines of performers in both circuses. Describe the challenges of building up many story lines simultaneously.

You’re right—that was very tricky. (Pun intended!) I needed a lot of “main characters” because there were two circuses (one in Israel and one in the U.S.), each with at least two major ethnic/racial groups, and a variety of skills to cover. Combining these factors led to a cast of nine kids.

In addition to the story line for each of them, I also wanted to convey a story arc for each circus, as a whole. I didn’t know when I started whether or not they had one because, as I said, the circuses were evolving as I was observing and writing about them. It turns out, fortunately, that story arcs happen in real life! Candidly, I worried that that was too many lines for readers to keep track of. But each is so distinct, I think it works.

On top of all that, not only are there multiple story lines but they also take place over a number of years. Although the book ostensibly covers 2005-2012, it actually reaches back farther than that because three of the Americans started earlier than the others. So, I was also dealing with layered timelines.

Iking flying toward T-Rock

How did your editor help with this process of making this book?

Manar and Lil

I’m thrilled to give a shout-out at every opportunity to my editor, Kathy Landwehr at Peachtree Publishers. Not only did she have faith in the project when I despaired, she guided it all the way through.

I suggested a picture book, but she sensed that it needed to be middle grade. Initially, she suggested that I write a fun book about “a year in the life of the circus,” covering just 2011-2012. That was the plan.

However, when I went to Israel in the fall of 2012 to do research, I discovered that the Lebanon War had started in 2006, first, in the Arab village where the Muslim kids in the circus live and then literally in the back yard of one of the Jewish kids. I immediately knew I had to start the story there. That made the book more historical and political.

And Kathy accepted all of that. She advised me to “write long,” which I did—and then helped me chop 25,000 words. I knew the original manuscript needed to be shortened but I didn’t know which 25,000 words to relinquish. Kathy is the behind-the-scenes heroine of this book. It would not exist or have the shape it does without her.

How did writing this book change you as a person?

I love this question! No one has asked me this before but our books do change us, don’t they?

My previous book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), gave me visceral insight into the gulfs between black and white people’s perspectives.

Watch Out for Flying Kids humbled me but also gave me more confidence. Humbled me because I really cannot do any of even the simplest tricks that the kids do.

Also, they are open to taking risks and to charging into new situations that I never had the nerve for at their age. Yet, producing this book with all of its complications gave me confidence as a writer. If I could do this one, I’m ready for more!

Speaking of which, in response to another of your questions, my next book, due out in January 2016, is a middle-grade biography called Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can. Two other books are scheduled for release in 2017.

Guest Interview: Kate Hosford & Cynthia Levinson: Children’s Authors & Circus Fans (Part I)

By Cynthia Levinson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Kate Hosford’s book, Feeding the Flying Fanellis and Other Poems from a Circus Chef, illustrated by Cosei Kawa (Carolrhoda, 2015), is a complete delight.

The concept of combining cooking with circus is genius. Both activities are popular with and appealing to kids, and food brings circus, which can feel exotic and other-worldly, down to earth for children.

On top of that, the rhymes are varied, and the poetry is both fun and informative. The ringmaster’s meals are in his top hat! The juggler is growing thin because he juggles his food rather than eating it! Readers will empathize with a homesick strongman.

And, perhaps best of all, Kate conveys the true message of circus: “Everyone’s invited.”

Keep flying, Kate!

Why did you choose to write about a circus chef?

As a former dancer and gymnast, I’ve always been intrigued by circus, but when I was growing up in Vermont there were not yet opportunities for teenagers to participate in circus arts.

This changed while I was in college; in 1987, the Vermont-based Circus Smirkus, was founded, and in 1989, my father’s non-profit Project Harmony organized a youth exchange between Circus Smirkus and a circus from Tbilisi, Georgia.

I later went on to see many more amazing performances by Circus Smirkus, as well as shows by the Big Apple Circus, and Cirque de Soleil. I am also a fan of contemporary circus productions such as those from the Montreal troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main (the 7 Fingers of the Hand.) I saw their show Traces ten times in 2012!

My interest in chefs probably resulted from the fact that I developed food intolerances in my thirties and had to live on a restricted diet. Food suddenly became a complicated part of my life, and I fantasized about having a personal chef who could cook for me, leaving me to free to focus on other things.

