Mentor Monday ~ Cynthia Levinson

A big Mentor Monday welcome to Cynthia Levinson! She is a fabulous non-fiction writer, having authored piles of fascinating articles and a book coming out from Peachtree in 2012 entitled, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH.

I first heard an excerpt from this book about 18 months ago and was drawn in immediately. When I was young, non-fiction books merely spewed facts, but Cynthia’s writing is filled with character development, intrigue, action, and fascinating details. Actually, so is Cynthia! ;-)

Here’s a taste:

PROLOGUE: “I WANT TO GO TO JAIL”

Eight-year-old Audrey woke up Thursday morning with freedom on her mind. But, before she could be free, she knew she had to go to jail.

“I want to go to jail,” Audrey told her mother.

“OK,” her mother answered.

She asked her parents to buy her a game she’d been eyeing. She figured that Operation, in which you take the bones out of a plastic figure and put them back together, would entertain her in case she got bored during her week on a cellblock.

Her mother thought it would be polite for her to tell Miss Wills, her third-grade teacher at Center Street Elementary, that she’d be absent. Miss Wills cried.
“I think she was proud of me,” Audrey said.

She also hugged all four grandparents goodbye.

One of her grandmothers assured her, “You’ll be fine.”

Then, Audrey’s mother drove her to church so she could be arrested.
Wait a minute! What kind of eight-year-old volunteers to go to jail? And, what kind of mother says, “OK” and makes sure she gets there? And, why would she get arrested at church?

Is this real?

Yes. Audrey Faye Hendricks and her mother, Lola, are real. So is this story.

Audrey was one of the youngest of about 4,000 black children who marched, protested, sang, and prayed their way to jail during the first week of May 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama. Their goal was to end segregation in the most racially separated and violent city in America. Many young people suffered attacks by snarling German shepherds and days of being crammed into sweltering sweatboxes. Some wondered if they would survive. And, if they did, could they accept these punishments with dignity, as they had been taught? Or, would they retaliate against the white policemen who were abusing them?

Audrey and three other young people—Washington Booker III, James Stewart, and Arnetta Streeter—will be your guides through these harrowing events. Along the way, you’ll hear from others as well.

I knew that Cynthia’s agent, Erin Murphy, was shopping this ms around and I was so hoping that it would sell! When I got word that it did, I danced in my office to a blaring SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED, I’M YOURS (my official book contract celebratory song! Go ahead and click it. You know you want to. Do it.)

I know that WE HAVE A JOB will be the first of many books that lucky children everywhere will read from Cynthia!

Here is Cynthia’s Mentor Story:

I didn’t know that Mary Jane was mentoring me until it was too late. Had I known, I would have inhaled every comment and suggestion she made in our critique group. Even her silences, head cocked, were tactfully telling. But, it’s only in retrospect that I realized how honored I should have felt to get guidance from Mary Jane Hopkins before she abruptly died.

It was Mary Jane, who, looking at my tediously over-long and expository manuscripts, suggested I switch from writing fiction to nonfiction. Finding that niche on my own took me another five years, at least 30 rejections of inept fiction, and an exasperated dismissal by a famous writer of my amateurish novel at an expensive weeklong retreat.

While I stubbornly insisted I was going to write picture books, she urged me to write for the magazine market. She was right about that, too, though I didn’t realize it until years later when a famous editor scribbled all over the first chapter of that very same novel at another expensive weeklong retreat.

Along the way, Mary Jane patiently helped me pare words, hone the story, find a rhythm. It’s only because of her that I finally sold two stories—to magazines, of course. The effusiveness of her congratulations masked her own role in these successes. Still, my own blinkered, I-can-do-it-myself attitude meant that one story had to be heavily edited, and the other was never printed.

Just before she suffered the stroke, she had been working on a beautifully crafted novel about a boy whose parents were divorcing and another who was entering the adoption system. Every chapter tightened the emotional grip of the one before. We were nearly as devastated to lose the progress of her story as we were to lose Mary Jane. When her husband asked our critique group to finish the novel, we sorrowfully explained that the distinctive voice, the clean writing, and the characters we looked forward to visiting with every week were hers alone. Mary Jane’s daughter, who inherited her mother’s writing genes, found a page of notes and questions her mother had kept. Question #10, I believe, was “How does it end?”

My writing—almost all nonfiction and, thanks to success in the magazine market, finally branching out to a trade book—would find its flow and reach its end so much more effectively if I could still hear Mary Jane. Fortunately, she taught me, posthumously, to listen, which I do, avidly, to my later mentors, whose advice I embrace.

Thank you, Cynthia! Very touching and a good message for us all!

Here is another song–a beautiful tribute.

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Categories: author, EMLA, Erin Murphy, interview, Mentor Monday, writing

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6 thoughts on “Mentor Monday ~ Cynthia Levinson

  1. Thanks for featuring Cynthia — a terrific writer and, I should add so as to make transparent my conflict of interest (but not my lack of objectivity), an absolutely fabulous mom. It was both exciting and touching to read her description of Mary Jane, and to read your description of Cynthia. Thanks for sharing both! –Meira Levinson

  2. Hi Meira!So great to "meet" you! Thanks for posting! And, yes, I agree wholeheartedly–your mom really is wonderful! ;-)Take care,Lynda

  3. I can only echo Meira – this is absolutely wonderful! I love getting this window into the larger community surrounding her writing and the writing process overall! ~Rachel (her other daughter)

  4. Hey, Rachel!Great to "meet you" as well! Hopefully in person some day! ;-)Take care,Lynda

  5. Cynthia was very lucky to have an honest mentor. I'm glad Mary Jane pointed her toward non-fiction because it resulted in her telling a very important story.And Lynda, love your official book contract celebratory song! (Yeah, I clicked on it.)

  6. I always enjoy reading Mentor Monday. There are so many inspiring mentor stories. Cynthia's is especially poignant. Her story demonstrates the value of being able to recognize and pay attention to great mentors when they show up in our lives. Thanks for another terrific Mentor Monday!Judy

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