Remembering Birmingham, 1963

15 09 2013

Birmingham16thStBaptistChurch This week in September reminds us of sadness and tragedy. Earlier in the week, we recalled 9/11. Today marks the 50th anniversary of another bombing in our country – the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. Both incidents have taught us that, through this pain and devastation, we as a nation need to pull together because we are all one.

BirminghamBookCoverSo as we think back on September 15, 1963, I wanted to host Carole Boston Weatherford today. Carole has written many books that deal with civil rights, and her picture book Birmingham, 1963 is a must-read. Hauntingly and beautifully, she retells the story through the eyes of a ten-year-old child.

Paired with Carole’s poignant free verse, the illustrations and photographs from that era tell the heartrending story of how hatred and cruelty destroys lives. Four young girls lost their lives that day. Their deaths shocked the world and shone a light on the injustices ripping society apart. The Birmingham explosion, which occurred less than a month after Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, became a catalyst for change and turned the tide in the struggle for equality.BirminghamPoliceBrutality

Although we still have many hurdles to overcome to make this a true land of equality for everyone, I have faith, as MLK did, that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

So today, I’ve invited Carole Boston Weatherford to share her creative process with us. She has also generously provided many resources for teachers, and her publisher Boyd’s Mills Press has given us a copy of one of Carole’s books, Becoming Billie Holliday, as a giveaway. Anyone who comments on the blog or on Facebook, will have a chance to win this beautiful book. And this fall, Carole is also offering free Skype visits to any schools that read Birmingham, 1963.

Birmingham Childrens March Because today is my birthday and this story is told from by a girl celebrating her 10th birthday, I chose this as my first question for Carole:

Why did you set the tragedy on the narrator’s birthday?

In the eyes of children, turning ten is a big deal, a childhood milestone bordering on a rite of passage. The bombing actually occurred on the church’s Youth Day. To compound the irony and up the emotional ante, I made the bombing coincide with the narrator’s tenth birthday. The main character is looking forward to singing a solo during worship service and to celebrating her birthday. Instead, she survives a church bombing and mourns four older girls. That setting dramatically juxtaposes birthday candles and the bundle of dynamite which sparked the explosion. The milestone resonates like a mantra, beginning as The year I turned ten and building to The day I turned ten.

Do you have a favorite passage from the poem?

The last stanza is my favorite.

Birmingham Birthday Candles

Why did you choose historical fiction and create an anonymous narrator?

The historical events are true, but the first-person narrator is fictional. I use historical fiction to give young readers a character with whom to identify. In so doing, young readers grapple with social justice issues. I did not want names of fictional characters to stick in readers’ minds or to take the focus off the real victims. Also, the narrator’s anonymity draws readers even closer to the action. In this scene, she struggles to get out of the church after the blast.

Smoke clogged my throat, stung my eyes.
As I crawled past crumbled plaster, broken glass,
Shredded Bibles and wrecked chairs—
Yelling Mama! Daddy!—scared church folk
Ran every which way to get out.

The flow of your free verse is beautiful. Can you tell us why you chose it to tell this particular story?

From the start, I used poetry to tell the story. My early drafts in third person, however, lacked immediacy. So I decided on historical fiction and created a fictional first-person narrator. To layer the plot a bit, I set the action on the anonymous narrator’s tenth birthday. For rhythm and resonance, I employed repetition: “The year I turned ten…”; and “The day I turned ten….” What would have been a childhood milestone, she remembers instead for violence.

Birmingham, 1963 is an elegy. But it is also a narrative poem of historical fiction. Poetry allows me to conjure images and distill emotions that make the story powerful.

Did you see yourself in the four girls? How much of you is in the anonymous narrator?

In 1963 I was seven years old and had already written my first poem. I grew up in Baltimore and did not experience the degree of discrimination that they did in Birmingham. But In many ways, I was those girls.



Like Addie Mae Collins, I drew portraits, played hopscotch and wore my hair pressed and curled.

Like Cynthia Wesley, I was a mere wisp of a girl who sometimes wore dresses that my mother sewed. I sang soul music and sipped sodas with friends.

