At the age of 12, Cynthia Copeland was growing up in Litchfield with her parents and two brothers, attending what then was Litchfield Junior High School, and spending time with her first boyfriend.
She also was an intern at the Register Citizen newspaper, being mentored by then-reporter Leslie Jacobs. The experience she had in 1972 is now a graphic novel, “Cub,” which explores the many experiences Copeland had as a reporter as well as a student, a daughter and a friend.
The book is written by Copeland and also contains her own illustrations, which capture the events of the early 1970s: the women’s movement, civil rights activism and the Watergate scandal.
The character, Cynthia, faces bullying from a group of girls, falls for her first boy and goes to her first dance, and loses her best friend. She also learns to make new friends and becomes a more confident girl, thanks to the guidance of a favorite English teacher, Maureen Schultz, who encouraged her to take the internship, and Jacobs, who was her editor and taught her to write news stories.
“The big takeaway I’m hoping for with this book is that kids and adults realize the important role of journalists and democracy,” Copeland said from her home in Keene, N.H. “Free press is the heart of democracy, and the whole industry is in such peril right now. ... Local newspapers are closing. Journalists are under attack. Even their personal safety is being threatened.
“The biggest message for me is that people are unable to understand fake versus real news today,” Copeland said. “I have read ‘She Said’ (by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the book that is credited with launching the anti-sexual harassment movement in 2019) and “The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril” by Leonard Downie Jr.
“The time that it took these authors to track down people who would speak to them, then fact gathering, is something people don’t understand. They go on Facebook, read a headline, and don’t bother to find out if it’s real or not. Everything is so fast-paced now. With the news on the internet, it’s not quality journalism, but people think they’re getting what they need to know. Paying for the facts is not something people want to do,” Copeland said.
Copeland is author of “Really Important Stuff My Dog Has Taught Me” and “The Diaper Diaries,” as well as 23 other books, which have sold more than a million copies and have been featured on “Good Morning America,” selected for Oprah’s “O List” in O Magazine, recommended by Ann Landers, and featured in Family Circle. Copeland still visits her hometown to visit her mother, Charlene, an active resident and activities organizer for the members of the Harwinton Senior Center.
When she began developing “Cub” as a memoir, Copeland spent time in Litchfield and at the Torrington Library, poring over microfiche records to recall the headlines of 1972. Her work with Jacobs is reflected in that research.
“Part of my research was going to Litchfield taking photos, so I went to my old house, I saw my old room. ... My best friend from junior high came, too, and we walked to school together,” Copeland said. “It was so fun. That research was important, since a memoir is all about research, reflecting back on your life at that time. I also wanted to find out what was important to people at the time, and finding out how things turned out. Watergate, for example, it wasn’t a big deal to people at the time, at least where I was ... it wasn’t huge yet. But it became such a big part of our history.”
She also remembered being awed by Jacobs, who was a hard-working reporter and photographer at the Register Citizen. “In my mind, she was a bona fide grownup,” Copeland said. “But she was so young, in her 20s. She was my mentor. She taught me so much.”
An episode in “Cub” details Jacobs taking Copeland to a school board meeting, where the 12-year-old Cynthia notices a difference in a salary for an administrator. She questions the school board chairman, who is unable to explain the discrepancy, which results in others attending the meeting to begin questioning the salary as well. It’s an exciting moment for Cynthia.
Copeland enjoyed drawing the novel, she said, and that the biggest challenge was that it took place so long ago. “My editors needed to feel that it was going to be relevant to kids today,” she said. “I infused the stories with the 1970s; the cars, the clothing, the land-line phones, the interior decor, everything. Without pulling readers out of the narrative, I was able to remind them that the story took place in 1972.”
In “Cub,” the young Cynthia is thrilled to walk into a busy newsroom with Jacobs, and her illustrations reflect a room full of men and a few women shouting across the room with headline suggestions, answering the many ringing telephones and calling the pressroom. She sees her byline in print for the first time, and learns how to ask questions during an interview, under Jacobs’ guidance.
“I found myself, my voice,” Copeland said. “The experience was wonderful. I found my writing voice, and I could write something that was compelling. I also found my speaking voice. ... I usually was playing dead, being silent (when being bullied) and I learned to stand up for myself. It gave me self-confidence. I could say, ‘I don’t care that you’re making fun of me. You’re not important to me.’”
In “Cub,” her best friend, a girl named Katie, drifts away from her and befriends the “mean girls” whom she illustrates with dark, staring eyes, folded arms and threatening expressions and are her tormentors, talking and laughing about her behind her back. Katie doesn’t seem to want to be friends like before, and Cynthia is hurt. But over time, she begins to realize there are other people in school that are fun, who have different interests and do exciting things. She learns to look outside her small circle of friends and make new ones. By the end of the school year, she’s matured and is able to realize her own growth, while happily looking to the future.
Copeland credits the internship with showing her a world outside her own. “Getting that perspective helps when you have outside interests,” she said. “Meanness doesn’t matter. There’s so much more happening that’s more important. Having that perspective on seventh-grade drama really helped.”
After graduating from Litchfield High School, Copeland attended Smith College, and lived in the Boston area. She worked for the Walpole Times as a reporter during her years there. She was a speech writer for then-Sen. Toby Moffett, and worked in the offices of Gov. Lowell Weicker. But she liked being a reporter.
“I wanted to be on the other side of things, she said. “I don’t want to choose words carefully, to keep information away from people. I want to be a journalist, asking questions.”
After her marriage, Copeland moved to New Hampshire and began writing books. But inside, she will always have the heart of a journalist. She believes local journalism is suffering today.
“Local journalism is so important,” she said. “People don’t always understand what kind of work goes into a story. ... They take information in sound bites, and rarely does anyone sit down and read a newspaper article from beginning to end. It’s harder to catch people’s attention, especially young people. It’s a very noisy world we live in.”
But she also believes journalism will survive.
“I hope that true journalsm will see a resurgence,” she said. “If people can understand what’s required to write a good story, and want the facts, they’ll read the stories that journalists are writing out there.”
“Cub” is relevant, Copeland said, because of what’s happening on the national stage. “The national issues (impeachment, civil rights) have come back around,” she said. “Who would have imagined we’d be reliving the Watergate impeachment era, and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day?” she said.
It’s also a reminder to young people of the importance of outside activities. “There’s a lot of social drama in seventh grade ... whether it’s music or dance or art, it helps you gain perspective on what’s really important,” Copeland said.
The author reached out to her teacher, Schultz, to let her know about the book. She credits the educator with building her confidence.” “She realized I’d benefit from something like (the internship),” Copeland said. “As girls, we didn’t have an idea of what opportunities were there for us. It was a time that really opened my eyes.”
“Cub” will be released Jan. 7 by Algonquin and Algonquin Young Readers at Workman Publishing, New York, NY. To order a copy, visit www.workman.com/authors/cynthia-l-copeland.