MN VOICES | “We need to end child prostitution”: Mayo Clinic’s James A. Levine, author of “The Blue Notebook”

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Think slavery is history? Think again. Right now, in 2009, there are more slaves in the world than ever before in human history—an estimated 27 million. Included in this overwhelming number are children. Approximately one million children are currently enslaved around the globe, exploited for labor, war, or sex.

Four years ago, James A. Levine encountered the tragic reality of child sex slavery firsthand, interviewing child prostitutes on the streets of Mumbai while researching with a United Nations contingent. It was this experience that ultimately led Levine to pen The Blue Notebook—a novel narrated by a young girl sold into the sex trade by her family.

The Blue Notebook is Levine’s first novel. He took up writing on top of his day job at the Mayo Clinic, where Levine (M.D., Ph.D.) is professor of medicine, a nutrition subspecialist and endocrinologist. A native of London, England, Levine moved to Minnesota ten years ago. He currently resides in Oronoco, Minnesota, a town of 900.

In addition to his work at Mayo, Levine has conducted research in nutrition around the world and has advised the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the National Institute of Health. Much of Levine’s research focuses on energy requirements in woman and child laborers. His work in child labor led him to projects in sub-Saharan Africa, Nairobi, Jamaica, China, and, of course, India—where a young girl with big brown eyes and a blue notebook inspired Levine’s novel and his passionate advocacy against child prostitution.

It was a hot day in western India. Levine and a team from the World Diabetes Foundation had been conducting research and interviews on the streets of Mumbai. “It was late in the day,” Levine recalls, “but someone suggested we go to the Street of Cages, a street in Mumbai where women and boys dressed as girls are trafficked.”

The team braved the bustle of the city and made their way to the Street of Cages. “The street was lined with young girls—some very young—standing in front of steel cages,” said Levine, “right in the throng of the city.” The team was nearing the end of the street and their vehicle of refuge when Levine felt a strange urge to go back down. “For some reason,” he explains, “I asked my escort if we could go back down the street. He wasn’t pleased with my request, but he obliged, and we went back out.”

It was then that Levine saw her: the girl with the blue notebook who inspired “Batuk,” the 15-year-old narrator of his novel. “As we head back down the street, one young lady catches my eye,” continues Levine. “She’s wearing a pink sari, standing in front of a steel cage, and writing in a blue notebook.”

Literacy among child prostitutes is rare, and Levine was amazed that even an educated girl could be enslaved in a life of prostitution. Intrigued, he approached the girl and through his translator, asked if he could see her notebook. “She handed me the book,” Levine recalls. “There were a few sentences written on the pages, but my translator didn’t know the dialect. As I’m handing the book back to her there’s this moment where she looks at me with these huge, brown eyes, projecting this strong inner power. Her eyes haunted me.”

Returning to the U.S., Levine still couldn’t get the image of the girl with the blue notebook out of his mind. He felt the need to give a voice to her silent suffering and resilient spirit. Through The Blue Notebook, Levine makes the story of child prostitution personal in a powerful way. His novel is not for the faint of heart, but despite the horrors it describes, Levine says it’s only one-tenth of what actually takes place in the lives of girls who call Mumbai’s Street of Cages home.

It took Levine only 58 days to finish his first book. “Writing my first novel was not difficult,” says Levine. “I love writing—I get lost in it.” Despite his love of writing, he didn’t write The Blue Notebook simply because he wanted to write a book. “The point of this book,” says Levine, “wasn’t to write a book. The point is to create a movement.”

With the Blue Notebook, Levine is indeed creating a movement. His publisher plans to publish the book in 17 countries, enabling Batuk’s voice to be heard across the globe. Additionally, Levine isn’t taking a penny from the book’s U.S. proceeds. He’s donating every dime to help exploited children.

“I don’t want this book to raise awareness of child prostitution,” says Levine. “This book demands something more. We need to end child prostitution.”

Colleen Callahan (colleenmcallahan@gmail.com) is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and a freelance writer.

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