Like Denise McNair, I liked dolls, made mud pies, and had a childhood crush. I was a Brownie, had tea parties, and hosted a neighborhood carnival for muscular dystrophy. People probably thought I’d be a real go-getter.

Like Carole Robertson, I loved books, earned straight A’s and took music and dance lessons. I joined the Girl Scouts and was a member of Jack and Jill of America. I too hoped to make my mark. We are both Caroles with an “e.”

As an author/illustrator myself, I’m fascinated by the cover and page design, particularly the red marks on the page and the juxtaposition of photos and paintings. Can you tell us more about that?

So many children ask me whether racial injustices really happened. Children just can’t believe that grownups allowed such wrongs. Documentary photographs confirm for young readers that this history is indeed true. Just as childhood innocence confronted racial hatred that Birmingham Sunday, stark news photos contrast with snapshots of girly toys and trinkets in Birmingham, 1963. Powerful pictures speak to me. I hope that the images will affect young readers as well.

The designer, Helen Robinson, asked for a list of everyday items that the anonymous narrator might own. I thought back to my childhood in the Sixties. Armed by my list, Robinson had the text on verso pages overprint such props as barrettes, bracelets, Barbie doll clothes, birthday candles, 45 records, jacks, an eraser, embroidered white gloves, lace-trimmed socks, pencils, and a puffed heart locket. The commonplace items symbolize youthful innocence and serve as historical touchstones.

Birmingham Commonplace BarrettesBirmngham Commonplace Gloves

The red marks are also Helen’s conception. On their meaning, she is mum, but she allowed me this interpretation. The random red marks evoke broken glass, the shattering of innocence, and the shedding of blood.

It seems fitting that this anniversary falls on a Sunday because the bombings happened in a church so many years ago. Birmingham, 1963 is set in a church. Is it religious?

The tragedy occurred at a church, so prayer, psalms, and religious songs go with the territory. That said, the freedom struggle is a battle of good versus evil. My grandfather was an activist preacher, and I wonder if I’m channeling him when my writing wades into spiritual waters. Though not overtly religious, Birmingham, 1963 would nevertheless be at home in a Sunday School lesson.

I wanted to close with one final image that I thought was the most powerful. You said that the stained glass window of Jesus almost survived the blast intact.

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.

It is ironic that Jesus was left faceless—as if He couldn’t bear to witness the violence. Here’s a photo.

Is the bombing still relevant more than 50 years later?

Nowadays, racism is usually more subtle and less definitive. Even hate crimes are more difficult to pinpoint and to prove….As long as racism persists and this nation exists, stories from the African-American freedom struggle will remain relevant.

So as we move beyond the tragedies of the past, what lessons can we learn and teach our children? In the words of MLK, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.” So love is what we must pass on the the next generation, and that can only be taught through actions.

What lessons are you teaching through your life?

Here are some resources for anyone who wants to learn more about the church bombing:

Dr. King delivered the eulogy. He called the girls “martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” Read the entire eulogy here.

Four days after the Birmingham church bombing, the president met with civil rights leaders at the White House. Among them was the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who warned, “Birmingham has reached a state of total disorder.” Hear the White House tape.

Links to Classroom Resources

Free Film Kits (from Teaching Tolerance Magazine) – Mighty Times: The Children’s March and America’s Civil Rights Movement: A Time for Justice

Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections – Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Collection

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

The King Center
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow (PBS) – For Teachers

Eyes on the Prize (PBS) – For Teachers

Teachers Guide Primary Source Set – Jim Crow in America

Songs of the Civil Rights Movement (NPR)

Photographs of Signs Enforcing Discrimination (Library of Congress)

Win a FREE Book:

To win a free copy of Carole Boston Weatherford’s touching biography, Becoming Billie Holliday, leave a comment below or on Facebook to be entered in the drawing any time until September 30, 2013. A winner will be announced on October 1, 2013.

The Art of the Imperfect

11 07 2012

As I head into the second half of my summer grad courses, I’m thinking a lot about wabi-sabi. And although traditionally those words don’t necessarily belong together and the actual meaning doesn’t translate well into English, we’ve taken bits and pieces of the meaning to create our own concept. Part of wabi-sabi is finding beauty in imperfection. The old, worn, cracked have a special beauty all their own. Peeling paint, stained upholstery, threadbare carpet all tell a story. Life is lived; things have happened in these places.That alone makes them beautiful, but they also have a deeper beauty for those who take the time to study them.

