It’s Off!

What makes a book take on a life of its own? Buzz (whatever that is)? Reviews? Readers who urgently spread a book hand-to-hand? The author’s reputation?

Certainly, the last of these doesn’t apply to me. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March is my debut book. (That’s, after all, why I’ve been a member of EMU’s Debuts.) So, for these purposes, the book was birthed by a parent as nameless as a low-class Dickensian character. Nevertheless, I have a sense that this book is taking on a life of its own—so much so that zombie images have come to mind. It seems to be marching (appropriately) into newspapers, blogs, emails, stores, and conversations, without my presenting it to society accompanied by a proper introduction, as would be expected of an upper-class Dickensian character.

Reviewers, both print and blog, whom I haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting (or, sometimes, knowing of) have announced its arrival—enthusiastically, I’m happy to say. I find out about these posts when a google alert drops, unexpectedly, into my email inbox. I’m grateful to all of them because reviews and blogs ripple. Richie’s Picks, for instance, was picked up by other bloggers interested in children’s nonfiction, passing, if not hand to hand, then node to node.

Newspaper reviews have sparked similar interest. This was especially the case with, first, the review and then, the following week, an Editors’ Choice citation in The Sunday New York Times Book Review, which led, in turn, to new Facebook friends, some of them with people I’d lost contact with years ago. “Holy, moly!” one wrote to me. The last time she and I lived on the same side of the country, three decades ago, we were teaching school in New Jersey. I realized that I’d probably be equally stunned if I discovered that she’d recently become, say, the Ambassador to Mauritius.

When my husband and I were raising our daughters, we strived to help them become independent. And, as I’ve often said, darn it, they are. When all we wanted was children who were able to get jobs with health insurance, they insisted on wearing navy Keds while everyone else wore loafers, on going to schools located on that other side of the country, on traveling to barely-former war-zones. More recently, I worried that my latest baby, my very post-menopausal book, would be deemed unfaddish and get caught in the crossfire of competing reviewers.

Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. On the contrary, its life seems lofted, borne less by marching zombies than by free-floating air currents. It’s no less beyond my reach than if it were snatched by zombies but the image feels sprightlier, like something that will carry readers into another, higher plane.

When EMLA’s clients release a new book, the agency wishes the book “into readers’ hearts.” I’ve loved this image. The wish can come true only with books that readers can absorb wholly, can claim as their own, can hear them whispering just to them. These are the kinds of books that EMLA represents, almost as if this is the criterion. I have confidence that my EMUs Debuts siblings’ books meet it.

Because We’ve Got a Job is nonfiction—intensively researched, as The Times said—I feared that its substance, that its weighty facts—what Woody Allen might call its factiness—might prevent it from meeting EMLA’s wish. After all, I couldn’t revise the “characters” to make them nastier (though, with “Bull” Connor, I didn’t have to) or re-order the events to make them more harrowing (see previous paren). The usual factors that cause young readers to adore particular books were not at my disposal. Mine felt like such an academic enterprise; I worried that the emotional connections wouldn’t get made.

The language of the reviews, however, has helped dispel these concerns. “Compelling,” “moving,” “inspiring” are emotionally-charged descriptors. Similarly, the tears, laughter, “amens,” and, in one case, spontaneous gospel-singing of the audience at the book’s launches tell me that the book conveys a heartfeltness I fretted it might not contain.

I suppose I won’t really know whether a young reader embraces We’ve Got a Job with her or his heart until I hear from one. The closest I’ve come to date is a message from a young teacher who taught the book, in galley form, last fall to her high school students. The teacher wrote to me, “I think I’ve finally internalized the notion that when you have a vision and a message, it is important to spread it as widely as you can because every contribution helps us all, collectively, be better: better at what we do, and if we’re lucky, be better people.”

There is nothing more I could wish for this book than the lesson she has absorbed for herself. The only way, paradoxically, that I can spread the message widely is to let it go, to let it float freely for other, even younger readers to latch onto and carry away.

