Author Archives: Cynthia Levinson

About Cynthia Levinson

I write for kids, mostly nonfiction. My debut book, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN'S MARCH will be published by Peachtree in 2012.

From 176 pages to 32 in Five Years Flat

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.


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We LOVE Our Furry, Feathered, and Finned Friends!

To round out EMU’s Debuts’ launch of Donna Janell Bowman’s STEP RIGHT UP, we’re posting pics about our fave pets. Be sure to read to the end for a very special photo by the author herself! And, if you add a Comment, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a free copy of the book.

While you’re savoring the photos, let’s remember that Jim Key wasn’t Doc’s pet; I suspect that, given his own history, Doc didn’t even think he owned Jim Key. The heroes of Donna’s book, both two-legged and four-, were partners, which is the way many of us feel about the beloved animals in our lives.

Elly Swartz (whose EMU’s Debut of FINDING PERFECT takes place next week!) says about Lucy, her family’s two-year-old beagle, “We had agreed to visit the pups but not necessarily bring one home that day. Needless to say, an hour later, we had a new addition to our family!”


Katie Slivensky’s Galileo is nine. Darwin (don’t you love their names?!) came along because Galileo’s vet said he could use a companion. “Living with them is like living with Pinky and the Brain. Galileo is a diabolical genius who loves getting into trouble, and Darwin is an innocent snowflake who spends most of his life vaguely confused.”

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Andrea Wang has gone out on a limb and under water with her pets. “At various times I had a parakeet, a gerbil, several fish, and a cat. But I always wanted a dog.” This is Mochi, a rescue from Puerto Rico.

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Debbi Michiko Florence’s pets are definitely unusual. Please meet Darcy and Lizzy.

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And here we have Jason Gallaher’s Pomeranian, Pom Brokaw, and his friend’s French bulldog, Edward. Jason says, “We were discussing men’s fall fashions together.”

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Appropriately, we also have an EMU’s pony, saved by kindness. Hayley Barrett says that Trish “was a true miracle in my life. We bought her from the man who rescued her from an abusive situation. I taught her to trust again. The power of pure, childlike love.”

Hayley and Trish.jpg

Finally, from Donna: “This is Kat, my late father’s King Ranch stallion—a cherished member of our family— “signing” the contract for Step Right Up. It was both a tribute to my roots and to my dad. Kat passed away a few months ago, on the day I learned of the book’s Junior Library Guild selection. He was forty-years-old.”

Kat signing Donnas contract copy.jpeg

STEP RIGHT UP and comment for a chance to win a book!



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The title of Jeannie Mobley’s exquisite debut novel, Katerina’s Wish, hints tantalizingly at the notion of teenage desires (though teenagers’ desires in a turn-of-the-last-century immigrants’ mining camp were certainly tame by today’s standards, even if girls were betrothed at much younger ages than they are today, thank goodness). I won’t share the thirteen-year-old main character’s wish here. Whether or not she has one, which her younger sister doubts, and whether or not she’ll share it with her family are important parts of the plot and of her personality. No spoilers allowed!

One of the book’s themes, appropriately, is the idea of dreams. Katerina gets two different perspectives from her parents. Do dreams propel us to achieve fantastic goals, such as those of her father, who brought the family from Bohemia to America so he could own his own farm with “acres of green fields?” Or, do dreams “get you hurt,” as Katerina’s mother believes because they’re nearly impossible to achieve, inevitably resulting in disappointment and dead-end detours, like the “dry, barren hills of southern Colorado” where they struggle to live?

This multi-layered book also deals with questions of magic. Does it exist? If so, do we need it to make our wishes come true or can we reach them without magic? And, what is it about that carp that seems to look Katerina directly in the eye just when she most needs help getting past insurmountable hurdles?! 

As in other wonderful books for young readers (at least, in those that are not fairy tales), Katerina doesn’t rely solely on wishes, dreams, and magic to reach her goals. She works—hard, by washing and ironing miners’ filthy clothes, and cleverly, by negotiating deals with a tradesman.  Nevertheless, she ponders the roles that these forces might play in her life. After all, her hard work takes so much time, it seems to deflect her from her goals, not help her attain them. As a result of Katerina’s curiosity and thoughtfulness about wishes, dreams, and magic, the reader, too, ponders them. And, how clever of Jeannie to wrap these essential conundrums of childhood within such a moving tale!