If you can find beauty in a rusting wrought iron chair, a fallen tree, a cracked sidewalk then you have the eye of an artist and the soul of a poet.

Take a closer look at things that have lost their patina. What do you see? What events have occurred here? What joys and sadness do these pieces hold? What stories can they tell now that the shiny newness has worn off?

Many cultures also revere people as they age.  Although their outer coverings become saggy, wrinkled, and age-spotted, they look on the world with knowing eyes. They have learned skills, have gained knowledge and understanding, and have grown in wisdom.  Their inner beings have been tried by fire, that often leaves behind gold nuggets. What can they tell us about life? What life lessons have we learned ourselves from our years of living that we can share?

To my mind, wabi-sabi doesn’t only mean appreciating time-worn objects, it also means allowing for your own mistakes. It means seeing that which you are ashamed of, embarrassed by, discouraged by as openings. Openings that allow you to embrace imperfection, accept it, and love it. Give yourself the grace of appreciation. What can you find to appreciate about the mistakes in your life?

Expand enough to to allow for mistakes and you’ll grow exponentially. Fear of making mistakes often keeps us stuck in old patterns, habits, ruts. It keeps us from experimenting with new things or spreading our wings. If we leave the judgment behind and embrace our imperfections, we can soar to new heights.

Birds flying

Why Editors Hate Rhyming Picture Books

4 05 2012

OK, so maybe they don’t hate all of them. Some rhyming picture books still get published, but they have to be exceptional.

Many first-time picture authors believe stories should be told in rhyme. Not so. It’s so easy to trip up and make mistakes. The first and most glaring mistake is to use unnatural phrasing to make your lines rhyme. Would your phrases make sense if you wrote them out in prose without the rhyme? Convoluted sentences that lack flow drive editors crazy.

Newbie authors almost always twist word order. The cat on a fence sat is not normal sentence order. If you want an editor to consider your story, be sure it reads the way people speak. For a wonderful example of natural word order, read Alice Shertle’s poems. Here’s an excerpt from one of her poems:

I Am the Cat

I am the cat in the easy chair–
velvet arm, and a cushion where
I scratch my claws and groom my hair–
Mine, alone, is the easy chair.

I am the cat in a puddle of sun–
isn’t a sun puddle wonderful fun?
Doesn’t the light make my dark coat shine?
Isn’t it right that the sun is mine?


Read more samples of her work at the Miss Rumphius Effect blog, or better yet, pick up some of her 40 books. You’ll be glad you did. And if you have the opportunity to take a workshop with Ms. Shertle, do so. I had the privilege of attending a conference breakout session with her, and it was phenomenal. You’ll never look at a poem the same way again. Guaranteed.

So back to editors’ peeves… Another major flaw is choosing words because they rhyme. Often the words make little sense or are unrelated to the story. (And, yes, rhyming picture books do have to tell a story.) Having your giraffe drink from a carafe may fit the rhyme scheme, but not the storyline.

Near-rhyme is another annoyance. Is your turtle wearing a girdle? Close but not quite there. As Deborah Diesen says on the 12×12 blog, “it’s not enough that the words end with the same final syllable sound.  Instead, the last stressed syllable and everything that comes after the last stressed syllable must rhyme.” She gives the example of bunny and chickadee. Both end with the same long e sound, but they don’t rhyme.

After all this advice against it, if you still think you want to write a rhyming picture book, then I recommend hopping over to Diesen’s post for a long list of fabulous tips on editing your poetry. If you follow all her steps, then an editor may just be thrilled to pick up your submission.

Turning Life into Poetry

25 09 2010

Heard U.S. Poet Laureate (2001) Billy Collins at the Bookmarks Festival and love the way he writes about mundane subjects, then zings you with an unexpected line or twist. Or conversely, writes about a deep subject, then throws in something prosaic that totally reverses the direction of your thoughts. As writers we need to surprise readers, make them sit up and take notice, shock them, make them think about things in a new or innovative way.