When I was about thirty-five, I began to write picture books. My first attempt was a story about a chef with a morbid fear of onions, and my second was story about a rooftop circus. However, it took another eight years until I decided to combine these interests and write about a circus chef.

Andrew Levy, Circus Smirkus chef

Once I started researching actual circus chefs, I was hooked. There were stories about stilt walkers from Trinidad who covered all their food in ketchup, Russian performers who put mayonnaise on every dish, and if the shipments of animal food didn’t arrive, the chef would have to bake bread for elephants, and feed the tigers meat from their freezers.

At first I thought maybe I should write a nonfiction book about circus chefs, but the desire to make up my own circus won out.

I loved the idea of a chef who would have to cater to different kinds of performers with a variety of dietary and emotional needs.

After trying to write about a circus chef in a picture book format, I eventually switched to poetry, and decided to write from the chef’s point of view. After that, the initial poems came quite quickly, but it took another four years to revise them.

As part of my Fanellis book promotion, I interviewed Andrew Levy, the wonderful Circus Smirkus chef. (That interview will be on my website soon!)

Can you talk about the editing process of the book?

I first presented these poems as a workshop piece at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I received my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. The feedback was positive, so I continued to work on the poems in my fourth semester with poet Julie Larios. I will always be grateful to Julie for holding me to a high standard, while also helping me tap in to my whimsical side.

After Carolrhoda Books acquired the manuscript, I wanted to explore various poetic forms such as the triolet, pantoum and double dactyl. Editor Anna Cavallo was helpful and patient as I tried out countless versions of each poem. While these particular forms did not make it into the book, I did make sure that I had a collection with varied rhyme schemes and rhythmic patterns. It was also important to me that the poems were interwoven, so that a character introduced in one poem might make a cameo appearance in another poem. I guess this was my form of world-building.

I also showed an earlier draft of the poems to Circus Smirkus founder Rob Mermin. At that time, the collection contained a poem about a clown who was a bad-mannered buffoon. Rob encouraged me to create a poem about a refined clown, who more accurately reflected the ethos of circus clowning. I threw out my original clown poem and wrote a new poem about a sophisticated and well-mannered clown who is conflicted about having to throw pies.

Aside from that change, the cast of characters mostly remained the same throughout the editing process. The only character who didn’t make the cut was a unicyclist who couldn’t stop long enough to eat.

What do you love about Cosei Kawa’s illustrations?

I love the fact that the pictures are complex and completely original. I haven’t come across another illustrator who has a style even remotely similar to Cosei’s. His take on the circus is surreal, and I think there is a lot there for children to discover upon repeated readings of the poems.

I also love the fact that many of the images have depth to them, and his use of wacky perspectives complements the eccentric personalities of the performers.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

I am working on a couple more poetry collections, which also have interrelated poems. I have five or six picture books in process, and am beginning middle grade novel about ballet. I have now started ballet lessons, and have to stand in the middle of the class so that I always have someone to follow!

New Voice: Laura Woollett on Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Laura A. Woollett is the first-time author of Big Top Burning: The True Story of an Arsonist, a Missing Girl, and The Greatest Show On Earth (Chicago Review Press, 2015). From the promtional copy:

Big Top Burning investigates the 1944 Hartford circus fire and invites readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence


The fire broke out at 2:40 p.m. Thousands of men, women, and children were crowded under Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s big top watching the Flying Wallendas begin their death-defying high-wire act. Suddenly someone screamed “Fire!” and the panic began. 

By 2:50 the tent had burned to the ground. Not everyone had made it out alive.


With primary source documents and survivor interviews, Big Top Burning recounts the true story of the 1944 Hartford circus fire—one of the worst fire disasters in U.S. history. 

Its remarkable characters include Robert Segee, a 15-year-old circus roustabout and known pyromaniac, and the Cook children, Donald, Eleanor, and Edward, who were in the audience when the circus tent caught fire. 

Guiding readers through the investigations of the mysteries that make this moment in history so fascinating, this book asks: Was the unidentified body of a little girl nicknamed “Little Miss 1565” Eleanor Cook? Was the fire itself an act of arson—and did Robert Segee set it? 