Post Script: This is my final EMUs Debuts Monday post. I”ll post once more on a Wednesday and then, in developing tradition, will phase out, making room for newer members, who are already moving our collective blog into wonderful new terrain. And, I’ll definitely return for the book launches of The Original EMUs, who did so much to help me launch We’ve Got a Job. Thank you, all!

Meanwhile, please stop by my website. New material, including video interviews with Washington Booker and James Stewart, and other primary resources are getting posted. And, you MUST watch the We’ve Got a Job trailer written, acted, sung, and produced by the fourth-grade Trailer Makers of Sommers Elementary!



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17 responses to “It’s Off!

  1. We’ll miss you, Cynthia, but what a way to depart — with gospel choirs and great reviews! Congratulations!!! 🙂


  2. Dearest Cynthia,
    I wish you well as you embrace this new beginning. It’s completely different from what you knew, but it’s the right place for you to be and it will be gratifying and lovely. Your little independent book is surprising you with its reception in the world, and that can be a little scary — I believe it’s very much like birthing a genius. The responsibility to help that child meet its potential is daunting. After a short adjustment time of bewilderment/acceptance, you rise, take that little book child’s hand, and do your best to lead it into good. You have a great team around you and you gave that book the best-possible gestation period. Hearty congratulations!


  3. J. Anderson Coats

    These are the things we can’t know. All we can do is write an awesome book and turn it loose. The world will make of it what it will – and in your case, it’s pretty clear what the world thinks. Big congrats on this, Cynthia. May it be the first of many.


  4. Cynthia, my heart is bursting with pride for you AND your book, which are indeed now separate entities, a fact that is bittersweet!

    (And I love this and may adopt it: “The wish can come true only with books that readers can absorb wholly, can claim as their own, can hear them whispering just to them. “)


    • Cynthia Levinson

      We are separate entities, aren’t we?! I am not my book, which is both a relief and, you’re so right, bittersweet. Thank you, dear E.


  5. What a joyous note on which to launch forth! Your book is off to a grand, glorious life, as it should be. Every star, accolade, and review I see for We’ve Got a Job makes me happy, because I know it means more kids will be exposed to its important message.


    • Cynthia Levinson

      Thank you so much, Jeanne. It’s so gratifying to know that kids who don’t know the story will have the chance to. And, it’s so exciting to know that other EMUs will have the same experience I’ve had with their books.


  6. Thanks for this thoughtful farewell, Cynthia! I STILL think that there should be some kind of Emu Emeritus thing so that those who are stepping out can provide updates.

    How about occasional Emu Emeritus Epilogues?


  7. Cynthia Levinson

    I love this! What do you think of it, Original EMUs?


  8. Pingback: Finding the Way | EMU's Debuts

  9. Hey, Cynthia!

    I am thrilled that you are getting out into the world and seeing, for yourself, the power that this book has. That you have, my friend.

    I am recently finding that getting out into the world to meet readers is stunning. When you find someone that you don’t know personally who has been touched by your story. That your characters have changed their view–or at least made them consider alternatives. It’s exilerating. And scary. and humbling. And man–exciting!

    I am so glad that you–with We’ve Got a Job in tow–is doing just that. Youv’e written a book that will make a difference. Open eyes and hearts. I am glad that it is receiving all of the recognition that it so richly deserves.

    I also think that this EMUS group is a stunning gorup of debut authors with a whole crop of books that will permeate lives out there. We’ve already had some–can’t wait to witness each and every birth and journey!!


  10. Cynthia Levinson

    The more I read these debut books, the more wowed I am. This is some agency!

    I do hope that JOB motivates and inspires kids, particularly given the concerns that Audrey, Wash, James, and Arnetta expressed. Making up characters and events, as you do, that encourage kids to “be someone’s hero” seems so much harder to me. You’ve done it!


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