His latest book is Black & White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene "Bull" Connor.
Here are excerpts from two reviews:
"A fascinating look at one of the most crucial places and periods in the civil rights movement through two polar opposites." Kirkus STARRED review
"With a spacious design that includes archival pictures and primary source documents on almost every page, this accessible photo-essay recounts the events in three sections that focus first on the Preacher ('Fred'), then on the Commissioner ('Bull'), and finally, on their confrontation." Booklist STARRED review
|Larry's previous two books on the civil rights movement garnered many awards!|
Visit www.Brimner.com for more information about Larry and his books!
Thank you, Larry, for taking the time to answer my questions!
I heard you speak about your rocky start getting published (if I recall correctly, you kept submitting manuscripts and it never occurred for you to revise them). Please tell us about your journey.
Your recollection is partially correct. (Don’t worry. Senior moments happen to all of us.) I was published pretty much right out of the gate, but in poetry and, rather quickly after that, the newspaper and magazine markets. My first work, poetry, was submitted by a graduate school professor of mine without my knowledge. He’d encouraged me to submit my work on my own, but I was too shy, too insecure, too fill-in-the-blank. When those first poems were accepted, however, I was hooked on publication. After I started teaching, I continued to write, giving myself an hour or two every evening after school and BEFORE grading student work, to pursue my own writing. I had long been attracted to middle-grade and picture book fiction, and that’s what I wrote: bad middle-grade and picture book fiction. I collected two large Xerox boxes full of rejections. Eventually, though, the form rejections turned into personal rejections. One of those was for a middle-grade novel I’d written and submitted to Clarion. Jim Giblin, whom I knew from SCBW (there was no “I” in those days), wrote a rather detailed editorial letter, but ultimately rejected the piece. If I had known then what I know now, I would have (I should have) rewritten it and re-submitted it. I didn’t however and because Jim retired a few years later, I never had the opportunity of working with him which was something I always wanted to do.
You made the jump to writing about American history fairly recently. What perked your interest? What specifically led you to Bayard Rustin? How did you get started in your research? Tell us about that initial spark, and what followed.
It’s actually incorrect to say that my interest in American history is fairly recent. Each of those sports books I wrote back in the 1980s had a chapter of history. It wasn’t the same sort of history that I write today, but it was history nonetheless. History has always been an interest. What triggered my interest in the civil rights movement was a footnote at the bottom of a magazine article I happened to be reading about Rosa Parks. In a font size that was almost small enough to require a magnifying glass, the footnote indicated that ten years before Rosa Parks took her stand on that Montgomery bus a gentleman named Bayard Rustin also had refused to move to the back of the bus. I wondered why one name was familiar to me and the other totally unknown. I first did an internet search that provided me with a little more detail and directed me to a couple of books for adults about him. I was simply blown away by how strategic he was to the movement. I knew I had to write about him, whether it ever got published or not. Before taking the project to Calkins Creek, I actually shared it with a couple of other publishers. One of the editors expressed interest in my writing, but not in a book about Bayard Rustin. She said something akin this: “We’re not in the business of publishing books about people that nobody has ever heard of.” Silly me! I thought that was one of the reasons for writing nonfiction—to shed light. The other editor said they already had a black history book on their scheduled list. Both of these rejections were beneficial to me because I ended up sending it to Carolyn Yoder at Calkins Creek. The rest, as is sometimes said, is history. Carolyn and I worked for perhaps a year on the book. It was the first time I’d ever been so involved in a book’s production, from revisions (more than I care to remember) to design. It came out to starred reviews and was named the Norman A. Sugarman Biography Award and Jane Addams Children’s Book Award winner. So much for a book about somebody that nobody’s ever heard of!
Did you have an idea about all three Calkins Creek books when you started writing We Are One? Or did things you found researching the first lead to the next, and the next? Tell us about the process of discovering how you wanted to write these three books. Are there more to come in this vein? What are you working on now?
