Debbie Levy, Author of Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War | Speed Interview
The Children’s Book Review |February 6, 2017
The Children’s Book Review: Which five words best describe SOLDIER SONG: A TRUE STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR?
Debbie Levy: We’re all in this together.
Can you share one highlight from SOLDIER SONG: A TRUE STORY OF THE CIVIL WAR with our readers?
Here’s something delightful that happened: when my editor, Rotem Moscovich, said—let’s make this an 80-page picture book! I’d tried to fit it into the traditional 32-page format, which meant I was cramming way too much on each page and leaving out material I loved—not only action scenes, but also excerpts from the eye-opening primary source material I’d used. She saw this as a story that could use more space and more art and, as you can imagine, I was right there with her! Not only could I present a more complete story, I could showcase the letters, journal entries, and memoirs of the boys and men who fought at Fredericksburg and who lived and breathed the events described in the story. And then there was the benefit of more pages of Gilbert Ford’s art!
What has been the best reaction from a reader, so far?
It’s brand new so I haven’t heard from young readers yet. But when I saw the Publishers Weekly starred review praising the book’s “bittersweet account of a sharply divided America” in which music “unites both sides one winter night,” I thought, “a sharply divided America”—we’re here again. And, once again, we need to dig deep for all the commonalities we can muster to try to reach across our divisions and see our opponents, and even just those who are different from us, as brothers and sisters, children and parents, friends and sweethearts. Just as those soldiers did, at least for one night, in SOLDIER SONG. (Not sayin’ it’s easy, though.)
Why do you think kids should read non-fiction books?
Okay, do I have to say they “should”? I’m not so big on “shoulds” when we’re talking about reading. 🙂 So I’ll say that I think kids are always looking for what’s real—even when they turn to the most fantastical of stories. Nonfiction books can offer realities that confirm readers’ own lives, and that’s so helpful when kids are contending with the ups and downs of growing up. Nonfiction also provides essential windows into the lives of real people, from current days and from olden days, whose lives are wildly different from many readers—but who readers can see are like them in their essential humanity. I realize this may sound a bit starry-eyed. But I think what I want most from nonfiction for kids these days is to create an understanding that others don’t have to be The Other, and that (to repeat a refrain) we’re all in this together, always have been, always will be.
What’s on your nightstand? Any books?
Only books—what else goes on a nightstand? (Other than reading glasses.) There’s my current fiction and nonfiction reads. Fiction: Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. Then there’s an assortment of books that I’ve read but want to keep close by. Right now that pile includes Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words; Sean McMeekin’s July 1914; and Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. Before finding their way to a proper bookshelf, Kwame Alexander’s Crossover stayed in that pile for a year; so did Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and William W. Warner’s Beautiful Swimmers.
My on-deck pile of books is not on my nightstand, but rather in my office. Next up: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer and Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, by Blanche Wiesen Cook.
You can tell I’m writing, by the way, because there are no books in the genres I’m writing on right now—picture books and middle-grade nonfiction—in these piles.
For your writing energy: sugar or salt, tea or coffee?
Gotta have my cup of coffee, black, every morning.
Writing tools: computer, pen and paper, or all of the above?
All of these.
Can you tell us something that even your most loyal fans may not know about you?
I still have my swim team sweatshirt from when I was 11 years old, and I still wear it when hanging around the house, mostly when writing in the morning. I think of Mrs. Goldberg across the street who embroidered my name on it and sewed on my patches, including one I got for being the fifth-best butterfly swimmer in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the 9-10 age group. That was the pinnacle of my swimming career, but look how it stayed with me—I mean, I’m fast approaching 60! To this day, I enjoy swimming and bodies of water, from pools to oceans.
Could this be a more random answer? But you asked, and I’m wearing it as I write this.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
I believe I’ve overshared plenty, thank you very much.
Written by Debbie Levy
Illustrated by Gilbert Ford
Publisher’s Synopsis: Amid the fearsome battles of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers were urged onward by song.
There were songs to wake them up and songs to call them to bed,
Songs to ready them for battle and to signal their retreat,
Songs to tell them that their side was right, and the other wrong . . .
And there was one song that reminded them all of what they hoped to return to after the war.
Defeated in the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Union soldiers retreated across the river. There, a new battle emerged as both armies volleyed competing songs back and forth. With the Christmas season upon them, however, Federals and Confederates longed for the same thing. As the notes of “Home, Sweet Home” rose up from both sides, they found common ground for one night.
Interwoven with soldiers’ letters and journal entries, this is a true story of duty and heartbreak, of loyalty and enemies, and of the uniting power of music. Debbie Levy’s moving text and Gilbert Ford’s vibrant, layered illustrations come together to create an unforgettable tale of American history.
Ages 8-12 | Publisher: Disney-Hyperion | February 7, 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-1484725986
About Debbie Levy
Debbie Levy is the award-winning author of many books of nonfiction and fiction for young people, including We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, a 2014 Jane Addams Award Honor Book and Bank Street College Best Book. She also wrote The Year of Goodbyes, a 2010 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and Kirkus Reviews Best Book. Debbie is a former lawyer and newspaper editor, and lives in Maryland with her husband.
For more information, visit: debbielevybooks.com
This speed interview with Debbie Levy, author of Soldier Song: A True Story of the Civil War, was conducted by Bianca Schulze. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Non-Fiction and Speed Interview.