Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown)

Happy Poetry Friday, everyone!

Mary Lee and Franki are hosting
today's round-up
at A Year of Reading.
This is the fifth post in a series called Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers and I are pairing books we've read this summer with a poem that complements the novel.

So far, we've paired:

I'm not normally a vampire person.

Interview with the Vampire ... meh.

The Historian? It turns out historians are dull, even when they're on the trail of Nosferatu.

I read Twilight as a cautionary tale for teen girls: How to tell when your boyfriend is a controlling stalker.

Source: The Afictionado

However, I make an exception for two smart, strong, complicated teen girls -- one who is a vampire queen, the other who is infected with vampirism.

My first favorite vampire is Marceline the Vampire Queen from the TV show Adventure Time. The second is Tana from Holly Black's urban fantasy THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN.

I promised some geekiness today, and geekiness you shall have.

This weekend, I'll be going to Otakon with my teens. It's a celebration of anime, manga, and all-things Japanese pop culture. Even though Adventure Time isn't an anime, people still cosplay characters from the show.

People like me.

Marceline is an easy character to cosplay. Most of her outfits can be built from things you already have in your wardrobe. Add a long, dark wig -- gray stage make-up, fangs, and bite-marks if you're really into it -- and you're all set.

Then I started thinking, I'm going to have to carry a purse and it's going to look really dumb, carrying a purse dressed as Marceline the Vampire Queen. That is how I came up with a brilliant idea -- my best idea in many years of being crafty. I would make tote-bag shaped like axe-head Marceline's bass guitar.

Another time, I will write out directions, which started out simple and became totally lengthy and complicated. Here is the finished product:

Believe it or not, there is totally a normal-sized black tote bag inside this thing! With magnetics snaps and everything.

Before I swoon from craftiness, let's move on to Tana.

When my kids were little, we loved THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES. Since then, I've dipped into Holly Black's YA fantasies once in a while. I loved WHITE CAT from  her Curse Workers series, so this summer, I tried THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN on audio.

Tana and her ex-boyfriend are the only survivors of a vampire massacre. She escapes the scene with her ex, who's been infected with the virus for vampirism, and with a mysterious vampire-on-the-run named Gavriel. Together, they head to a quarantined "Coldtown." There, Tana gets caught up in the complicated personal and political relationships of ancient vampires. She learns that being a vampire isn't as glamorous as reality television makes it out to be. And she learns that she'll do anything to survive Coldtown with her humanity intact.

The poem I'm pairing with this novel is also suited for upper YA.

Grief Puppet
by Sarah Beasley

In the nearby plaza, musicians would often gather.
The eternal flame was fueled by propane tank.
An old man sold chive dumplings from a rolling cart,
while another grilled skewers of paprika beef.
Male turtledoves would puff their breasts, woo-ing,
and for a few coins, we each bought an hour with
the grief puppet. It had two eyes, enough teeth,
a black tangle of something like hair or fur,
a flexible spine that ran the length of your arm.
Flick your wrist, and at the end of long rods
it raised its hands as if conducting the weather.
Tilt the other wrist, and it nodded. No effort
was ever lost on its waiting face. It never
needed a nap or was too hungry to think straight.
You could have your conversation over and over,
past dusk when old men doused their charcoal,
into rising day when they warmed their skillets.
The puppet only asked what we could answer.

Read the rest of the poem at The Academy of American Poets.

Even though "Grief Puppet" is not a vampire poem, it caught my attention as a discussion partner for Tana's story. The two works share several images: street food, the puppet's lack of humanity (which reminded me of the vampire characters in the novel), the walled town, the coin (an important prop in the book is shaped like a coin).

It's the walled town at the end of the poem that wowed me, though. Until I read that line, I had not thought of Black's setting -- a quarantined, lawless town surrounded by high walls -- as a metaphor for grief. 

Tana *is* grieving -- for a mother turned vampire, for all of her friends killed in the massacre she survived, and for the "normal" childhood she did not have.

