EMU’s Debuts is mostly about The Call for that first sale. After 18 months of trying to sell a proposal for a middle-grade nonfiction book about civil rights in Birmingham, Erin finally called me with double-good news: two offers! But, one was for the middle-grade and the other for a picture book. What did I want to do? My instincts told me this story needed multiple perspectives, and I opted for a book for ten- to fourteen-year-olds. That decision led to We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.
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 32-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. 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!”
And, as you can see, 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 was sentenced to jail—for a whole week. She was even threatened with solitary.
Yet, kids instinctively know that nine-year-olds triumph. And that’s what really makes this a book for them.