 I don’t know whether or not Jeannie intended to raise semantic issues about the meaning of “wishes” as opposed to that of “dreams.” But, she’s so brilliant and creative that I suspect that every nuance and symbol in Katerina’s Wish was intentional.

The reason I started pondering this theme is that, with her typical insightfulness, Jeannie suggested that I write, during her Launch Week, about another person who had a dream—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his glorious “I Have a Dream” speech 49 years ago next week. She knew this would be a topic close to my writerly heart since my own debut book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, focuses on civil rights in that city, where Dr. King had rehearsed portions of the speech at mass meetings earlier that spring.

Most of us have listened to it so many times, its refrain echoes in our consciousness. Can’t you hear his resonant voice rising and falling when you read, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today”? It is so integral to our memories or, for younger readers, to their knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement that it’s as hard to imagine the Movement without this iconic delivery as it is to imagine it without the popularity of the freedom song “We Shall Overcome.”

 But, what if, instead of envisioning his dreams, Dr. King had declared, “I have a wish today?” He might have called out to the 250,000 or so people gathered in front of the Washington Monument on August 28, 1963,

  • “I wish that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed ‘…that all men are created equal.’”
  • “I wish that one day…the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together…”
  • “I wish that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls.”

Somehow, despite the same clarity of the imagery, “I wish” doesn’t ring as resoundingly to me as “I have a dream” does. His dreams were not mere wishing-well tokens. They were fully envisioned scenarios, complete with references to “the red hills of Georgia” and to Mississippi as “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice.” In fact, dreams were the perfect metaphor for Dr. King’s vision because he linked his with “the American dream.”

 And, so, without quite explicitly saying it, does Katerina link her wish to the American dream. She lives in a miners’ camp, filled with (though segregated by) an as-yet un-melted pot of Bohemians, Scandinavians, Greeks, and more. Yet, she envisions a place where miners are treated fairly, where they are not taken advantage of at the company store. She turns herself into an entrepreneur. Through both her wishes and her dreams, Katerina embodies the American Dreams of hard work and fair play.

 Does she succeed? And, does she need magic? Read the book! Katerina’s story will ring resoundingly, too.


Filed under Book Promotion, Celebrations, Promotion


One of the many—and most important—reasons that ONE FOR THE MURPHYS, whose launch EMUs Debuts is celebrating this week, is a truly special book is that the main character, Carley Connors, isn’t a character at all. She’s a real person.

Well, as a nonfiction writer, I confess that Carley’s not reeeeaallly real. But, she sure seems to be. She’s tough, vulnerable, funny, serious, gutsy, unsure—just like real, contradictory, lovable, vexing people. I predict that readers will be having long and deep conversations with her.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Carley is so real that, if she needed one, she could have her own therapist. In fact, she already does.

Author-extraordinaire Lynda Mullaly Hunt put me in touch with a school-based social worker, Paula Netto, who answered my questions about Carley as if Carley were a student at her school. (I hasten to add that Paula was very discreet and did not disclose any private information about Carley that’s not already available in her biography—I mean in Lynda’s novel.)

Since May is Foster Care Month (wasn’t it clever of Lynda and her publisher, Nancy Paulsen Books, to time the release this way?), many of my questions relate to Carley as a child in foster care. Here’s my interview. (Spoiler alert! If you don’t want to find out what Carley decides to do, stop here. I couldn’t interview Paula without our knowing and sharing Carley’s decision.)

Cynthia: What do you see in Carley’s actions that make her similar to students you’ve counseled or know of who live in troubled, abusive, or inattentive homes?

Paula: Carley is similar to students I’ve counseled or worked with in that there is meaning behind her behaviors that lies beneath the surface.  Children who live in troubled, abusive or inattentive homes develop coping strategies that may or may not be positive.  Carley definitely has adopted many different coping strategies; some of them result in negative consequences for her, and some don’t. Sometimes the acting out behaviors that do result in negative consequences may be healthier for the children than those that are “socially acceptable” that result in kids being silent and suppressing feelings. Carley has learned over her lifetime to suppress feelings and words to protect her mother and protect her ability to be with her mother. As adults, if we look for the meaning behind acting-out behavior, we can often find that child’s reality and help the child either develop positive coping strategies or help the child change that reality.