Because of the poem, I have a deeper understanding of Holly Black's novel. My hope with this series is that we'll continue to find novels and poems whose interplay deepens our experience of reading both.

I promise some middle grade novels next week (and some cosplay photos from Otakon)!

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse? I'm still looking for guest bloggers! For more information, find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (The Impossible Knife of Memory)

2014 has been the summer of the audio book. Between family visits, my son's college search, and driving kids back and forth to camp, we've racked up enough miles on the Mars Rover for a cross country trek.

(The kids nicknamed our red mini van "The Mars Rover" many years and over 120,000 miles ago. Because we are geeks. But more about that on Friday.)

I can only listen to Coldplay, Queen, and Temples so many times. That's why my first stop on any road trip is the local library, which has a great selection of audio books.

Recommended listening

For this edition of Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse, I'm pairing one of my road trip books with a poem. If you'd like to know more about this series -- in which guest bloggers and I are matching a summer read with a poem that complements the novel -- check out this post.

My daughter went to field hockey camp at University of Delaware last month. I spent both drives -- dropping off and picking up -- listening to Laurie Halse Anderson's most recent novel, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY.

featured on NPR
After spending years on the road together, high school senior Hayley Kincaid and her veteran father decide to settle down. Hayley hopes that returning to their run-down family home will help her father recover from PTSD. When living in her childhood home triggers her own long-buried memories, Hayley begins to realize she can't care for her father alone.

If you're following this series for classroom discussion ideas, THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY is upper YA. The poem that I'm pairing with it is complex enough for high school juniors and seniors to dig into.

The you that's left
     In memory of 1523 Calliope St., New Orleans  

by W.M. Rivera

The end is not, so wrote Herodotus on looking back,
apparent from the outset. Amazing what's forgot
or not, the blanks, nostalgia, childhood's steps
or aches to see that silent gnaw, the house a vacant
lot, a broken jar, remaining bits of too-long
absent egos. What's the use to know it,

far-off thunder, that earlier ignorance, who thought
grown-up was ten-times tall, conceiving
secrecies at each closed door, and running running
never still, the sky off blue--few cares, slow

leaping walks again. All this on un-retaining walls
in chalk expecting rain, while forward's still a stop
an aimless nowhere and that endless wait
for one you never meet, the you that's left.

There are so many lines in this poem that speak to Laurie Halse Anderson's book. The phrase "ten-times tall" fits the way Hayley saw her father when she was little. "Amazing what's forgot/ or not, the blanks,/ nostalgia, childhood's steps" reminded me of the holes in Hayley's memory and how images begin to seep back in, helped by being in the physical space of this house. Most of all, I felt that the last three lines of Bill's poem could be in Hayley Kincaid's voice. She's got to deal with the part of herself, and of her father, that are left. She can't wish either one of them back to wholeness.

Huge thanks to Maryland poet W.M. (Bill) Rivera for giving me permission to post "The you that's left" today. The poem is from his chapbook, The Living Clock, published by Finishing Line Press.

Want to check out more posts in this series? Here you go!

So far, we've paired:

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers are welcome! For more information, find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (Stargirl)

Last Poetry Friday, I kicked off a series called "Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse" -- novels we have read this summer, paired with a poem that complements the book.

So far, we've paired:

Today, I'm thrilled to have guest blogger Janet Wong sharing her "Chapter & Verse" for Jerry Spinelli's YA novel STARGIRL. 

Buy the book here.
You will thank Janet later.
But first, Poetry Friday is hosted this week by the wonderful poet and educator Margaret Simon of Reflections on the Teche. Margaret has the round up of Poetry Friday posts this week.

Now, let's hear it for Janet!

Janet Wong is a poet, publisher,
and Poetry Friday regular.
Visit Janet's website
and Poetry for Children,
where Jane'ts co-publisher,

Sylvia Vardell blogs.
Stargirl is one of my favorite books. I read it before I knew Eileen, when it first came out in 2000, and read it again recently because Sylvia and I will be hosting a panel at NCTE (11/21/14) with Eileen and Jerry Spinelli on it and I wanted to have specific examples to talk about in our session. 

