AFD: What teacher helped you find your writing voice?
MCR: I couldn’t begin to name just one teacher! My ninth grade English teacher, several workshop leaders and speakers at conferences, the women of my critique group, my oldest daughter, my agent, my editor, and most importantly, myself, myself, myself. (All women! Interesting….) It’s a matter of listening and learning from everyone and taking what feels right and gently letting go of what doesn’t.
AFD: If there was a sound track for your picture book, what to 3 songs would be included?
MCR: I’d have to include some of the protest songs of the Movement, for sure! “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” and “We Shall Overcome,” at least. And then the third song would have to be one by Sweet Honey in the Rock, either “Indaba” or “On Children.” I listened to a lot of their music during the writing process.
AFD: What do you do when you are not writing?
MCR: I’m an actor and a children’s librarian, a mom to two fierce daughters, an avid vegan cook, a vegetable gardener, and an advocate for several social issues dear to my heart. Through it all, though, I’m usually thinking about writing!
AFD: Your book speaks to the youth movement that made the American Civil Rights Movement a success. Why were young activists in Birmingham, Alabama so important to American Civil Rights?
MCR: In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King said that he thought in retrospect, it was the introduction of the children to the Movement that changed everything. I believe it’s because white American adults saw children in the footage and pictures in the news. That got through the thick wall of the prevalent racism at the time and opened hearts and minds. They weren’t black or white—they were children. It’s sad, so very sad, that it took that to break through. But what a proud thing for those kids and teens to be such powerful change agents!
AFD: What lessons do you want young readers to take from your book?
MCR: I want young readers to know that they have strength and agency. I want them to know that, young though they are, they can change the world. They are our future—no, they are their own future! So of course they should take an interest in issues and advocate for the future they want. Above all, I want them to feel empowered. I also simply want them to KNOW THIS STORY. I want it to be remembered and retold.
AFD: How long did it take to write and publish your book?
MCR: I first heard about the march on MLK day in 2010, and began researching it then. Writing probably began six months later. I worked on it for four years, off and on, with my critique group, revising. Then I entered it into a contest sponsored by SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and I was chosen as a finalist. That proved to be the line in my query letter that finally made agents take notice. I got an agent in 2014, and we did several revision passes. She sold the book in 2015. My editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt really wanted to wait for Frank Morrison to illustrate it—and I’m so glad we did! He had quite a line of books ahead of us, so the pub date was pushed to January 2018. Start to finish, believe it or not, the process was about seven and a half years!
AFD: What did you learn about yourself during this process?
MCR: So much! I learned that I love the puzzle of deep research. I learned that I write best when I lead from some sense of activism. I learned that there’s so much I didn’t know about the business of being a professional writer. I learned a lot about listening to criticism and knowing when to make changes accordingly (most of the time) and when to stand my ground (every now and then). I learned about the very serious responsibility one has when presenting a story like this to children. It’s sobering and a great privilege.
AFD: List ways that teachers and librarians can use your book to enhance learning or inspire children to involve themselves with social justice?
MCR: Here’s one example from my book launch event: we made protest signs, and on one side we wrote words that might have been on a 1963 sign. On the other side, though, we encouraged kids to write the words they would put on a 2018 protest sign. We also use the book as a starting point to talk about music as protest. Teachers can have students listen to some of the protest songs listed in the book, then identify modern protest songs. They can even write their own songs! These activities will help kids’ awareness of what is happening in the world around them. It’s all about giving children agency; helping them become aware of their own innate power. It’s so important, now more than ever.
AFD: What writing projects are you presently researching and writing?
MCB: I have a women’s history anthology picture book, a picture book biography about a little-known figure in the civil rights movement, a humorous picture book about zombie rights, a middle-grade contemporary novel with a protagonist that thirteen year-old Monica might resemble a little bit, and a YA speculative fiction novel that I wrote with a writing partner I’ve known since high school! Those are the ones that are mostly already written. They’re in different states of readiness—one just went to acquisitions, so cross fingers! Then there are probably four different manuscripts that are stewing, picture books and novels, waiting for their moment in the sun. My goodness, it’s delicious agony to be a writer!
AFD: What do you find most difficult about writing picture books?
MCR: The puzzle of how to tell the fullness of the story in less than 1000 words is both crazy, fun, and crazy frustrating! There’s also a LOT of waiting involved in writing, with any kind of book, but especially picture books. Waiting on the agent’s comments, waiting to hear back once it’s on submission, waiting for the sketches and the final art, waiting for the proofs, etc. It’s a hard lesson in radical patience.
AFD: Name your top five books on social justice every kid should read.
MCR: Only five?? OK, I’ll try:
Be a King: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by James E. Ransome
A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
We’ve Got a Job by Cynthia Levinson (a more in-depth look at the Children’s March)
Let It Shine: Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters by Andrea Davis Pinkney; illustrated by Stephan Alcorn
George by Alex Gino (for a beginning understanding of transgender rights)
Last Stop On Market Street by Matt de la Peña; illustrated by Christian Robinson (a good book to discuss poverty)
Oops, that’s six. #sorrynotsorry
AFD: Leave young writers one piece of advice.
MCR: For children who dream of writing: read, read, read! Write poetry. Find a group of other writers and be a mutual support system for each other. Persevere, even when it’s difficult.
For beginning adult writers: SAME.
By Monica Clark-Robinson; illustrated by Frank Morrison
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: January 2, 2018