Cynthia: What guidance would you give Carley—or, what questions would you ask her—as she makes the decision whether to stay with the Murphys or return to her mother?

Paula: Children usually do not have much of a say in making a decision about what would be the best place for them.  The system is usually designed to return children to their biological families.   If I were to counsel Carley as she returns to live with her mother, I would encourage her to find adults in her world that she can trust and turn to if she needs help or needs someone to talk with.   The mostly likely and easily accessible candidates are teachers and counselors at her new school.

Cynthia: Readers, I think, will be worried for Carley when she goes back to her mother but, at the same time, optimistic about her long-term chances for success. What factors do you think help make young people resilient, like Carley?

Paula: As readers are optimistic for Carley when she returns to Las Vegas to live with her mother, there is good reason to be worried for her as well.  There is a high probability that in time, in her old environment, her mother will fall into familiar patterns that were not healthy for her or Carley. I believe that Carley’s best chance for success will be to engage with adults at school and in her community that can serve as mentors for her as she grows up, similar to what Mrs. Murphy did for her. Those connections to other adults can build resilience and hope in young people.  All adults can be a mentor to a child as they grow up – you can never really have enough people helping you and rooting for your success.   We tend to be isolated in our individual families but, truly, we need more of the “It takes a village to raise a child” philosophy in our world to raise healthy young adults.

Cynthia: The idea of heroism plays a large role in the book. What are the ways that young people and adults can be a hero for a youngster in trouble? How does someone know when to stop trying to be a hero and call in professional help?

Paula: One of the ways that young people and adults can be a hero for younger children is to pay attention to what you see around you. Be active bystanders—help another student who is being teased or picked on. Be empathetic—engage with that child. Mentor a child or young teen. Carley was a hero to two of the Murphy boys in very different ways. For one of the boys, she was a coach who helped him conquer fear and be successful at a sport even as he initially rejected her help. For the other child, who was being bullied, she stood up to the bully. She showed it is possible to take away the “power” bullies try to use to intimidate their targets.  Carley used a little old-fashioned strategy and actually gave the bully a taste of his own medicine—not recommended in my world but sometimes the most effective way to get your point across.

Cynthia: What advice do you have for the Murphys? How can Mrs. Murphy help her sons get past their sadness at Carley’s leaving? Should they stay in touch with Carley or not?

Paula: The Murphys will undoubtedly go through a period of sadness as Carley leaves their family. One of the best ways they can help their sons is to teach them that sometimes people are with us for a long time and sometimes a short time, but they can always remain in our hearts. I believe for Carley to make a successful transition to living back with her mother, Mrs. Murphy will need to pull back and not be in touch with Carley for a period of time. But I do believe it would be healthy and important for her to reach out to Carley and her mother at a later time to offer friendship and support to both of them and keep her connection to Carley alive.

See what I mean? It’s not just Carley who’s so real she could practically be psychoanalyzed. Her mother and the Murphys, themselves, are, too.

Not surprisingly, Lynda received a lovely endorsement for ONE FOR THE MURPHYS from a psychologist, Nicolette M. Banbury, who specializes in children, like Carley, who have experienced trauma.

“ONE FOR THE MURPHYS by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is a beautiful poignant story of eighty days in the life of a child placed in foster care with a loving family. It accomplishes the amazing feat of being both realistic and optimistic. The story encourages an empathetic appreciation for each character’s struggles, and transformation, as they strengthen in love, understanding, and honesty. With humor and wit, the story is a “must” for foster children and the families that love them.

Nicolette then went on to point out that wonderful books like this one can provide “bibliotherapy.” That is, teachers or school psychologists could assign and discuss ONE FOR THE MURPHYS with troubled children to help them realize they are not alone.

ONE FOR THE MURPHYS skillfully balances the genuine struggles, hopes, joys, and disappointments of a foster child, the foster family that brings her into their fold, and the birth mothers painful choices. The story reveals many of the emotional nuances and coping strategies often found in these circumstances that are, for most, very hard to conceptualize and understand. The humaneness of the story is validating, educating, and compassionate. I would highly recommend it for therapeutic use in psychoeducational formats, with bibliotherapy, and in situations where attachment to parents has been seriously compromised and traumatic.
We all benefit when a book like this one is published. Nicolette M. Banbury, Nationally Certified Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor/Specializing in Play Therapy and Trauma

After making us weep, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS will be therapeutic for lots of readers, kid or adult, troubled or settled.


