I am delighted to welcome Cynthia Levinson to chat about her newest book, Watch Out For Flying Kids! (Peachtree Publishing Company) After teaching at all grade levels, from pre-K through grad students, and working in education policy, Cynthia turned to writing nonfiction for young people. She has published two-dozen articles in revered children’s magazines. Her first book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, won multiple awards, including the Jane Addams Book Award among others. Her forthcoming books include works on Hillary Rodham Clinton, civil rights, and the U.S. Constitution. She lives in Austin and Boston, loves to visit schools and to work with both adults and young people. Her newest book is about an inspiring group of youngsters their shared experiences as circus performers.
For those who may not have read your book yet – can you please tell us a bit about the St Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus?
The St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus are programs for youth that participate in an international movement called “social circus.” This means that they seek social change—tikkun olam—through circus arts. Part of the mission of the Arches states, “We help people defy gravity, soar with confidence, and leap over social barriers all at the same time.” And by teaching kids to stand on each other’s shoulders, fly into each other’s waiting arms, and juggle together, they do just that.
The St. Louis Arches are the top performers of Circus Harmony, a youth circus founded by Jessica Hentoff, a Jewish woman who grew up in New York and ran away to the circus in college. It is composed of urban and suburban, black and white, wealthy and poor kids in the St. Louis area. Recently, Jessica has added a program in Ferguson in partnership with a synagogue. The Galilee Circus, which meets in an Arab village in the central Galilee, was founded by a rabbi originally from the United States who wanted to bring Arabs and Jews together. As the book demonstrates, he has done so admirably!
These two circuses have a partnership, and they get together every other year, alternately in St. Louis and Israel. The kids have become good friends. Beyond that, they are phenomenal performers! Be sure to look at videos of their shows on our websites: http://www.cynthialevinson.com/books/watch-out-for-flying-kids/ and http://www.circusday.org/ and http://eng.makom-bagalil.org.il/galileecircus/.
How did you find out about these programs?
I learned about the St. Louis Arches and the Galilee Circus when I was in Israel in 2010. I was finishing a book, called We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, about the remarkable effects that black children caused during the civil rights movement, and I suspected that Arab and Jewish youngsters were capable of the same achievements. So, I searched for coexistence projects. When I learned about the Galilee Circus—well, sababa!
Tell me a bit about your research process? You include a lot of political and sociological information in Watch Out For Flying Kids! Did you face some challenges in balancing this information with the stories of the teens?
To research the circuses, I visited St. Louis twice and Israel three times, staying in both places with “circus families,” including Jessica’s in St. Louis and with both Arab and Jewish families in the Galilee. I chose nine children, whose stories I tell in Watch Out for Flying Kids and interviewed them in person as well as by telephone, Skype, email, text, and Facebook messaging and video many times over a year. Often, I needed translators; often, telecommunications broke down. By the end, I had over 125 hours of recorded and transcribed interviews. Too often, the teens couldn’t talk at the appointed time because they had homework or other responsibilities. The research was intense for all of us but their stories make their sagas come to life.
It was challenging to balance all of the factors—circus, politics, and history—with the kids’ lives. Jewish readers will have more background than others but it’s not likely that many will know about Islam, Judaism, circus, the Middle East, and the Midwest in equal measure. To cover these topics without producing a doorstop of a book, my editor and I deleted over 50 pages of manuscript drafts. The reviews have been very good; I hope readers will tell me how well we succeeded in achieving the right balance.
What was your biggest surprise in the research and writing of the book?
My biggest surprise in researching and writing the book was the lack of tension among the kids in both circuses. I had assumed that bringing together such diverse children from such widely varied backgrounds and teaching them physically demanding skills would cause frustration and animosity. Not so! Despite traditional tensions in their communities, they’re close friends. Despite speaking three different languages, they figured out how to communicate. Despite a few injuries, they love circus. Writing their stories, I was afraid that the book might be boring because everybody got along with each other!
Have you had a chance to learn any circus tricks?
I tried to learn a few circus tricks. I really tried! There are some hilarious videos on my website of my efforts: http://www.cynthialevinson.com/books/watch-out-for-flying-kids/how-i-researched-and-wrote-watch-out-for-flying-kids/
You can learn more about Cynthia on her website, http://www.cynthialevinson.com/. She can be reached through by email at email@example.com.