New Voice: Monica Clark-Robinson on Let the Children March

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I couldn’t play on the same playground as the white kids. 
I couldn’t go to their schools.  
I couldn’t drink from their water fountains.  
There were so many things I couldn’t do. 

Let the Children March (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) follows a fictional African-American girl and her family through the very real events of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in May 1963.

This beautiful picture book, illustrated by Frank Morrison and written by fellow Epic Eighteen debut author Monica Clark-Robinson, weaves children’s chants and slogans from the march into the story along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words.

Finding the timeline of the Children’s Crusade in the end pages with children holding posters showing important dates on them drew me into the story and setting right away.

Monica, what made you feel this story needed to be told and why did you feel you had to write it?


When I first heard the story of the 1963 Children’s Crusade march, I was amazed that I had never heard about it before.

Monica photographed this Birmingham statue
honoring children jailed for protesting in 1963.

Children had marched against segregation, been sprayed by water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and jailed. Why was this not common knowledge?

For weeks afterward, I asked friends, family, and acquaintances if they knew anything about it, and I got the same answer 90 percent of the time: no one had even heard of it. I was stunned. And I felt deeply the injustice that we had done to the children who marched by not teaching about their part in the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King wrote a book the year after the Children’s March called Why We Can’t Wait (Harper, 1964). In it, he states that he believes it was the addition of the children and teens to the movement that finally turned the tide against segregation.

This story needed to be told, remembered, and repeated.

The message of what happened in Birmingham in 1963 is sadly still so relevant today.

I did some research and was surprised to find that there were no picture books about the subject—although since then, a wonderful one by Cynthia Levinson called The Youngest Marcher (illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Atheneum Books, 2017) has come out. (See Cynsations interview.)

I personally feel driven driven to write stories that are getting lost in the margins and stories that are being forgotten, or misremembered. I also want to highlight history that gives children power and agency. This story hits both of those marks—I knew I had to write it.

This sculpture, Police and Dog Attack by artist James Drake,
is located in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park.

What did Frank Morrison’s art bring to your text?


We were thrilled when Frank agreed to illustrate the book.

The emotion and vibrancy he brought to the project was just stunning to me. I cried with an odd mixture of joy and sadness when I first saw his drawings for the book. It’s a difficult subject to write and illustrate a picture book about, in many ways.

We wanted to tell the story without softening it, but also with an understanding that the readers are children. I believe Frank’s art really rode that line beautifully, showing the reality without making it too upsetting for young readers.

Interior illustration by Frank Morrison.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I wanted to write the stories that I saw a need for. The right book, at just the right moment, in the hands of the very child that needs it, can change a life–even change the world.

I remember times in my youth when a book changed my perceptions about myself, or altered how I interacted with others. I believe so strongly in the power of story and the power of children. And the magic they create together!

I can’t imagine doing anything that would fulfill me as deeply as being a writer for children.

Young readers participating in a readers’ theater performance of Let the Children March at Monica’s book launch.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?


I’ve written poetry for as long as I can remember. I think I came to writing via that form, more than anything else. I am also a professional actor and have often written for my own solo performance.  So those things shaped me as a writer early on.

But then, about 10 years ago, I was working in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble, and I walked by a group of women meeting together. I listened in to their conversation, as one does, and discovered they were a critique group for children’s and teen’s literature. I begged to join, and for the next 10 years, I learned craft through that group of amazing writers.

I like to tell people I went to the University of Darcy and Carla. They are the two “grand dames” of my critique group, Darcy Pattison and Carla Killough McClafferty, both amazing authors.

I joined SCBWI, I went to conferences and intensives, I read countless books about the craft of writing–and I was a sponge for it all.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?


I have my “IRL” writing community, of course, in the amazing critique group I’ve been with so long.  But beyond that, the wide world of the children’s literature community on social media has been a wonderful support and resource.


One thing I’ve been doing for years now is following some of the “greats” on Twitter and Facebook.

Jane Yolen is a great example—she posts about her projects, her successes and failures, and how she just gets up every day and puts the words on the paper. I feel like Queen Jane is right there with me in the writing hustle, and I have been inspired by her so many times.

I’ve also joined a group of 2018 debut picture book authors and illustrators, and that has been indispensable. How did anyone do this before the internet?

