Written by: Cynthia Levinson
Illustrated by: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
For ages: 5 years and up
Topics Covered: POC-Centric Narratives, Historical Figure, Historical Event, Activism, Modern Black Freedom Struggle, Civil Rights, Family, Love.
Summary: Audrey is a nine-year-old girl, living in Birmingham in 1963. The book opens with Audrey’s mother cooking a huge dinner for their family friend, Mike. Mike turns out to be a nickname, and the family friend is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr! At the dinner table is talk of desegregation efforts, and Audrey dreams of days when she can shop where she wants, have brand new schoolbooks, and better seats at the movies. One Sunday, Mike visits their church and tells those crammed into the pews to hear him speak to fill the jails and disobey unjust laws. Audrey notices that adults don’t step forward, and instead look away embarrassed making excuses for why they couldn’t be arrested.
One night, another family friend named Jim announces a new idea to fill the jails with children rather than adults. Bravely, Audrey steps forward with other children. She joins the hundreds of others marching but realizes that she is the only protestor from her elementary school and is in fact the youngest person at the march! Singing freedom songs, the children march and are arrested. Sentenced to a week in juvenile hall, Audrey comes to find that jail is not glamorous. There aren’t clean clothes and the food is bad. She is questioned by four white men; the first ones Audrey has ever spoken to! She notices though, that every afternoon more and more children arrive at the jail, some soaking wet from being sprayed with firehoses. By her fifth day, the jail is full! The community has fulfilled their goal, and no more children can be arrested. Two months after Audrey is released, Birmingham completely wipes the segregation laws from their lawbooks.
This book is significant in the way it treats the characters. Audrey is not seen as exceptional in her actions, only in her age. The illustrations show careful thought and detail, the background individuals vary in size, shape, wardrobe, and more importantly skin tone. In the back there is both an author’s note and a timeline of events surrounding the children’s march in Birmingham. There is also a list of sources, a book recommendation for older readers, and Audrey’s favorite hot buttered roll recipe! Both author and illustrator are familiar with the struggles of oppression, and one can tell by the way that background characters are treated and illustrated. The movement is explained as a group effort with many moving pieces rather than Audrey single-handedly bringing about change to Birmingham.
- How do you think Audrey became so brave?
- Do you think it would be easier to be in a juvenile detention center with a lot of people you knew?
- How do you think Audrey was feeling when she realized her actions were creating change for her entire community?
Continuing the Conversation:
- Learn more about the Modern Black Freedom Struggle, and how resistance occurred for much longer than just in the typically talked about decade of 1954-1964. What sorts of happenings in the movement were occurring since the end of the Civil War?
- Read more about the Birmingham Children’s March, and what it inspired people around the country to do. What other actions were a direct result, and how were youth vital to the movement’s success?
- Look at photos or watch some interviews with other individuals who participated. What can we learn from them, and other activists who came before us?
About the Author & the Illustrator:
Cynthia Levinson lives in two places with her husband, who is a law professor. Most of the year, they hang out in Austin, Texas. In the fall, they’re in Boston, Massachusetts. Cynthia didn’t always want to become a writer but a college friend always encouraged her. The friend was right but Cynthia had to wait for the right time. Cynthia is awed by writers who also have day jobs and children at home. It was only after her children got through college and paid off those bills that she could take the risk of leaving my job at a state education agency and dip a toe into writing. She’s written lots of magazine articles for kids about pandemics, about Moko, the mind-body problem, civil rights, and a bunch of other topics. Creativity takes a lot of work. And, frankly, as a nonfiction writer, she self-describes as not all that creative. Like people who can work, raise children, and write, those who can make up stories, settings, characters, and emotional valence astonish Cynthia.
Vanessa Brantley Newton was born during the Civil Rights movement, and attended school in Newark, NJ. She was part of a diverse, tight-knit community and learned the importance of acceptance and empowerment at early age.
Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book. It was a defining moment in her life, and has made her into the artist she is today. As an illustrator, Vanessa includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. She wants allchildren to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, so they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader.
Vanessa celebrates self-love and acceptance of all cultures through her work, and hopes to inspire young readers to find their own voices. She first learned to express herself as a little girl through song. Growing up in a musical family, Vanessa’s parents taught her how to sing to help overcome her stuttering. Each night the family would gather to make music together, with her mom on piano, her dad on guitar, and Vanessa and her sister, Coy, singing the blues, gospel, spirituals, and jazz. Now whenever she illustrates, music fills the air and finds its way into her art.
The children she draws can be seen dancing, wiggling, and moving freely across the page in an expression of happiness. Music is a constant celebration, no matter the occasion, and Vanessa hopes her illustrations bring joy to others, with the same magic of a beautiful melody.