Cynthia Levinson: Stupid or gutsy? (spoiler alert: she's no dummy.)

You know what they say about Women's History Month, right? It comes in like a lion and then turns into a super-fast racehorse that charges toward April and if you don't hurry, you won't get to include all the interviews with women you admire.

This interview is with the wonderful and fiercely intelligent Cynthia Levinson. I can't even count the many ways I admire Cynthia because I can't count very high, but she is a research fiend, the kind of person who provides a home for someone's, let's say nephew, when he's new to town and even when he's not. She writes wonderful books. And you could spend hours driving through states, talking with her, and wish the states were farther apart.

You're in for a treat.

What made you want to write about Hillary Rodham Clinton?

The short answer is that I didn’t. Next? 

OK, the longer answer is that writing a bio of Hillary Rodham Clinton for 8- to 12-year-olds wasn’t my idea, and when the editor asked me if I’d do it, I said I had to think about it. Which was either mind-bogglingly stupid or incredibly gutsy of me, since at the time I only had one book out. And what barely-past debut author turns down a contract, for crying out loud? This being Women’s History Month, I’m going with foolhardy, particularly since, when another writer had told me two months earlier that she was working on a bio of Hillary, I told her I’d be intimidated to do that. Then, when I decided to go ahead, still intimidated, I had to eat my words—and come up with about 50,000 more.

So, why did I decide to do it, after all? When the offer was made, I was in Washington, DC, visiting my daughter and her husband, who are close friends with a woman who was a speech-writer for Hillary when she was Secretary of State. She (the speechwriter, not the Hillary) kindly agreed to meet me for coffee, and, in addition to being enthusiastic about the project, she told me, “The Secretary is always saying, ‘Do all the good you can.’” This is the opening line of the Methodist statement of faith. How can you argue with that? I hadn’t yet decided to write the book but I knew that, if I did, I had a title. Also, even though this is Women’s History Month, I knew that I’d have a different slant on Hillary than most books, which focus, for good reason, on her feminism.

Another factor clinched the decision for me. Hillary lived across the hall from me her freshman year in college. I called two friends, who had remained friends with Hillary for many years, not only for their opinions but also for their support. I knew that, to write a worthwhile book, I’d need to rely on people with better memories than mine as well as some behind-the-scenes, kid-friendly stories. Their agreement to help and to enlist others not only made the job a smidge less intimidating but also made me realize that I might be able to write a book that no one else could. Then, to do it, I disappeared from the world for the next eight months.

But I’ve emerged. If you want to hear me talk about the book, I”ll be at the San Antonio Book Festival on April 2 and at the Brookline Booksmith on May 1. And everybody should look at this Reuters clip of interviews with fourth-graders after I talked to them about the book. The kids are brilliant.

You have written award-winning books about fascinating subjects--We've Got a Job and Watch Out for Flying Kids. What drew you to those subjects?

What drew me to We’ve Got a Job was mortification. And what drew me to Watch Out for Flying Kids was a need for balance. (It’s always good to answer a question about a circus book with a circus metaphor.)

I am not good at resizing images. Her book is not ENORMOUS.

I am not good at resizing images. Her book is not ENORMOUS.

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March is about four of the 3000-4000 elementary and high school kids who protested segregation, were arrested, and went to jail. I was a high school senior that year. Although I knew about the vicious police chief, Bull Connor, and his tactics of hosing demonstrators and setting dogs on them, I didn’t know that those demonstrators were children until I wrote an article about music in the civil rights period. When I learned that, I was so mortified by my ignorance that I decided to write a book. (As I said, either stupid or gutsy. Since I had no idea what was entailed in writing a whole book, I’ll go with both.)

Watch Out for Flying Kids: How Two Circuses, Two Countries and Nine Kids Confront Conflict and Build Community came about because I decided that, having written about segregation of blacks and whites in America, I should write about the troubles between Arabs and Jews in Israel. It only seemed fair. I was visiting Israel and was searching for what is called a co-existence project to write about. When I learned about an Arab-Jewish youth circus—Circus!—in the Galilee, I couldn’t resist.