For the most part, I’ve been pleased at how supportive and genuine the online children’s literature community has been. All these circles of community—with the critique group and the various online forums—can buoy us and give us clarity or a slap in the face, whichever we need the most.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

  • Join SCBWI.  
  • Get a critique group.  
  • Write.  Write. Write.  
  • Be in the world, so the world can be in your writing.  
  • Act as if you already are a professional writer. That little change worked wonders for me.  
  • Listen to repeated criticism and make changes accordingly. That’s a big one. Lots of writers, I think, get criticism but then keep doing what they’ve always done.  
  • Submit your work, but not willy-nilly. Research the agents and editors. Do your homework.  
  • Don’t forget to play.  
  • And persevere.  Most of us take years to get our foot in the door.  Keep at it.

Cynsations Notes


School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews both gave Let the Children March starred reviews. Kirkus Reviews called it, “A powerful retrospective glimpse at a key event.”

Monica-Clark Robinson is passionate about stories: writing them, acting them out on stage, and reading them, both as a voiceover artist and an avid reader. She believes the stories of our past can help us create the story of our future.

This is Monica’s debut picture book, bringing to light a part of history that can empower children to make a difference.

Monica lives in a yurt in the country with her husband, too many cats, and just the right amount of daughters.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Author Interview: Cynthia Levinson on Fault Lines in the Constitution

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution.

Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced—then they offer possible solutions. 


Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. 

Many of us take these features in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still experiencing the ramifications.

Each chapter in this timely and thoughtful exploration of the Constitution’s creation begins with a story—all but one of them true—that connects directly back to a section of the document that forms the basis of our society and government. 

Most middle grade nonfiction is either biography or focuses on a particular event. Here you’re examining the structure of our government and highlights of United States history since 1787. What inspired you to take on this monumental task?

The short answer to your question is that my editor, Kathy Landwehr, at Peachtree Publishers “inspired” us to write it by asking my husband, Sandy, a legal scholar, and me if we would. She had given her father a copy of one of Sandy’s previous books that critiques the Constitution—he writes for law students and faculty as well as adult readers in general—which he had found interesting. In talking about it, Kathy realized that there is no book like it for kids.

In a bigger sense, this question is really interesting because, even though I’ve published five nonfiction books (and written many more!), I’ve never thought about this distinction between biography, on the one hand, and event, on the other, as a way to organize nonfiction. It generally works, though it leaves out some science books. 

Melissa on Building Nonfiction Manuscripts

Melissa Stewart, an amazing author, researcher, and presenter on science topics, proposes another way to categorize the genre: narrative and expository. 

Your question has made me realize that Fault Lines in the Constitution contains some of all of these—biographies, events, narrative stories, and exposition of facts.

In that way, it does sound monumental! But, actually, because of the way the book is organized, it didn’t seem monumental while writing it (well, for the most part it didn’t). And we hope it doesn’t come across that way to readers.

You’re right that the scope might appear huge because we drop in on events in American history from the Revolution through this past summer. There probably aren’t many books that mention both the Continental Congress convening in a tavern in New Jersey and the fate of undocumented aliens under President Trump. 

Yet, Fault Lines is not a textbook. We don’t march through either American history or the Constitution. Every story and every event is closely tied to and illustrates a problem—or, fault line—in the Constitution.

You co-authored Fault Lines In The Constitution with your husband. Tell us about the collaboration process and how the book came together.

Fault Lines was very much a collaborative process. It is definitely ours, not his or hers. 

We had already joined forces in writing an article together for Cobblestone Magazine titled “Calling the Constitution’s Bluff,” in which we had ticked off three of the fault lines.

So, when we started on the book, I naively thought that I could re-read Sandy’s previous works—especially, Framed: America’s 51 Constitutions and the Crisis of Governance (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) (Oxford University Press, 2006)—mine them for ideas, issues, and stories, and then summarize them. Done! Ha!

Though they’re persuasive in laying out his concerns about the Constitution, these books don’t tell the kinds of stories that draw in young readers. 

Also, Sandy’s writing style is, um, fluid and, because he’s so knowledgeable, digressive. Consistent structure and short blocks of text broken up by sidebars and illustrations are not his forte. (Nor, given his usual audience, do they need to be.) 
Furthermore, even though I had often heard him urge people to “follow the dots” from problems in the Constitution to political dilemmas today, I felt that the dots in his books needed clearer highlighting. Suddenly, I could see why our daughters, both of whom had written journal articles with him, asked me if I was really sure I wanted to take on this job!