I was just happy that Carolyn and Calkins Creek liked We Are One and that it garnered respectable reviews. Just prior to finishing work on it, though, I found a librarian’s call—I believe in an
ALA or IRA journal—for biographies of the four little girls who were killed in a Birmingham church blast during the civil rights era. Although the civil rights movement took place during my youth and both of my parents were born and raised in Birmingham, I was largely unaware of the movement. I grew up in Alaska and California, and Birmingham and the events there may as well have been on another planet. Birmingham Sunday came out of those two things: a librarian’s call and a desire to rectify my lack of knowledge about the civil rights movement. It was out of research for Birmingham Sunday that Black & White sprang. Long before I finished the first of these latter two titles, I knew what I wanted to write next, and Carolyn was game. There likely will be more books in this vein, but I want to turn to a couple of other topics that have been nagging to be written. But because I hate to waste creative energy writing about them here and would rather spend that energy on the actual projects, I’ll just say that other things are in the works. (I’ve been called a “tease” often. Me. Can you imagine?)
You say the original pitch for Black & White was quite different from the finished product. Tell us a bit about the evolution process.
You are right about that! At the Highlights Foundation Writers’ Workshop at Chautauqua, where I was on faculty every other year, Carolyn and I discussed Black & White over coffee one morning. In my mind’s eye, I saw it as another 48-page book complimentary in design to the previous two titles. I jokingly referred to the bunch as my “trilogy.” I liked the idea of a 48-page book because as a former teacher, I realized my high school boys would go to the library and pick the skinniest titles on the shelves to read. I liked the idea of “tricking” them into reading a skinny book that was simply oozing with information. Well, I was the one to get tricked. What started as a biography of the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth turned into so much more. I realized fairly early on in the process of researching and writing that I wasn’t going to be able to write about Fred Shuttlesworth without writing about Eugene “Bull” Connor, Fred’s nemesis. That led to the realization that I was going to have to explain their symbiotic relationship right up to and through the children’s crusade of 1963. I was worried about telling Carolyn that my little book had grown…and grown…and grown. In fact, I didn’t say anything to her until I delivered the manuscript and, yes, it was delivered late because it was much more involved than I ever anticipated. (To Carolyn’s credit and my relief, she never nagged me about missing the deadline.) Writing it proved emotionally draining. There were days when I’d sit for eight hours in front of the keyboard and type only one sentence that I was happy with. On other days I’d nearly weep and want to quit. When I sent the manuscript to Carolyn electronically, I attached a note that said only, “It’s a little longer than Birmingham Sunday.” She called finally and asked me how much longer, and I said, “Oh, about two and a half times as long.” The finished book, as you know, runs 112 pages.
Please describe the processes you follow for writing fiction versus nonfiction. Which is harder for you? Do you prefer one more?
I’m not sure there’s a “process” for either frankly, at least not one that would make sense to your readers. With fiction, once I have an idea sketched in my head of major plot movements, I simply sit down, try to find a writing zone, and write. I’m always looking ahead and thinking how I can complicate my lead character’s life and still end up at that place I think I’m heading. Sometimes I get there and sometimes I don’t. As you know, I tried the Beta version of Scrivener for Windows thinking it would help me organize my thoughts. The results were disastrous. Every file on my computer and thumb drive was wiped clean. I was able to recover everything, but only after I deleted the Beta version. I now have the final version of Scrivener loaded on my computer (with no horrible effects) but haven’t actually used it. I still write a chapter or section, print it out, review it, and then sketch out the next chapter or section.
With nonfiction, I need to research and read a lot BEFORE I sit down to write. I read to find “the story” among the facts. I’m also looking for that WOW! moment that will serve as my door into the story that I’ve unearthed. Finding those, I sit down and write with all my research around me in neat little piles on the floor.
I’m not sure than one genre is harder than the other. Both fiction and nonfiction are hard. Heck, writing is hard! I like fiction because it’s all in my head. I like nonfiction because it’s fun to see if I can find an interesting story among the facts.