(AA aside: There is so much to love about STARGIRL. The Hot Seat scene. Senor Saguaro. The way the novel ends. If you visit Jerry Spinelli's website, you will see a scrolling message: STARGIRL has been nominated by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best YA novels of all time. Back to Janet...)

This recent reading was so different for me from the first reading because: 1) my son is now grown, so I've seen high school popularity issues from the hypersensitive eyes of a mother; 2) I now know Eileen and have received her delightful cards, so I can picture her as a young Stargirl; and 3) I kept thinking about Eileen's "Poem for a Bully," especially at that part where (I'll try to avoid a spoiler here) "that girl" [blanks] Stargirl and Stargirl then [blanks] that girl? Well, that is exactly what "Poem for a Bully" is about, isn't it? 

Poem for a Bully
by Eileen Spinelli

Somewhere deep inside you
there’s a softer, kinder place.
I know this will surprise you—
but I’ve seen it in your face.
Your eyes are often sad, although
you wear a surly grin.
Sometimes when you stand all alone
your “mean” seems worn and thin.
I wish that you would take a step—
a small but brave one, too—
and look inside yourself to find
the good I see in you.

from The Poetry Friday Anthology 
by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong 
Posted with permission.

Eileen's poem "Advice to Rapunzel," on the other hand, is about the other major question in Stargirl: wondering if a person's goodness is too good to be true, which we see both in the skepticism of "Hillari's Hypothesis" and also in the behavior of Prince Charming at the critical moments. (Spoiler Alert!!! Stop reading now if you haven't read the book!!) Leo might not have had the heart of a toad, but we all [hoped] that he'd had more courage, right?—and that Stargirl had been more cautious. The dance scene makes it seem like she got over him quickly, but I'll bet her wagon pebble count was mighty low for a long, long time.

Advice to Rapunzel 
by Eileen Spinelli

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rapunzel beware.
Be cautious and wise
when you let down your hair.
Who is this Prince Charming
who claims to be true?
Who claims to be caring for
nothing but you?
Be sure you’re not blinded
by his gold and crown
before you go letting
your lovely hair down.
Is this prince a kind boy
who rides down the road?
Or is he a cad with
the heart of a toad?
Rapunzel, Rapunzel, Rapunzel beware.
Be cautious and wise
when you let down your hair.

from The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School
by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong 
Posted with permission.

Janet Wong is a poet-turned-publisher who, with Sylvia Vardell, created The Poetry Friday Anthology series ( that features these two poems by Eileen Spinelli (

On her transition from poet to publisher, Janet says: I was at an NCTE conference when some teachers told me they needed more help with teaching poetry—specifically, teaching it in a way that worked with this "new thing" called the Common Core. A few months later, Sylvia Vardell told me that Texas librarians were clamoring for help with the new "Poetry TEKS," similar to the Common Core standards for ELA/Poetry. We had already collaborated to produce the PoetryTagTime series, the first original ebook anthologies for young readers, and we liked the feeling of being publishing pioneers. After some R&D, Sylvia and I came up with the "Take 5!" approach to teaching poetry; and The Poetry Friday Anthology series was born. 

One of the neatest things about our series is that, because of the Common Core and TEKS connections, we are reaching a whole new audience of teachers who aren't very familiar with poetry. Many teachers come up to us after a workshop to let us know that they've been avoiding poetry, which is why they needed to come to our session—to figure out how to teach it now that their students need to know at least some poetry basics. Sylvia and I have found ourselves with standing-room-only crowds where people don't know who J. Patrick Lewis or Joyce Sidman are—but when they hear a poem they like, you see their faces light up. I might be reading Eileen's "Poem for a Bully" or "Advice to Rapunzel"—two of my "regulars"—and they'll whip out phones to start videotaping. It's like it is with good barbecue, good soap, good anything--when you meet it, you know it. 