For our middle-grade audience, I realized we had to start from scratch, and I laid out ground rules for the sections he would draft:

• No sentences longer than three lines or with more than one dependent clause.
• No extraneous words or vague phrases, like “indeed” or “in the grand scheme of things.”
• No adverbs.
• No parentheticals.

None of these ground rules was met! Here’s one brief example from an early draft of Chapter 4, which is about the filibuster:

Fortunately, as Sandy says, he has no pride of authorship. He does not mind being edited. You can see us working together in the photo. Note that I’m the one holding the red pen!

As a result, we managed to write the book in one voice. There is one exception, though: In writing the last chapter, we disagree and openly debate each other.

I’m also curious about the timeline – how long did it take to write, what was the editorial process was like?


I never know how to answer the question about how long it took me to write a book, partly because I work on several things at different stages simultaneously and partly because there are the inevitable lulls. 
In this case, the lull lasted a full year. We started sometime in 2013, and Fault Lines was supposed to come out in September 2016. But I had to postpone it when I was asked me to write a biography, Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016), which had an obvious deadline. That delay turned out to be fortuitous, as the book evolved after the election of President Trump.

Kathy Landwehr, my editor at Peachtree Publishers for We’ve Got a Job (2012) and Watch Out for Flying Kids (2015) did her usual exemplary, thoughtful, and indefatigable job. 

She did not hesitate to take out her red pen, too! In fact, we wrote three entire stories for the book, including a moving one about a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, all of which got axed for various necessary reasons. We recycled the story about Burns into a blog post.

One of the aspects I found most fascinating is that each chapter opens with a contemporary anecdote – the college student who successfully changed the Michigan constitution regarding public university admission seems particularly relevant to students. How did you find those stories? And, how did you decide which ones to use in the book?

Sandy knew about many of the events, including the opening one about the lynching of a black man named Richard Puckett in South Carolina in 1913. This tragic act leads to a discussion of the first fault line, bicameralism—the need for both houses of Congress to pass a bill before it can become a law. 

Through my experience writing for kids, I was able to turn historical artifacts into gripping stories. And, with additional research, I added moving details, including the fact that Puckett’s niece attended the ceremony in 2005 when 80 (but not all 100) senators apologized for the Senate’s inability to pass anti-lynching legislation.

Other stories popped up in the news. The situation you mention is a recent legal case related to direct democracy, which some state constitutions—but not the U.S. Constitution—allow. Another uses the jailing of a nurse who had treated Ebola patients in West Africa in 2014 to show that our Constitution is out of date. 

Cynthia and Gayleen at TLA conference

The ARC I received at the Texas Library Association conference in the spring had a sticker on the cover noting the date the text was approved, “but this is a book inherently influenced by current events.” 


Less than a week later, the Senate voted to change the filibuster rules. You and your publisher have a blog dedicated to posting updates to the book. 


Is the United States government changing faster now than it has in the past?

I doubt that the government is changing faster now than in the past. Conservatives who want a smaller role for government and lower taxes would argue that it changed vastly during President Franklin Roosevelt’s first hundred days in office when he pushed 15 major bills through Congress.

That perspective is a large part of the opposition to the Affordable Care Act, passed under President Obama. It is true, though, that the Trump administration is undoing this so-called “deep state” very rapidly.

Publishers Weekly called Fault Lines “exceptionally topical.” To keep up with the times and to show how much the Constitution influences current events, we blog every two weeks.

So far, as you can see in the picture, we’ve written about gerrymandering, Texas Boys State (which voted to secede!), the shooting of Republican Congressmen and problems with continuity in government, and the under-funding of the 2020 Census, among other topics.

We invite readers to join the conversation!

Given current events, I’m guessing this book has a lot of crossover appeal for adults. Have you noticed that with the events you’ve had so far?

Everyone tells us that! We’ve been invited to almost two-dozen radio interviews and talk-shows, and grown-ups are as engaged in our presentations as kids. School Library Connection even said, “While written for students, the book is a worthwhile read for adults as well.”

Cynsations Notes


Cynthia Levinson
photo by Sam Bond Photography

A discussion guide for Fault Lines in the Constitution is available from the publisher. The book has earned four starred reviews, from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews.

Cynthia Levinson holds degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and also attended the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

A former teacher and educational policy consultant and researcher, she is the author of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree, 2012), along with Watch Out for Flying Kids (Peachtree, 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Simon & Schuster, 2016) and The Youngest Marcher, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

She has also published articles in Appleseeds, Calliope, Cobblestone, Dig, Faces, and Odyssey

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.

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!