Here are a few Collins thoughts that I jotted down (some are paraphrased):

To write is an act of faith. You hope someone will read it.

A poem is traveling to an unknown, non-existent ending.

Read until you find a poet who makes you jealous. Jealousy is the best motivator. English teachers call this influence.

How do you know your work is good? When you read it back and know that no one else could have written it.

You come up with an original voice by imitating others. (Yes, he really did say that.) He went on to say that you should absorb others’ work, then combine all these influences without others being able to detect it. So is that another way to phrase the old writing advice: Read, read, read??

Multicultural Tales for Children’s Book Week

14 05 2010

Two authors who are appearing at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, on Sunday, May 16, write stories of other lands. Caroline McAlister has two picture books, one set in Mexico, the other in Italy. Maryam Tabibzadeh’s poetic book reflects Persian culture.

Caroline McAlister
¡Holy Molé! (August House)

Inspired by the Mexican folk tradition, Holy Molé! explains the origins of mole sauce, the popular national dish that combines chocolate with spices and nuts. Young Carlos tries to stay out of the way as lunch is prepared, but his curiosity gets the best of him. His eagerness results in a moment of crisis, followed by what the brothers can only assume is a miracle.

Set in Renaissance Italy, Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief is based on a legend about the real Duke Cosimo de Medici. With enchanting illustrations it explores the dangers people are willing to face in the name of love.

Caroline McAlister lives in Greensboro and teaches writing at Guilford College. Her travels to Italy and Mexico early in life inspired these two books.

Maryam Tabibzadeh
Persian Dreams (Dream Books)

Persian Dreams is the fascinating family saga of life in Iran that spans a century, revealing one family’s unforgettable story against the backdrop of a country in constant turmoil. Persian poetry translated from divan-e-shams flows smoothly throughout the story line, adding an element of romance and nostalgia to the already haunting tale of love, family, and revolution.

Maryam Tabibzadeh graduated from Pahlavi University and then completed studies in 1983 at SUNY Binghamton in Advanced Technology. She is the chief editor and founder of “Persian Corner” a bilingual Online Magazine, and served as the chief editor of the Iranian Cultural Society of NC newsletter for several years, both as a contributor and a translator of articles. She is the author of several short stories and has now published two books.

Celebrate Children’s Book Week

11 05 2010

I’m lucky enough to be part of this illustrious group of authors who will be celebrating Children’s Book Week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC. Here’s a press release about the event:


Chapel Hill, NC, May 16, 2010—Join seven local children’s and young adult authors for a reading, question-and-answer session, and booksigning. Hear excerpts from David Macinnis Gill’s award-winning Soul Enchilada (Greenwillow); Bonnie J. Doerr’s eco-mystery Island Sting (Leap Books); Carolyn McAlister’s retold folktales ¡Holy Molé! (August House) and Brave Donatella and the Jasmine Thief (Charlesbridge); Maryam Tabibzadeh’s poetic Persian Dreams (Dream Books); Laurie J. Edwards’ biography of R&B singer Rihanna (Lucent) and thriller/romance from the anthology Summer Lovin’ (Wild Rose Press); Adrienne Ehlert Bashista’s picture books on Russian adoption, When I Met You and Mishka: An Adoption Tale (DRT Press); and Anne Runyon’s seasonal picture book, The Sheltering Cedar (Portal Press).

Attendees will be treated to a sneak peek at two of Leap Books’ most recent paranormal releases: Freaksville by Kitty Keswick and Under My Skin by Judith Graves. These teen novels have unique graphics and illustrations by Canadian artist Val Cox.

Leap Books, a newly launched publisher of teen and tween books, is sponsoring this Children’s Book Week . Featured authors are all local members of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization that provides networking, education, and support for authors and illustrators of children’s books at all stages of their careers.

The American Booksellers Association began Children’s Book Week in 1919. In 1944 the Children’s Book Council (CBC) took over the role of promoting reading and literacy through Children’s Book Week activities. Each year in May, CBC sponsors a nationwide week of events to encourage children and teens to read. A list of these events, as well as related online activities, can be found at the CBC website.