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Yes, that’s two stars you see. J Anderson Coats’ The Wicked and the Just (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) earned two stars before publication–which is now!

  • “[An] unusually honest portrait of the effects of power…[Coats] offers us a potent historical novel.”–Horn Book (starred review)
  • “Never opting for the easy characterization, debut author Coats compellingly re-creates this occupation from both sides. … Brilliant: a vision of history before the victors wrote it.” – Kirkus (starred review)

EMU’s Debuts is celebrating the launch of J’s star-worthy book every day this week. And, creative writer that she is, J has arranged for interactive  posts that will practically transport you back to 13th century Wales. Why the 13th century? Read on…

1293. North Wales. Ten years into English rule.

Cecily would give anything to leave Caernarvon and go home. Gwenhwyfar would give anything to see all the English leave.

Neither one is going to get her wish.

Behind the city walls, English burgesses govern with impunity. Outside the walls, the Welsh are confined by custom and bear the burden of taxation, and the burgesses plan to keep it that way.

Cecily can’t be bothered with boring things like the steep new tax or the military draft that requires Welshmen to serve in the king’s army overseas. She has her hands full trying to fit in with the town’s privileged elite, and they don’t want company.

Gwenhwyfar can’t avoid these things. She counts herself lucky to get through one more day, and service in Cecily’s house is just salt in the wound.

But the Welsh are not as conquered as they seem, and the suffering in the countryside is rapidly turning to discontent. The murmurs of revolt may be Gwenhwyfar’s only hope for survival – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.

Notice some unusual proper nouns? We’ll help you deal with those this week. Mike Jung will post a zombie and duck history lesson (don’t ask me; I’m just visiting). Natalie Lorenzi will suggest classroom connections. Melanie Crowder will cover historical books and movies. And, Jeannie Mobley will interview J’s characters.

But, first, we’re going to start off with a 13th-century version of Mad Libs. You provide three verbs and three adjectives from any English-related language between the 13th and 21st centuries. And, J will insert them into a paragraph from  a draft of The Wicked and the Just that didn’t quite make it into the final book. (Who knew people in the middle ages had a sense of humor? J did.)

So, respond to this post with:

  • 3 verbs, and
  • 3 adjectives

And, you will see your very own words dropped into a story that takes place over 700 years ago.


Filed under Book Promotion, Celebrations, Colleagues, craft~writing, Reviews, Updates on our Books!

A Just Job for the Thirsty Murphys

Unlike Melanie, I have the advantage of reading the responses she got to her post, brilliantly titled “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades,” in which she asked for readers’ favorite book titles. Interestingly, no two, so far at any rate, are the same.

To save you the trouble of scanning and collating the Comments, the winners are:

    •  A DROWNED MAIDENS HAIR because it is layeredOne for the Murphys
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON “because you have to read the book to understand it, and when you do, it’s heartbreaking”
  • A WRINKLE IN TIME, “where you don’t really know what you’re in for until you dive in head first”
  • THE WICKED AND THE JUST, by EMUs’ Debuter J. Anderson Coats,because it “is a fabulous title!” (Melanie said that, not J.)
  • Another reader likes titles with royalty “because it will inevitably be either fantasy or historical,” which she likes to read.

The title for my own debut book (as of today, I am a former EMUs Debuter, a gratifying but, nevertheless, wistful state), WE’VE GOT A JOB, never wavered. Like Lynda’s, it’s layered because it refers to both what the “main characters” (I call them that, even though they’re real people) had to do—go to jail—and to a civil rights song from that period. Surprisingly, the title came from a nine-year-old girl, Audrey Faye Hendricks. Although she was one of these main characters, Audrey never read the book, alas, because she died before it was published. However, the moment that she told me this song was her favorite, I knew it had to headline the book.

So, it seems that some book titles succeed because they’re evocative and others because they’re true. Perhaps the most successful are both.

