The Youngest Marcher: the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a young civil rights activist. (Image courtesy of Atheneum Books)
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‘The Youngest Marcher’: A conversation with Cynthia Levinson and Vanessa Brantley-Newton about diversity in children’s books, anti-racism and youth activism

More timely than ever, author Cynthia Levinson and illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton discussed their picture book, “The Youngest Marcher: The Story Of Audrey Faye Hendricks, A Young Civil Rights Activist (Simon and Schuster, 2017), during a Zoom event organized by The Blue Bunny Bookstore in Dedham, Massachusetts.  

With words and pictures that appeal to kids and readers of all ages, they tell the story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a nine-year-old girl who spent seven days in prison participating in the 1963 Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. Hendricks was one of 3,000 young children who were put in jail. The book opens up conversations about anti-racism and youth activism. 

“The fact that Cynthia and I collaborated is a very special thing. It wasn’t just Black people who marched, it was white people as well,” Brantley-Newton said. “This book has to be done together in order to see the transformation that we want to see.”

Levinson, a lifelong history student and teacher, discovered Hendricks’ story while studying Birmingham’s Children’s March. She dedicated three years to research for the book. Hoping to get a first-hand account, Levinson contacted Hendricks and had the opportunity to visit and talk with her in Hendricks’ home. 

“Audrey showed me the piano where the choir director of the church that she went to practice civil rights songs and prayers,” Levinson said. “She showed me the dining room table where Doctor King and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Reverend James Bevel sat together. She showed me the kitchen where her mother made hot rolls baptized in butter.” 

These details were important in the telling of Hendricks’ story.

“When I was writing this book — this is my first picture book — I was thinking of young kids as the recipients or the readers of the story, but now I know that much older kids are reading it, too,” Levinson said. “It seems to inspire a combination of awe and activism among older kids and even inspire curiosity for older kids to delve into the topics.” 

Levinson talked about the numerous things, like racism or climate change, that young people are concerned about and offered her advice.

“Pick one that you care most about and devote your time and energy to it,” she said. “You can’t solve every problem, but you can work on one thing.”

Indeed, both author and illustrator recognize the impact of their book.

“I find that children’s books are very, very powerful. It’s important to address these important issues in a way that a child can grasp it,” Brantley-Newton, a Black children’s author and illustrator, who grew up during the civil rights movement and remembers the hate directed toward her and her family, said. “I’ve had children say, ‘I want to be Audrey Faye. I want to do the same thing.’”

Brantley-Newton explained that the book teaches kids how to stand up for themselves and others.

“For children, that is sometimes as simple as seeing a bully that’s bullying somebody and saying ‘you know what, I’m not going to stand there and watch you do that. You’re wrong,’” she said.  

Levinson related it to the book.

“One of the things that propelled the children in Birmingham was that they had faith. They had religious faith and they also had faith in the belief that they were right,” Levinson said. “Another thing that the children of Birmingham had was each other. So, if you tell an adult about the bully or get other kids on your side, you can be stronger together.”

Continuing to March Forward

With today’s Black Lives Matter movement, the book is gaining more and more attention as parents and teachers are looking to teach their children about the history of racism in America, but moreover, about empathy, compassion and courage.

Indeed, youth are participating in the peaceful BLM protests for justice and equality that have been organized around the country. 

“The bravery and willingness of young people to put their bodies on the line gives me so much hope. It’s transformative,” Levinson said.

Vanessa Brantley noted how today’s Black Lives Movement feels different than the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

“There is a tenacity and boldness that is so ‘we’re not having it’. Youth are saying ‘enough is enough, we’re not dealing with this anymore,’” Brantley-Newton said. “And yes, there are some people who are taking advantage and doing things that they shouldn’t be doing, but for the most part, I just believe that righteousness and goodness prevail over evil every time.”

Valuing Diversity in Picture Books 

“The Youngest Marcher” is just one of over 80 picture books created or co-created by Brantley-Newton. She emphasized the necessity of children’s books with Black and brown characters recalling the lack of diverse books when she was a child.

Moreover, she remembers the happiness she felt when her elementary school teacher introduced her to “The Snowy Day,” by Ezra Jack Keats, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1963. The book features Peter, an African-American boy, who delights in winter’s snowfall. 

“Mrs. Russell sat me on her lap and opened up ‘A Snowy Day,’ and I’m like ‘wow, there’s a little brown boy who looks just like me, named Peter,” Brantley-Newton said. “And Peter’s mama looked just like my mama. And his house looked like my house. And his daddy had a mustache just like my daddy.’ And I was just so excited and thrilled to know I exist.”

Brantley-Newton aims to provide the same experience for all young of color, not only by documenting the Black history and Black suffering, but also presenting joy in her books.

“Yes, we do have for African American children lots of stories about slavery, about civil rights, which are very crucial, but we also need to talk about dreams and the things they can do,” Brantley-Newton said. “They can have an afro and be an astronaut. They can be a ballerina or an engineer. They can discover things. They can be funny.”  

Research shows that diversity in the literary world benefits every child, not just minorities. Books can serve as mirrors, but also windows that allow the reader to see and understand different points of view. It can help teach empathy and kindness.

“Racism is taught, but so is love,” Brantley-Newton said. “I worked at a hospital for 25 years, and in that time, I never had one baby say put me down because your arms are too brown. We are taught this, and we systematically teach it to children. You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. If we can teach children to hate, we can teach them not to hate by exposing them to different people and making strong friendships.”

Levinson echoed this sentiment and offered her stance.

“Children need to learn how to discriminate in a good way. It’s only because of adults that some things are different are considered lesser or better, and that doesn’t make sense at all,” she said. “It’s time to start talking about race and giving the message that difference can actually be good, not divisive.”