Janet, I agree. When I do poetry residencies, many classroom educators tell me, "I was afraid to teach poetry before. Now I love it." By modeling how to make the discussion and writing of poetry fun and personally meaningful for students, we are winning converts to poetry education.

Thanks to Janet Wong for this Poetry Friday guest post, and to the amazing Eileen Spinelli for giving us permission to share her poems.

Do you have an idea for Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse. Guest bloggers are welcome! For more information, find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse (Darius & Twig)

On Friday, I announced a new series of posts called "Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse." Thanks for all of your comments and interest! I'm still looking for guest bloggers to share novels they have read this summer, paired with a poem that complements the book.

If you'd like more information, you can find a full explanation of the series and a sample Chapter & Verse pairing at this post.

When Walter Dean Myers passed away a few weeks ago, I was in the middle of one of his recent novels, DARIUS & TWIG.

Local indie bookstore Politics & Prose has it!
Teenagers Darius and Twig are best friends with big dreams. Darius is a gifted writer. Twig burns up the sidewalk, training to be a runner. Both boys know their gifts could be a ticket to college and out of their Harlem neighborhood. But they struggle against discouraging teachers, shootings and racism, and classmates who don't seem to want anyone to succeed.

DARIUS & TWIG was released in 2013 (Amistad Press). I had to look up the date of my poem match, "We Real Cool," by Gwendolyn Brooks. Though Brooks' poem was first published in 1959, she speaks in the voice of Darius and Twig's modern-day classmates.

We Real Cool


The Pool Players.
        Seven at the Golden Shovel.

            We real cool. We   
            Left school. We

            Lurk late. We
            Strike straight. We

            Sing sin. 

Read the poem's conclusion and listen to a recording at the Poetry Foundation.

Reading the novel and revisiting this poem has me thinking about the culture of urban poverty. Looking at the two side by side makes me wonder how much, if anything, has changed in the 50 plus years since "We Real Cool" was written. In Walter Dean Myers' novel, Darius and Twig hear the voices and feel the pull of characters like Brooks' pool players. Going to college means leaving home and an entire culture behind -- the kind elders and close friendships as well as the violence and sense of hopelessness.

Walter Dean Myers obituary at CNN.

Do you have a Chapter & Verse to contribute? Let me know. Instructions are in this post.

Just following along? Here's how you can use the Chapter & Verse series:

Recommended Reads -- If you're on a summer reading binge (I am!), and you're looking for something new and different to take to the beach, look no further.

Back to School -- Already planning lessons for the school year? Add some poetry to your reading units. The pairings in this series are perfect for jump-starting classroom discussion.

Next up: Janet Wong's Chapter & Verse is a double dose of Spinelli. Look for Janet's guest post on Poetry Friday.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Poetry Friday Announcement: A New Series

Hey there, Poetry Friday crowd. I'm starting a new series today. Anyone can join in. If you'd like to  guest post, leave me a note in the comments.

Find more Poetry Friday
posts at Poetry for Children.
My favorite part of summer isn't the beach (we haven't been there yet), the hot weather (I prefer blizzards, thank you), or no school (can I have my routine back yet?) It's summer reading.

My nephew, demonstrating that a book
can be enjoyed anywhere, even
sitting on the floor by Auntie's front door.

I've been on a Sharknado-worthy reading binge, chomping up novels, gliding through the library looking for delicious fantasies, never roaming far from shore without an audio-book to satisfy my story-hunger.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself to slow down and *enjoy* what I'm reading. Taste the flavors. One way to stop my book-hopping and think about each novel I'm reading is through poetry.

The idea for this series dates back to my years teaching high school. My ninth graders were about to do a unit on Betty Smith's classic coming of age novel, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN.

Find it here.
I wanted to add more poetry to my lessons, so I used the poem "The Lake Ilse of Innisfree" by William Butler Yeats to help introduce the themes of the novel. The class talked about dreams, especially dreams of place.