Big Top Burning combines a gripping disaster story, an ongoing detective and forensics saga, and World War II–era American history, inviting middle-grades readers to take part in a critical evaluation of the evidence and draw their own conclusions.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What roadblocks did you run into? How did you overcome them? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Laura at the circus

When I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning, a nonfiction account of the 1944 Hartford circus fire, I had only dipped a toe into the giant pool of research that was to inform the final book.

I began the project in graduate school as an independent study in writing nonfiction for young people. That summer, I researched and wrote the entire first draft!

Of course, this was before I was married, before I owned a house, and before I had a child. My research consisted of reading the three (at the time) nonfiction books for adults on the subject, and reading every newspaper article on the fire from 1944 to date that I could find – mostly from the “Hartford Courant” and the now defunct “Hartford Times.”

The best thing I did was to interview a few survivors of the fire. They’d been children at the time and were so gracious in sharing the stories of their narrow escapes.

The interviews were gold. However, the newspaper articles, while primary sources, often held inaccurate information. The disaster happened quickly, and as reporters rushed to get information to the public, all sorts of false information found its way into their stories. And the adult books were secondary sources. I needed to form my own conclusions about the tragedy and the mysteries that surrounded it.

Then in 2009, I won the SCBWI Work In Progress grant for nonfiction, and that gave me the inspiration to keep going and to dig deeper. I used the money to travel to Hartford where I discovered the extensive circus fire archives at the Connecticut State Library. I spent several weekends at the library, diving into boxes of police records and witness statements, looking at crime scene photos, and even listening to a tape-recorded interview with the suspected arsonist, Robert Segee.

I’d be immersed for five hours at a time, and when I left I was exhausted, hungry (no food allowed in the archives area), and feeling victorious every time. I truly felt like a detective, collecting the clues to form a complete picture of the events that happened at the circus that day. Thank goodness for the librarians who collected and cataloged boxes and boxes of materials on the circus fire. It’s really due to them that authors like me are able to write such complete accounts of the tragedy.

As I continued to revise and send my manuscript to various agents and publishers, I interviewed more survivors. Interestingly, they seemed to appear wherever I went.

At the Boston Public Library, a gentleman who saw my research materials spread out on a table stopped to tell me his tale of survival. When my father was recovering from heart surgery at Hartford Hospital, he discovered his roommate was a survivor. My high school chemistry teacher (who always told us to keep our backpacks out of the aisles) shows up in one of the photos in my book. And I was able to interview my fifth grade teacher, who had been in the hospital having his tonsils out when they brought the first burn victims in.

I feel honored to be entrusted with their stories and proud to have written a book that will pass on the story of the Hartford circus fire to future generations.

Memorial to the Hartford circus fire victims, built on the former circus grounds. The bronze medallion indicates the location of the center pole of the big top tent.

How did you go about identifying your editor? Did you meet him/her at a conference? Did you read an interview with him/her? Were you impressed by books he/she has edited?

When I sent out my manuscript on submission, I had done my research. (I’m a member of SCBWI after all!) I began by querying agents who represented nonfiction authors, and I looked specifically at those who had worked with narrative nonfiction for older readers. I got some great feedback but no takers.

I turned to querying editors directly, trying all my contacts through writer friends and through SCBWI. Still lots of lovely rejections.

But I had my eyes open. I snoop in the backs of books to find out the names of the author’s agent and editors, which are often listed in the acknowledgements. I read quite a few blogs about writing and books for kids and always make note of agents or editors who publish work similar to mine, or work I think I’d like to write in the future.

It was on Cynsations that I found a New Voices post by editor Susan Signe Morrison, who with author Joan Wehlen Morrison, wrote Home Front Girl (Chicago Review Press, 2012), a diary of everyday life of an American girl growing up in the years leading up to WWII.

Because the book was for an older audience, nonfiction, and about the same era as mine, I thought I’d query her acquiring editor, Lisa Reardon at Chicago Review Press.

Two months after my query, Lisa sent me an offer letter.

After this experience I truly believe that if you write a good book, you will find a home for it—you just have to keep your eyes open and stay persistent. I wrote the first draft of Big Top Burning in the summer of 2005 and just a mere ten years later, I’m incredibly proud of its debut in 2015!

Cynsational Notes

For more information on the Hartford circus fire, visit circus fire historian, Mike Skidgell.