Thursday, March 22, 2018

New Voice: Monica Clark-Robinson on Let the Children March

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I couldn't play on the same playground as the white kids. 
I couldn't go to their schools.  
I couldn't drink from their water fountains.  
There were so many things I couldn't do. 

Let the Children March (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) follows a fictional African-American girl and her family through the very real events of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in May 1963.

This beautiful picture book, illustrated by Frank Morrison and written by fellow Epic Eighteen debut author Monica Clark-Robinson, weaves children’s chants and slogans from the march into the story along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words.

Finding the timeline of the Children’s Crusade in the end pages with children holding posters showing important dates on them drew me into the story and setting right away.

Monica, what made you feel this story needed to be told and why did you feel you had to write it?

When I first heard the story of the 1963 Children’s Crusade march, I was amazed that I had never heard about it before.

Monica photographed this Birmingham statue
honoring children jailed for protesting in 1963.
Children had marched against segregation, been sprayed by water hoses, attacked by police dogs, and jailed. Why was this not common knowledge?

For weeks afterward, I asked friends, family, and acquaintances if they knew anything about it, and I got the same answer 90 percent of the time: no one had even heard of it. I was stunned. And I felt deeply the injustice that we had done to the children who marched by not teaching about their part in the Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King wrote a book the year after the Children’s March called Why We Can’t Wait (Harper, 1964). In it, he states that he believes it was the addition of the children and teens to the movement that finally turned the tide against segregation.

This story needed to be told, remembered, and repeated.

The message of what happened in Birmingham in 1963 is sadly still so relevant today.

I did some research and was surprised to find that there were no picture books about the subject—although since then, a wonderful one by Cynthia Levinson called The Youngest Marcher (illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Atheneum Books, 2017) has come out. (See Cynsations interview.)

I personally feel driven driven to write stories that are getting lost in the margins and stories that are being forgotten, or misremembered. I also want to highlight history that gives children power and agency. This story hits both of those marks—I knew I had to write it.

This sculpture, Police and Dog Attack by artist James Drake,
is located in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park.
What did Frank Morrison’s art bring to your text?

We were thrilled when Frank agreed to illustrate the book.

The emotion and vibrancy he brought to the project was just stunning to me. I cried with an odd mixture of joy and sadness when I first saw his drawings for the book. It’s a difficult subject to write and illustrate a picture book about, in many ways.

We wanted to tell the story without softening it, but also with an understanding that the readers are children. I believe Frank’s art really rode that line beautifully, showing the reality without making it too upsetting for young readers.

Interior illustration by Frank Morrison.
What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I wanted to write the stories that I saw a need for. The right book, at just the right moment, in the hands of the very child that needs it, can change a life--even change the world.

I remember times in my youth when a book changed my perceptions about myself, or altered how I interacted with others. I believe so strongly in the power of story and the power of children. And the magic they create together!

I can’t imagine doing anything that would fulfill me as deeply as being a writer for children.

Young readers participating in a readers' theater performance of Let the Children March at Monica's book launch.
Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I’ve written poetry for as long as I can remember. I think I came to writing via that form, more than anything else. I am also a professional actor and have often written for my own solo performance.  So those things shaped me as a writer early on.

But then, about 10 years ago, I was working in the children’s department of Barnes & Noble, and I walked by a group of women meeting together. I listened in to their conversation, as one does, and discovered they were a critique group for children’s and teen’s literature. I begged to join, and for the next 10 years, I learned craft through that group of amazing writers.

I like to tell people I went to the University of Darcy and Carla. They are the two “grand dames” of my critique group, Darcy Pattison and Carla Killough McClafferty, both amazing authors.

I joined SCBWI, I went to conferences and intensives, I read countless books about the craft of writing--and I was a sponge for it all.

What is your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community? To the larger children’s-YA literature community?

I have my “IRL” writing community, of course, in the amazing critique group I’ve been with so long.  But beyond that, the wide world of the children’s literature community on social media has been a wonderful support and resource.

One thing I’ve been doing for years now is following some of the “greats” on Twitter and Facebook.

Jane Yolen is a great example—she posts about her projects, her successes and failures, and how she just gets up every day and puts the words on the paper. I feel like Queen Jane is right there with me in the writing hustle, and I have been inspired by her so many times.

I’ve also joined a group of 2018 debut picture book authors and illustrators, and that has been indispensable. How did anyone do this before the internet?

For the most part, I’ve been pleased at how supportive and genuine the online children’s literature community has been. All these circles of community—with the critique group and the various online forums—can buoy us and give us clarity or a slap in the face, whichever we need the most.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
  • Join SCBWI.  
  • Get a critique group.  
  • Write.  Write. Write.  
  • Be in the world, so the world can be in your writing.  
  • Act as if you already are a professional writer. That little change worked wonders for me.  
  • Listen to repeated criticism and make changes accordingly. That’s a big one. Lots of writers, I think, get criticism but then keep doing what they’ve always done.  
  • Submit your work, but not willy-nilly. Research the agents and editors. Do your homework.  
  • Don’t forget to play.  
  • And persevere.  Most of us take years to get our foot in the door.  Keep at it.
Cynsations Notes

School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews both gave Let the Children March starred reviews. Kirkus Reviews called it, "A powerful retrospective glimpse at a key event."

Monica-Clark Robinson is passionate about stories: writing them, acting them out on stage, and reading them, both as a voiceover artist and an avid reader. She believes the stories of our past can help us create the story of our future.

This is Monica’s debut picture book, bringing to light a part of history that can empower children to make a difference.

Monica lives in a yurt in the country with her husband, too many cats, and just the right amount of daughters.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children's-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on September 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

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