When we finished A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, we went back to the poem. What a rich discussion we had. The students' ideas about dreams and the importance of place had developed as they read the novel. Circling back to Yeats' poem gave them a way to focus their thoughts.

How about you? During your summer reads, have you come across a book that made you think of a favorite poem? That's what this series is all about.

Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse

To participate, you can go simple and share a pairing of book and poem. I'll post as is, giving you credit for the contribution!

If you want to step it up, include a paragraph about the book you read and a few lines about why you paired it with a particular poem.

For those of you who really want to dig in and discuss your Chapter & Verse, write a blog post of 500-750 words. Tell us what you liked about the novel you're sharing. Expand on what made you think of this poem as you were reading the book. How does one complement the other? Explain how reading the poem with the book deepens your understanding of novel, poem, or both.

Here is a sample pairing from my own summer reads.

Author Amok's Chapter & Verse

Find it here.
Genevieve Valentine's retelling of "The 12 Dancing Princesses" is a historical YA novel, set in 1920s New York. Here, the dancing princesses are society sisters. The Hamilton girls are locked in their ritzy home by a misogynistic father who is embarrassed by his large family and lack of male heirs. The girls sneak out several nights a week to dance at New York's speakeasies and get a taste of life outside their father's walls.

I'm pairing THE GIRLS AT THE KINGFISHER CLUB with Edna St. Vincent Millay's most famous poem.

First Fig
By Edna St. Vincent Millay
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
The Hamilton girls are burning the candle at both ends. What I love about this pairing is how the poem emphasizes the balance between frenetic joy and risk. That's what keeps drawing the twelves sisters back to the dance floor. It can't (and doesn't -- gasp!) last forever.

If you'd like to share your Summer Reads: Chapter & Verse, leave me a note in the comments or send an email to I'll post another sample next week.

Have fun out there, book sharks!

Find it here.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Where You'll Find Me... Guest Blogging

I'm having a Pisces kind of day today ... swimming in two directions.

This is in my writing life. Add kids, work, the usual stuff of momness, and I feel more like an octopus than a fish.

So: Two directions. (Not to be confused with boy band.)

Today, you will find me elsewhere.

Direction #1

Children's author me is thrilled to be visiting Brenda Drake's blog today. Brenda interviewed me and my good friend/writing mentor Joy McCullough-Carranza for her Pitch Wars Success Stories series.

I think our story is like Cinderella. Joy is the fairy book-mother who helped get my manuscript ready for the ball. It felt like everyone wanted to dance with my book, but midnight came with the end of the Pitch Wars contest, and my book went home with no agent to love. Until that glass slipper moment when Stephen Barbara returned. As an agent, he's been a perfect fit.

How to make these mirrored platform shoes:
DYI "The Fairest of Them All"
Click to read the Pitch Wars Success Story interview with Brenda Drake here.

Direction #2

Poet and editor me is blogging at Little Patuxent Review's website today. Submissions for our Winter 2015 issue, Food, open on August 1. To warm up your taste buds, I am sharing what I call "Pesto: A Love Story."

Pesto from The Italian Dish.
It's about falling in love with a guy, a culture, and a green pasta sauce all in the same summer. Now -- when your basil plant is full of leaves -- is the perfect time  to try my recipe for pesto sauce. Great on pasta, but also delicious to top chicken or salmon on the grill.

I'll be back at AuthorAmok for Poetry Friday. Meanwhile, keep swimming!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Poetry Friday: 5 Questions for Debbie Levy

Greetings, Poets!

Last Friday, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act with Debbie Levy's new picture book, WE SHALL OVERCOME: THE STORY OF THE SONG. [Read the post here.]

Find it at IndieBound
As promised, Debbie is here in person to tell us more about the book, which explores the history of this Civil Rights anthem in free verse. But first...