You shed light on little-known members of the civil rights movement. Why do you think it is that some people in history become so famous, while some remain obscure?
Let me talk specifically about Bayard Rustin, Rosa Parks, and Fred Shuttlesworth. Rustin remained obscure because there was an orchestrated effort to keep him in the background. He was vital to the civil rights movement, managing Martin Luther King’s rise on the world stage. But he was openly gay and proud. Leaders in the movement were fearful that if his sexuality were found out, it might derail the movement. Rustin didn’t mind working behind the scenes. Rosa Parks is another example. Many people think that her case led to the Supreme Court decision that outlawed Jim Crow seating on buses. Not true. Her arrest galvanized Montgomery’s black community into the largest racial protest in history up until that time, but her case didn’t change the law. It never reached the Supreme Court. The case that decided bus segregation was Browder v. Gayle. One of the plaintiffs in the Browder case was Claudette Colvin, a fifteen-year-old who had become pregnant without the benefit of marriage. Leaders and lawyers alike felt that an unwed mother was simply too scandalous. They believed that it fed into every negative stereotype of the black community. Mrs. Parks, however, was a respectable, hard-working seamstress. After the Browder case was decided, it was easy for leaders to tie Mrs. Parks to the Supreme Court decision, and she gained fame for something she didn’t actually do. Finally, it was Fred Shuttlesworth who pleaded with King to come to Birmingham. King was given the Nobel Peace Prize largely for work that he and Shuttlesworth did in in that city, but Shuttlesworth did most of the work. Shuttlesworth had been peacefully protesting in Birmingham for a full decade before King ever agreed to go to that city in the spring of 1963. King won the Nobel Prize, I believe, because he was the voice of the movement, the face of the movement. He was an articulate speaker, much more so than was Shuttlesworth. Many think that great prize should have gone to Shuttlesworth, and I would be among them. But it was King who received the prize and the glory. This is not to say that King and Parks shouldn’t be remembered, for they should be. It is simply to say that their reputations were built upon the shoulders of others and those are the people that fill my books.
As a writer, have you accomplished all you set out to do? Do you have more goals to achieve? Is there a subject burning inside you, begging to be written?
I have been able to make my living as a writer for more than twenty-five years. That’s something, given that writing is always described as a career one cannot make a living at. That said, I will also admit that I haven’t accomplished all that I’d like. I haven’t written the book I’d like someday to write. Birmingham Sunday came close to being that book. But even with 157 books under my belt, I still feel as if I’ve somehow failed. So, yes, I still have goals. Among them is returning to chapter-book fiction…if nonfiction ideas would stop pestering me long enough to do it.
With publishing in turmoil, do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Yes. Look for the nearest exit. No, seriously, it seems that publishing has always been in turmoil. It was when I started nearly forty years ago and it still is. This is selling or that isn’t selling. Kids aren’t reading. School budgets have been slashed. Independent booksellers have all but disappeared. The chain bookstores only feature Disney titles, or Scholastic. Publishers are merging and shrinking their lists. Staff editors have been replaced by freelance editors. Print books are dead and e-books are rising. And yet, books are still being published by publishers, whether in print form or e-book form. There is still a hunger for the written word. There is still a need for information. There is still a yearning to read a great story. We as writers have to be willing to evolve with the technology, but a reading audience still exists. My advice to aspiring writers is to write the story in their heart—whether that story is fiction or nonfiction. Polish that story until it can’t be polished any further. Then submit it and don’t give up on it. I read an article on Facebook the other day about a woman who struggled with her writing and finally turned to self-publishing her story as an e-book. Now she has more than $2 million in sales, and contracts with traditional print publishers. That should serve as inspiration to all of us, aspiring and old-hands alike.
Your first writing successes were poems. Would you share one of your poems with us?
