Thursday, June 14, 2012

Banana Peelin' with Cynthia Levinson

Howdy folks! Before we begin today's awesome Banana Peel Therapy Thursday, I would like to announce the winner of the giveaway from the George Shannon feature last week. DRUM ROLL.... CYMBAL!

Stacy S. Jensen!

Congrats Stacy. I will have my people call your people.=) And for those of you who are interested, Book Giveaway World Record Holder (facts are iffy), the awesome Penny Klostermann was only one off from the winning number, which goes to show how some people are just born plain lucky. =)

And now, may I just say how interesting it has been to follow today's author's journey to publication? Through different online resources, I have read about this author's amazing experiences in conducting the research for her newly released book, We've Got A Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March. Super impressive.

Now, if you know me, you  know that I was probably a Mexican Revolutionary in a past life. I know, I was VERY cool.  But to think, that there were KIDS out there, marching as part of the Civil Rights Movement here in the U.S.?  You don't get much cooler than that! Well, unless your name is Cynthia Levinson and you dedicated a good portion of your life writing a book to celebrate these remarkable individuals.

Please welcome this week's author, the outstanding Cynthia Levinson!


My road to publication must have been paved by a troop of careless, banana-eating chimpanzees who live in the icy Arctic.

My first landing-hard-on-my-bottom slip occurred when I alienated a famous-editor-with-her-own-imprint. How did I manage to do that? I failed to heed the STOP sign, always a danger on slick roads.

She liked a picture book manuscript that I’d submitted, over the transom, enough to send me a request for revisions. I was just barely savvy enough to know that this was a good sign. I was also na├»ve enough to assume that she wanted the revisions asap. After all, since she liked the story, wouldn’t she want to publish it, like, next week?

So, instead of stopping to, say, ponder her questions and suggestions, confer with seasoned picture book writers, or study picture books or even books about them, I sat right down and dashed off a new version. It was equally as wordy as the first submission; it still lacked a crisis near the end; and that ending was not only equally unlikely to occur but it also failed to tie to the beginning. So, I hadn’t really fixed the problems. I’d just changed a bunch of words.

Astoundingly, she continued to work with me. And, I continued to throw revisions at her—revisions that continued to switch the deck chairs without plugging the fatal leak in that ice-bound banana boat. (I realize I’m also switching metaphors as fast as I replaced the chairs. What’s a boat doing on the Trans-continental Highway?!) Dare I admit that I even—at her invitation, I hasten to add—showed up at her house on an Arctic-like blizzardy day? And, we sat at her cozy dining room table—with me assuming that all writers with a fetching first draft get line-by-line edits from a famous-editor-with-her-own-imprint—while she patiently tried to teach me how to structure a picture book. Until she, understandably, threw me overboard. Although a colleague of hers expressed interest in the story the following year, he didn’t “love it enough,” and that manuscript still lies at the bottom of the ocean.

Then, there’s the time I nearly alienated my now-agent by telling her I wasn’t good enough for her. Thanks to the ever-generous Chris Barton, who read and liked my proposal for a nonfiction middle-grade manuscript well enough to send it to his agent, she called me. Here’s how our conversation started:

Erin: “I understand you’re looking for an agent.”

Cynthia: “Actually, I wasn’t. I didn’t think I could get one.”

Ouch! If she were calling for a Saturday-night date, surely she’d have hung up. Wouldn’t you, if someone blurted, in effect, “I’d love to go out but you’re out of my league”?

Fortunately, my blunder did not sink that relationship. Nor, fortunately, did all the bloopers I made during the writing and revising of the book that resulted from that early proposal.

  • I stalked a possible source for a year—I even staked a librarian-friend outside a room where she was giving a talk to accost her—to no avail. (I probably alienated her.)
  • One of my four main sources died between the time I interviewed her once, for an hour, and the time the book sold. “How could I confirm her role in one of the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest efforts? Check my facts? (Thank goodness her sister generously answered every question.)”
  • My editor at Peachtree Publishers kept asking me questions about events I didn’t fully understand. I kept wondering—and cursing—how she knew what I didn’t know, such as why two people were called “Mayor” in April and May 1963 in Birmingham. The reason, I discovered, once I actually did the research, related to why Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his now-famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” A lot of slick banana peels felled me before I worked that out.