This week's Poetry Friday blogroll is brought to you
by my friend and fellow Marylander
Tabatha Yeatts-Lonske
at The Opposite of Indifference.
I'm thrilled that you're here today, Debbie! I am so curious about the genesis of both the song and the book WE SHALL OVERCOME that it was hard for me to stick to five questions, so let's dive in.

What was the genesis for the idea that became WE SHALL OVERCOME? I’d like to know more about the concept that songs have back-stories. Why did you choose this particular song’s story to tell?

I began gathering string on the life of this song years ago. “We Shall Overcome” and issues related to “We Shall Overcome” kept popping up during research on other books for young readers that I wrote—a book about bigotry, a biography of Lyndon Johnson, and a book about the lives of enslaved people on southern plantations. So I began filing my discoveries away.
Find it at Amazon.

Find it at IndieBound.

What went into the file, especially early on, wasn’t specifically or only about the song “We Shall Overcome.” In working on my children’s book about plantation slave life, for example, I was captivated by first-person narratives of formerly enslaved people describing their music. And I was struck by this observation by Frederick Douglass, from his autobiography:

I have often been utterly astonished . . . to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by tears.

The precise words and tune of “We Shall Overcome” don’t date back to slavery days, but for me there is an undeniable connection between this song, which has so frequently been sung to embolden those fighting for justice and to comfort those who have suffered, and the songs of which Frederick Douglass spoke. I found, and the book chronicles, a history of voices upon voices singing songs that evolved into “We Shall Overcome,” with people making changes in the lyrics and melodies to suit their circumstances. I wanted to create a book that could reach even the youngest readers, and put them in touch with the history of an activity they all know something about: singing.

What role does music play in your own life? Do you listen to music when you’re writing?

I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. (Do you?) I like quietness.

[AA: I’m with you, Debbie. I love listening music, but find it too distracting when I’m writing.]

But music has played a large role in my life. I’ve played piano since I was a little girl. I don’t play well—I play worse now than I did as I child—and my sight reading of music is abysmal. But having a piano in my life feels necessary. In this I know I am influenced by my grandmother, Rose Salzberg, who was a piano teacher when she was a young woman in Poland and Germany and whose playing in our home and in her own home was a constant soundtrack in the life of our family here in Maryland. Certain Chopin pieces, which were her favorites, bring me to tears.

Rose's Sheet Music
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)
If musical talent skipped a generation in my case, it did land squarely on my sons’ shoulders. My eldest is a jazz musician working in New York and abroad. My youngest is a talented singer, although it’s not something he chose to make a career of. It’s awfully sweet when they visit and the house is full of live music again.

What was involved in tracing “We Shall Overcome” back to its beginnings in slavery, but also in tracing its progress in more recent history as the song spread around the world?

My research for this 32-page picture book was as far-ranging as any research I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of research as a lawyer, editor, and writer. The sources range from songbooks to academic studies; from decades of newspaper articles (here’s a favorite headline from a 1967 New York Times article: “Popularity of U.S. Rights Hymn Irks German Reds”) to liner notes from LP records; from books about the civil rights movement to articles about African American song traditions to interview transcripts.

Remember the file I mentioned earlier, in which I started collecting the bits that helped me conceive of and write this book? Another signature item that went into the file was the text of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s speech in March 1965 urging passage of the Voting Rights Act after Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, in which he echoed the words of the song:

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Then when I found video of that speech and actually heard his distinctive twang saying these words—very moving to me. (Here’s the text and the video:

One more tidbit: before I started my research, I had no idea that “We Shall Overcome” has been sung by schoolchildren in India for years. I believe that you are more likely to find kids in a school in Mumbai who know this song, and who have sung it at school assemblies, than if you go into a school in this country.

I loved your book THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, which looks at early Nazi Germany through the eyes of your own Jewish family. Threads of that book’s focus on history and human rights appear again in WE SHALL OVERCOME. Do you have a personal connection to the song?

