Debbie Levy is the author and Vanessa Brantley-Newton is the illustrator of the children's book We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song. Levy, who lives in Maryland, has written many children's books, including Dozer's Run and Imperfect Spiral. Brantley-Newton, who lives in North Carolina, has illustrated many children's books, including One Love and The Girl Who Heard Colors.
Q (for Debbie Levy): Your new book tells the story of the song "We Shall Overcome." How did you decide to write about the song, and what type of research did you do?
DL: I began gathering string on the life of this song years ago, as “We Shall Overcome” and issues related to “We Shall Overcome” kept popping up during research on other books for young readers that I was writing.
These included 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.
What went into the files, especially early on, wasn’t specifically or only about the song “We Shall Overcome.” In working on my book about plantation slave life, for example, I was captivated by first-person narratives of formerly enslaved people describing their songs and music.
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 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 humanity and history of an activity they all know something about: the activity of singing.
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.
Q (for Debbie Levy): Was there anything else that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?
DL: 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.
Q (for Debbie Levy): For your picture books, do you work with the illustrator in the course of creating the books, or do you each work independently?
DL: We work independently, although there is some consultation and fine-tuning by both author and artist as the final book comes together.
I do not choose the illustrator—my publisher does. I wrote the manuscript for this book first, it was accepted for publication (by Disney/Jump At The Sun—back in 2008!), and then the publisher sought out just the right illustrator.
I’m thrilled with my publisher’s choice of Vanessa Brantley-Newton for this book. Her illustrations are vivid, lively, and interesting, hitting what I think is just the right note for a book seeking to engage young people.
Plus, I love her use of collage elements in many of the illustrations, because the layering of collage underscores the theme that this song’s story is the product of many people and many voices coming together over the course of many years.
Q (for Debbie Levy): You've written for different age groups, both fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry. Do you have a preference?
DL: I love it all. Really. Here’s my preference: writing things that get published.
A: I have known Joann Hill for years. She is just one of the editors over at Jump At The Sun (Disney Hyperion). Every opportunity we got to work together either she was moving from one publishing house to the next or we just kept missing each other.
One day my agent, Lori Nowicki, called and said there is this wonderful book that I think you will be perfect for. It's by Debbie Levy and you would be working with Joann Hill.
I didn't know about Debbie, but I knew Joann and this was finally my chance to work with her. I was excited out of my mind! I didn't know that she had moved to Disney, but was still just over the top happy to finally get to work under her.
I drove up to NYC to meet with Joann and her wonderful staff. We talked about this beautiful story. Debbie is an excellent writer and paints word pictures. The words to the story almost read like a song. Debbie's words help bring forth the images that you see in the book.
I am a child of the ‘70s, but I remember what my parents dressed like and how they dressed us. I remember the cars and houses and furniture. Being able to recall all of this helped me a great deal in creating the illustrations for We Shall Overcome.
I never want to create images that incite anger or rage, but images that show a situation and cause the person looking at it to feel empathy for the people or person that they are reading about. To give a visual of their world at a certain time and place.
Some of the things that came to mind were when my family and I moved into an all white and German neighborhood back in the early ‘70s. My parents went to work and school to give us a better life. We moved to the town of Irvington, N.J. We were the second black family on the street.
We were not well received. My dad drove a beautiful black ‘67 Caddy and for almost a year the cops would often stop him and ask him what he was doing in the neighborhood. The cops seemed so huge and scary. We saw racism in action.
Those things are indelibly printed on my brain in pictures. The look on my father’s face and the look on theirs. It was painful to remember, but when I began to read the words of the story, I felt such hope and inspiration. Debbie is brilliant!
Q (for both): What are you working on now?
DL: I’m working on revisions for a book set during the Civil War due to be published in fall 2016 by Disney-Hyperion (the same publisher as We Shall Overcome). It’s called Soldier Song, and it tells the true story of Union and Confederate troops who were camped on opposite sides of the river after the Battle of Fredericksburg, each side making music, sometimes in a battle of the bands, until one song, “Home Sweet Home,” joined them together. Gilbert Ford will be illustrating.
And I’m enjoying doing events—festivals, schools visits, conferences—for We Shall Overcome and for a picture book that came out this past summer.
That book is Dozer’s Run, published by Sleeping Bear Press. It’s the true story of a Goldendoodle who broke through his fence to join a half-marathon being run to benefit cancer research—and ended up inspiring the human runners, crossing the finish line, getting lost and then found, and raising more money for the cause than any other runner that day.
I love this story and I love doing events with Dozer and his owner. Dozer has now been certified as a therapy dog, and we can take him to any size group, from the youngest kids to oldsters, and know that he will be a gentleman.
VBN: I am working on a few new books. One with Scholastic Inc. called A Birthday Cake For George Washington, as well as a reader series called Katie Fry Private Eye and a few other books as well. My desk stays full and I am excited about that!
Q (for both): Anything else we should know?
DL: Surely I’ve said enough! Thanks, Deborah, for asking me to participate in your blog.
VBN: That I look forward to the future and the chance to do it all again with the magnificent Debbie Levy. I get Debbie and I believe that Debbie gets me. It was a joy to work with Joann Hill and I look forward to the chance to do it again and again.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Debbie Levy and Vanessa Brantley-Newton will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival at the JCC of Greater Washington, D.C., which runs from November 6-16, 2014. For an earlier Q&A with Debbie Levy, please click here.