Then, things came full circle (Latin root: circum, which is also the root for circus) when it turned out that the Galilee Circus has a partnership with a black-kid/white-kid youth circus in St. Louis. When the two troupes get together every other year, they’re a melange of black, Christian, rich, Muslim, white, poor, Jewish kids—truly (and it is all true) one of the most diverse and multicultural books around. Then, when war broke out in Gaza while the Americans were there, and violence erupted in Ferguson, MO, just after they returned, the book became all too relevant.

The research entailed two trips to St. Louis, two more trips to Israel, four translators, and my trying out wire-walking, trampoline, juggling, globe, silks, and trapeze, at all of which I was a complete doofus, and I have the videos on my website to prove it. Also, lots of hair-pulling. (If you were a teenage, Arabic-speaking contortionist, would you want to spend your time Skyping with an elderly Jewish American lady instead of going to the mall for falafel?) So, though bruised and bald, I’m proud of the book.

By the way, there’s a ton of information about these books—how I researched and wrote them, interviews with the main “characters,” videos of them, background info, teacher guides, curriculum tie-ins, reviews, presentations—on my website.

Who are some of your favorite female characters and why?

There are so many! I’ll give you an oldie but goodie and a newbie but baddie. 

The first is Ramona. I mean, how can you not love Ramona? Of course, come to think of it, a reason she’s so lovable is that she’s not so good; she’s an amalgam of mischief and benightedness. But she’s relatable and well-meaning and funny and spunky. So, even though she doesn’t always act good, she’s good for kids to read about.

On the other hand, there’s Olive Kitteridge. This isn't a kids book. But she has an unpleasant, even nasty streak that makes her almost creepily realistic. I’m not sure what that says about me, and I don’t want to know.

If you were told to write a nonfiction book about the woman of your choice, whom would you choose?

I WAS told to write a nonfiction book about a woman, Hillary Clinton. Oh, but wait, she wasn’t my choice—at least not at first. I’ve been afraid someone would ask me to write about Elizabeth Warren, whom I also know, but I wouldn’t choose her, either.

For sheer goofiness yet accomplishment, I’d go for Irma Rombauer, who concocted The Joy of Cooking, because, as I recall, she gives recipes for field-dressing a deer and roasting a pig in a pit. If I can try wire-walking, I’d have to try those, too. Or maybe Margaret Mead because I’d have to go to Samoa. How about a female elephant? I’d love to get inside an elephant’s POV.

Actually, an editor asked me if I’d write a biography of the woman who was the first… well, if I told you, I’d have to kill you. And all your readers. 

You have two books coming out next year--The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist and Fault Lines in the Constitution (with some guy named Sanford Levinson). What can you tell us about them?

The Youngest Marcher is a picture book (my first!) about a nine-year-old girl who protested in Birmingham, was arrested, and spent a week in jail. And it’s all true. The book also includes a recipe for Audrey’s favorite dish, Hot Rolls Baptized in Butter. The illustrator is Vanessa Brantley Newton, who has done a very careful and sensitive job. The pub date is January 2017.

Fault Lines in the Constitution, which I’m writing with a guy who is my husband, takes that revered document to task, showing how it is the root cause of many of our current political problems. Think Electoral College, gerrymandering, even the Senate. Most of us take these features (which are really bugs) in our system for granted. But they came about through haggling in an overheated room in 1787, and we’re still suffering the consequences. Each chapter begins with a story—all but one of them true—that is kind of horrifying and that connects directly back to a section in the Constitution. This could be the first book about the U.S. Constitution that gives kids nightmares. It will be out in time for Halloween—I mean for Constitution Day (everyone knows when that is, right?) in 2017.

See what I mean? Cynthia Levinson is irresistible. And gutsy.