In my family, we have a code. If someone makes a mistake while on a trip, everyone else in the family will be spared making the same mistake as long as the person who made it shares it. So, thanks to my daughter, who discovered at the London airport on her way to northern Greece for a friend’s wedding that she’d left her passport on her dresser, none of us has forgotten our passports. And, thanks to me, no one else has gotten an exorbitant speeding ticket in a rural speed trap (and almost had to show up in court three days later and 1500 miles out of the way). So, I hope that my slip-ups protect you, too!

In the last five years, Cynthia Levinson has written nearly two-dozen nonfiction articles for kids on everything from tattoo ink made from desiccated worms to zoonoses (look it up!). Before that, she worked in education as a teacher, researcher,  and bureaucrat (which was rarely as dreary as it sounds). Her first book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers) was published in February and will be released as an audio book next month.

We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree Publishers, February 2012)
* Starred review in
Kirkus* Starred review in Publishers Weekly* Starred review in Booklist* Starred review in School Library JournalJunior Library Guild Selection
New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice: “...riveting, significant work of nonfiction.”
Available in audio from Random House/Listening Library in Summer 2012

Website: Emu’s Debuts @ by Erin Murphy Literary Agency:


  1. Thanks for another great banana peel Thursday, Elizabeth, and Cynthia, I haven't had the pleasure of reading your work yet, but you must be VERY talented to have garnered so much editor and agent interest and survived those slips so well :)

    1. Yes, I definitely had more than my share of slip-ups! As for editor interest, I love my editor; however, she was about the 20th one we approached. The others showed decidedly less interest.

  2. Ah, what a wonderful, cautionary tale. There is much to learn here. I've learned some hard lessons on my writing journey and appreciate Cynthia's honesty and sharing in this post. Thanks for this.

    1. I love this blog. It can make even the dopiest of us--namely me--feel better.

    2. Thanks for sharing Rosi! So glad to have you here!

    3. And Cynthia....this blog loves YOU! :)

  3. Thanks for sharing, Cynthia, it helps so much to learn from others slips :•)

  4. And Elizabeth, too funny about my luck! Do you think there could be an agent or editor who uses to choose a manuscript? LOL

  5. It's always fun to see your name in lights, er, in a blog post with "drum roll" near it. Thank you. Lots to learn from all of your experiences Ms. Levinson. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Stacy! That's very sweet. And, now that you know my dark side, feel free to call me Cynthia.

  6. Sorry to chuckle at your misfortunes, Cynthia, but these slips are too funny! Thanks to you, I will never tell an agent I don't deserve her. You have performed a valuable service here today. :)

    And your book looks fascinating! So glad you slid into the right agent/editor after all!

    1. I was so mortified, Renee, that it took a while before I could laugh at myself. You're right--sliding into the right agent and editor definitely soothes sore bottoms!

  7. I'm so glad you kept picking yourself up after the slips (dang banana peels... I think they go out of their way to get underfoot). Your new book looks excellent!

    Thank you for sharing your cautionary tale.

    1. Thanks, Beth! If we writers don't pick ourselves--and each other--up, we'll just get buried.

  8. You sound such an elegant slipper, Cynthia, in fact I kind of see you doing it all in slow motion!! Thanks for sharing these painful moment to hopefully spare us the same, so we can have our own to tell!

  9. I love the undercurrent of relationship-building in Cynthia's terrific post. The editor who invested in an 'over the transom' submission, the colleague who connected a proposal with an agent, and a family that creates its own forgiving 'code' for mishaps! That type of trust and faith does help nurture our work and spirit!

    WE'VE GOT A JOB is terrific Cynthia. Congratulations!

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