Usually, my poetry is just for me and one or two friends. But for you, anything. I was going to share one from early on about laundromats and two-martini lunches, but darned if I can find it. Periodically, I go on these cleaning sprees where everything that isn’t nailed down gets sent to the landfill.
One Hot Hound
High noon in August,
One hot hound and sprinkler meet—
So cool, conversing.
What is the greatest thing about being a writer?
Gosh, there are so many great things about being a writer that it’s difficult to nail down. As someone who suffers from crippling shyness, I like the fact that I’m my own boss, can set my own schedule, and can work alone. I can go to work in my underwear if I want and I don’t have to shave. But those aren’t the greatest things. The greatest thing is thinking that maybe someone somewhere is reading what I’ve written, and it is making that person think or bringing tears to that person’s eyes or making that person laugh out loud. Maybe. Just maybe.
What is the greatest compliment you’ve received as a writer?
A reviewer once said of my writing—I can’t remember the title—that I make it look effortless. I’d say that is tied with the father who said that his daughter slept with one of my picture books (Country Bear’s Good Neighbor) under her pillow every night.
What is your favorite quote?
Well, I have two. Each inspires me, but for different reasons. One tells me to try again, while the other reminds me that editors aren’t infallible gods. Both are posted over my computer.
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” –M.A. Radmacher
“Larry, please bare with me.” –an unnamed children’s book editor (unnamed because she is a legend in the business and still very much alive and working)
What are three words to describe you?
Driven. Quiet. Kind.
What do you want on your tombstone (real, not pizza)?
Since I don’t plan on a tombstone, I’ve never thought about it. But if you insist, then something like: He tried to make a difference in the lives of children. Or maybe: The end. That’s all he wrote.
The Early YearsLarry Dane Brimner spent his early childhood exploring Alaska's Kodiak Island. He traces his love of reading to that time in his life. Since there was no television reception and only sporadic radio reception, entertainment came in the form of books and stories. Reading and making up stories was a part of day-to-day family life. Raised in a traditional Southern family--his parents hail from Birmingham, Alabama--telling falsehoods was frowned upon but embellishment was encouraged. Larry experienced his first writing successes--mostly in the genre of poetry--while still an undergraduate in college, but he began to focus on writing for young people during his twenty-year teaching career. Now a full-time writer and author of more than 150 books for young readers, Larry lives in San Diego, California.
The Writing Years
Larry made his debut in children's books with the publication of BMX Freestyle (Watts) in 1987. Readers responded by naming it an International Reading Association (IRA) Children's Choice book for 1988. Subsequent books have also proven popular with their targeted audience, having garnered nominations for several young reader awards. Max and Felix was a nominee for the Kentucky Bluegrass Award; Elliot Fry's Good-bye, a nominee for Maryland's Black-Eyed Susan Picture Book Award; and Merry Christmas, Old Armadillo, a nominee for Alabama's Children's Choice Award and named to the Kansas Reading Circle. Another sports title, Snowboarding, was named a Children's Choice book for 1998 by the IRA/CBC, while The Official M&M's Book of the Millennium was named a Children's Choice book for 2000. A project about a skateboard-riding, fish-taco-eating cat called Cat on Wheels was nominated for the 2002 Michigan Readers' Choice Award. The Littlest Wolf (HarperCollins, 2002), which was translated into Japanese, was named an IRA/CBC Children's Choice book. It also received the Oppenheim Gold Medal for Best Book 2002, won the San Diego Books Award (2002), was a 2004 Great Lakes' Great Books (Michigan) Honor Book, and was a 2005 nominee for the Arkansas Diamond Award. Subway: The Story of Tunnels, Tubes, and Tracks (Boyds Mills Press, 2004) was a Junior Library Guild selection and is a PBS TeacherSource recommended book for Science and Mechanical Technology. More recently, We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin (Calkins Creek, 2007) won the Norman A. Sugarman Biography Award and the Jane Addams Book Award. His Birmingham Sunday (Calkins Creek, 2010) received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal.