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!