What kinds of success do we want titles to produce? Sales, certainly! For this reason, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, evidently directed him to come up with an alternative to TRIMALCHIO IN WEST EGG. And, not just sales of the finished product but the original sale—to a publisher, some of whom are said to toss manuscripts if the title sounds “dumb.”

What Melanie is seeking, though, is not only a title that will help sell her book but also one that speaks to her. WATER spoke up successfully enough to get and keep her editor’s attention (as, undoubtedly, the text itself did). But the title didn’t resonate. Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t offer suggestions. But, I’m sure it will come, not just to her, but from within her.


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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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It’s a Journey

Um, I think Natalie Lorenzi and I have had somewhat different experiences with the timelines of our debut books.

The publication of Natalie’s FLYING THE DRAGON was pre-poned by nearly a year. That’s right. It moved up from Spring 2013 to Fall 2012. WE’VE GOT A JOB, on the other hand, bounced back and forth between a 2011 and 2012 pub date. Winter 2011? Spring 2012? Guess which won! Yep, it’ll be out in two weeks.

And then, Natalie’s book started making public appearances eight months before its new, earlier pub date.  ARCs! The cover of her publisher’s catalog! ALA!! Let’s see. Eight months before my pub date, my indefatigable editor and I were still doing photo research—with captioning and layout still to come. As a result, my galleys/ARCs appeared, oh, about three months pre-publication. (It was featured prominently, however, across a two-page spread just inside the cover of my publisher’s catalog.)

And, did Natalie say that she completed her edits in four months?! Let’s see again. Kathy and I started revising the manuscript in April 2010. And, we went to press in November 2011. That’s 18 months—over four times as long as Natalie and her editor needed for copy edits.

So, what do all these differences in our editorial and publishing processes mean? I’m certainly NOT blaming my editor. On the contrary. I can only conclude that Natalie’s manuscript was near-perfection when she submitted it. A plus

Mine, on the other hand, needed so much fixing, we had to keep pushing back the timeline. (Uh oh. Something just occurred to me. Do you think that editors share stories with each other about their impossible authors and their impossible manuscripts? No editor may want to work with me. Natalie, on the other hand, will have editors begging her to send them her manuscripts, her early drafts, her napkin-scribbles.)

And, the funniest part? She’s worried about what to wear to her debut. Natalie—gorgeous in even blue jeans and fuzzy slippers!

There is one thing we have in common, though. We’re both proud of our books that are about to take their bows. In fact, we’re proud of all our EMUs Debuts books, no matter how long they take from brilliant idea to book-in-hand and no matter what we wear to their debuts. Take a deep bow, EMUs!

I don't know who she is but she's been helpful on EMU's Debuts!


Filed under Book Promotion, Celebrations, Colleagues, Editing and Revising, Editor, Happiness, Publishers and Editors, Updates on our Books!

What I’ve Learned

Does anyone else remember debutante balls? Also called “coming out” parties (now, an archaic connotation of “coming out”), these galas introduced eligible young women to the society of their social-class peers.

Debutante curtsying

A college classmate, having been tapped by the society mavens of Cleveland as worthy of being considered eligible, invited me to hers, which took place during Christmas break of our freshman year.

Alice had spent her Friday nights for the previous six years or so in ballroom dancing classes, had been trained in the delicate balancing act of the deep curtsy, and knew how to fill out her dance card. Carrying red roses down the grand staircase to be introduced by the master of ceremonies and then waltzing with her escort in her floor-length white ball gown, Alice had a successful debut. Meanwhile, the blind date she arranged for me drank too much and threw up on my shoes, which had been dyed to match my brocade sheath.

Alice’s coming out was my first association with the concept of “debut.” Since then, I’ve learned of actors having their Broadway debuts and of artists holding debut gallery exhibits. And, now, I’m about to have mine. My first book, WE’VE GOT A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH will be published in five weeks. Since I hope that, unlike Alice’s unique event, my debut will not be my last production, it makes sense for me to consider the lessons I’ve learned that I can apply—please, please, please—to my next one.

Lesson One:Take more pictures. Several of the photos I took of the main “characters” I interviewed have found their way into JOB. James, Arnetta,

James with his civil rights memorabilia

and Wash look great, and I’m proud to see my name in the photo credits. Photocopies I made of original documents also appear. But, I wish I’d taken pictures of Audrey’s house when I went there to interview her and of displays at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. If I had, perhaps my descriptions of the settings and the city, a character in its own right, could have been more detailed.

Lesson Two: Looking at my nine-page bibliography with its catalogue of 58 book entries, 45 personal interviews, half a dozen films, three recordings, archival materials, and countless newspaper and magazine articles and websites—I have to get organized! Although I know other nonfiction writers who swear by Scrivener, I swore at it, and it made a friend of mine cry. Next time around, I’m using easybib. It might not help with the writing part, as Scrivener is alleged to do, but, at least, it will keep me (and my editor) from having to scramble for those last few citations.

Lesson Three: At the same time, I should just accept the fact that nonfiction writing is inherently inefficient. Maybe spending four hours riding around Birmingham with a retired policeman who had been on Bull Connor’s force wasn’t the best use of my time. After all, he merited only a six-word quotation in the book. But, the value of seeing the neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brother, A. D. King, lived and meeting Chris McNair,

Chris McNair and me

the father of one of the four girls killed in the church bombing in 1963, is incalculable. Even reading the dozens of books that I never referenced was worthwhile, if only for the confidence they gave me that I knew what I was writing about.

Lesson Four: Trust my editor. Her probing questions—“Is it really accurate to say that the civil rights movement was failing?”, “Why does it matter who was the mayor?”—led to revisions and expansions that were absolutely essential.

Lessons Five and Six: All of this work teaches me my two biggest lessons: write about what I care about, and find the fun. Four years of intense interviews, reading, site visits, writing, and revising tell me that MY job has to matter to me and that it has to be enjoyable.



Filed under Celebrations, Editor, Updates on our Books!, Writing and Life

Lynda’s Lessons

Lynda’s overarching topic in her blog post on Monday is Worries. Boy, can I relate. (Just ask my kids. I once called the police because I lost the nine-year-old, who was staking out a table for us in a Chucky Cheese, while we traipsed after the six-year-old and her birthday party friends; she hadn’t answered the page over the loudspeaker because she didn’t want to lose the table.) Last week, I fretted three nights in a row trying to figure out how to design, make, and carry an 8’ by 4’ poster on the plane with me from Boston to DC for a teacher’s convention. Tasks that most people can do in their sleep I lose sleep over.

In addition to Worries (as if that’s not enough!), Lynda wove in other, deeper themes that also speak to us writers:

  • how success, ironically, can undermine us, especially when we realize how much more we now have to lose;
  • how we’ve changed since we were children, not necessarily for the better;
  • how “the very things that make you feel so different as a kid can become your greatest gifts as an adult;” and
  • how ACTION dispels the Worries.

At a school visit recently, a student asked me if I would have protested segregation as a child, the way the protagonists of my book did. I had to confess that I was a goody-goody as a kid and probably would not have; I was too timid. I neglected to add that, in college and later, I did protest. So I became prouder of the 28-year-old me than of the 8-year-old that I had been. Lynda, does it count if I call on the 30-something in me rather than the single-digit me?

Lynda says that one of the reasons she’s so happy to be a published author is that she has “the opportunity to get out and talk to kids about…how it does get better and about making the choice to build a happy life no matter what hand you’re dealt.” Perhaps if I had had the chance to hear her when I was a kid, I would have learned earlier to figure out what I believe in and to stand up for it.

One of the reasons she’s right–that it does get better and that we can choose to build happy lives, regardless–is that, as adults, we have more autonomy, more authority than we did as kids. Although we often write about spunky kids who take charge, who save themselves and others, it it is the rare child, especially in these cosseted times, who can actually do that. Invigorating kids through both literature about such characters and through real-life examples like Lynda herself is both a blessing and a service.

I wish for Lynda so much success that, if either (1) her spunky eight-year-old self perversely went into hiding again, or (2) her action-figure self inexplicably went into a slump, she’d be awash in Worries. But, fortunately, neither of these is going to happen. So, Lynda, charge out there and collect all those great awards, not only for ONE FOR THE MURPHYS but also for its successors, which, aptly, will be hugely successful. As will the kids who read your books and hear your story. You might bolster more than a few adults while you’re at it.



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