Thank you for loving THE YEAR OF GOODBYES, Laura, which has a special place in my heart since it’s about my mother. As for a personal connection to the song “We Shall Overcome”—I have the same connection any other human has to a song with such rich history, significance, and power. Maybe my response is sharpened by my roots in a family that experienced persecution during the Nazi era. But you know, a picture book is collaboration. 

The illustrator of WE SHALL OVERCOME, Vanessa Brantley-Newton (, has distinct and personal memories of being subject to the injustices of segregation during her 1960s childhood, the types of injustices that gave rise to the use of the song as a civil rights anthem. Working on this book was a deeply personal experience for her. And the editor who first acquired the manuscript of this book—her roots are in India, and the song’s story resonated for her in part because of the connection she felt personally to the tradition of singing “We Shall Overcome” in that country’s schools.

What are some ways that classroom educators might use your book to introduce a unit on the American Civil Rights movement?

I’d suggest that educators begin with a kid-appropriate discussion of the type of injustices that underlay the rise of “We Shall Overcome.” In my own interactions with young students around this book, I have been finding that they don’t necessarily grasp the notion of racial bigotry at first. (I don’t view this as a bad thing!) But we do need to introduce them to this part of our history, which, as we adults know, isn’t really a thing of the past.

So I like to begin by talking about unfairness, with some “what if?” questions. What if . . . you couldn’t go to your favorite park because of hair color? Had to sit apart in school or on bus or in movies because you go to a different church—or don’t go to church? Couldn’t go to the place where they serve the best ice cream in town because only blue people can and you are orange?

They giggle, but they get it. And then I talk about how, not so long ago, restaurants could refuse to serve you a meal if you were African American. I explain that, in those days, if you were African American, if you were Mexican American—you could not drink out of the same water fountains as white people in some parts of the country. I share photographs of these and other segregationist practices. They are pretty striking.

And I ask: if you were being treated so unfairly, or if someone you loved were, how would you feel? We can agree that being treating this unfairly could make you so angry and frustrated that you might want to fight. But fighting with your fists could create even more problems for you and it probably wouldn’t get you what you wanted.

We discuss other ways to fight—not with your fists but with your brain. You could join with others who are treated unfairly. You could tell everyone out in the world about what was happening. You could march in protest. You could quietly, but firmly, demand your rights.

Miami University Freedom Summer
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)

I explain, again showing photos, that this is exactly what African Americans, and others who wanted to help fight the unfairness, did. They fought with their brains. And I explain that there was another important way that people fought with their brains. Yes, they marched, they sat in at lunch counters, they protested. But they did something else.

Anti-segregation March
(Courtesy of Debbie Levy)

THEY SANG! We talk about how singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard. And if inside you are feeling a little scared or sad, singing can give you courage and can lift your spirits—especially if you’re singing with others.

I’d also encourage educators to read the book aloud and, where the lyrics are excerpted, sing them. I’d encourage them to go to the online sources listed in the back of the book and on my website to hear the song being sung by different people, and in at least one different language.

Once the students have read the book and had discussions like the ones I’ve described, I love to ask them to come up with new verses that would apply to their lives today, in their schools or neighborhoods—and we sing them together.

Thanks for your questions, Laura!

Thank you so much for answering them, Debbie. I think you captured the heart of WE SHALL OVERCOME with these words: “Singing shows the people who are treating you unfairly that you are strong, that you are a human being, and that you will be heard."

Debbie Levy is the author of the picture books We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (2013); Dozer’s Run: A True Story of a Dog and His Race (2014); the young adult novel Imperfect Spiral (2013); The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells (2010); and other books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young people of all ages. The Year of Goodbyes was a Kirkus Best Book of 2010, a Parents’ Choice Award recipient, a VOYA Nonfiction Honor Book, and a Sydney Taylor Award Notable Book, among other honors.  We Shall Overcome has been named a 2014 Jane Addams Book Award Honor Book, a Bank Street College Best Book, and a 2014 Notable Social Studies Trade Book.