Get kids inspired with tales of civil rights, being different

Today, marchers are gathering in Austin, Washington, D.C., and other cities across the nation.

If Audrey were here, she’d no doubt be marching right along with them.

Audrey Faye Hendricks got her start in peaceful protest at age 9, when she was one of more than 3,000 elementary-schoolers and teens arrested in the 1963 Children’s March to support civil rights for all Americans.

“Audrey knew all about segregation,” writes Austin author Cynthia Levinson, who shares Audrey’s story in “The Youngest Marcher” (Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, $17.99). “She knew to pay the driver at the front of the bus, then step off and walk around to the back door. Drink from the fountain with the dirty bowl and warm water. Use the freight elevator at department stores downtown.

“Front-row seats, cool water, elevators with white-gloved operators — laws said those were for white folks.”

Audrey didn’t think that was fair, and neither did the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – or “Mike,” as her family called him when he ate dinner at their Birmingham, Ala., home. King and the Revs. James Bevel and Fred Shuttlesworth eventually birthed the plan that became the Children’s March, which during a week in early May 1963 filled Birmingham’s jail cells with thousands of children arrested for marching.

Levinson — who will read from and sign “Marcher” Jan. 28 at BookPeople — spent three years interviewing marchers and doing research as part of her work on “We’ve Got A Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March” (Peachtree, 2012), designed for readers age 10 and older. Audrey’s story is showcased in “Marcher,” a picture book for younger readers, highlighted by illustrations from Vanessa Brantley Newton that take readers inside Audrey’s world, from the dinner table where her mother gives her the side-eye for talking out of turn to a dismal jail cell with its bare mattress and stained sheet.

Audrey spent five days in jail before being released, and then returned to school against the backdrop of growing support for civil rights legislation. As she got older, she volunteered to help integrate a high school, enrolling as one of its first black students. She grew up to teach preschool and lead Head Start programs; fittingly, Levinson is donating a portion of profits from “Marcher” to the Jefferson County Head Start program where Audrey worked. (Ages 5-10)

Audrey and her compatriots dreamed of a world where diversity was embraced. So do the writers who comprise the national We Need Diverse Books movement, a group devoted to creating young people’s literature that truly reflects the reading public. The organization’s leaders include celebrated Austin authors Don Tate and Cynthia Leitich Smith.

That’s the background behind “Flying Lessons and Other Stories” (Crown/Random House, $16.99), an anthology of short stories and poetry aimed at a middle-grade audience. The authors include Newbery winner Kwame Alexander (“Booked,” “The Crossover”); National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson (“Brown Girl Dreaming”); Newbery honoree Grace Lin (“Where the Mountain Meets the Moon”) and Choctaw Nation member Tim Tingle, (“How I Became a Ghost”) whose work has been recognized with multiple American Indian Youth Literature awards. (Tingle lives on the shores of Canyon Lake just outside San Antonio.)

Like their authors, the protagonists run the gamut, from Merci, whose father trades painting the gym for private-school tuition, to Santosh, whose glamorous Nani whisks him off to the beaches of Spain for some crucial life lessons. “It should be easy to make friends,” Santosh laments after Nani instructs him to go meet the other kids playing in the surf. “It’s like there’s a chromosome for fun that I didn’t get.”

Whatever your background, your young reader is likely to find some common ground with the heroes of these stories. Equally important is that they’re likely to find folks who are different from them, too — making this collection as illuminating as it is entertaining. (Ages 8-12)

More to read

Two new books for the youngest of readers have distinctly Texas ties. Houston-area authors Eva Freeburn and Lawson Gow steep the classic alphabet primer in Texan lore in “H is for Howdy and Other Lone Star Letters” (Bright Sky Press, $19.95), from the Alamo and armadillos to the Zzzz’s of a cowboy’s snore. (Ages 4-6)

And Austinite Emma Virján adds another title to her rhyming Pig in a Wig series with “What This Story Needs is a Bang and a Clang” (HarperCollins, $9.99), which finds Pig and her friends readying instruments to put on a concert. (Ages 4-8)

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