Monday, April 19, 2010

OZ -- Literally

I had the great pleasure of attending the Empire State Book Festival in Albany, NY last week. When I wasn't sitting on a Children's Nonfiction panel with Alexandra Siy and Karen Beil, I got to listen to other discussions and best of all the keynote speaker Gregory Maguire (Wicked).

One of Maguire's stories really hit home and reminded me of why I write nonfiction. He took the audience back to 1962 and a dusty backyard in Albany, NY. As the oldest, he was in charge of entertainment, and after exercising his veto power over playing church and playing school, he gave out parts for an impromptu production of The Wizard of Oz. The lilac bush was the twister, his sister was Dorothy and his baby brother was the Wicked Witch of the East stuck under the house. But there were more kids than parts so he added Captain Hook and Tinkerbell. When one of the munchkins reminded him that they were not a part of the movie they had all watched the night before, Maguire affirmed that it was okay. This was their version.

And that is the difference.

Fast forward to 1969 and zoom in on me playing Oz in my backyard with my friend Jeannie Doerr. I didn't have enough kids so we double and tripled up on parts. I, of course, got most of the important ones, at least the ones with the best songs. But even at 9, I was a literalist. I could not veer off script. Adding Captain Hook would have capsized the whole production and Tinkerbell would have just been wrong.

Like millions of other kids, Maguire and I were captivated by Oz. He was bold enough to open the gate at the end of the yellow brick road and see what else lay beyond. I, on the other hand, felt a certain reverence for what I saw and put myself inside it. I wrapped myself in the cowardly lion's cape/rug and continued the tradition. I read about Margaret Hamilton and her fake chin and the the original tin man's allergic reaction to the silver makeup. (Buddy Ebsen? What were they thinking?) I had not read the book yet, so to me this was the way Oz was supposed to be. You didn't vary it.

That is still how I feel. The technicolor world outside my door does not need additional made-up characters or fictionalized scenes. It is wonderful and miraculous just the way it is and I hope my nonfiction reflects that.

It did not escape me that as a nonfiction writer I did not sell a single book that day at the Empire State Book Festival (although they only had one of my titles in the shop) and Gregory Maguire got a hand cramp signing nonstop for almost two hours. It also didn't bother me. I was thrilled to get my copy of Wicked signed by one of my favorite storytellers.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Nonfiction Monday - Empire State Book Festival Nonfiction Panel

On Saturday I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with two other nonfiction authors at the first annual Empire State Book Festival in Albany, NY. Moderated by author Steve Tomecek, Karen Beil (author of FIRE IN THEIR EYES), Alexandra Siy (author of CARS ON MARS and other nonfiction titles) and I discussed our research, photo aquisition, and how we found structure in a true story.

Sitting with dozens of amazing NASA images of Mars, Alexandra explained how she came up with the perfect theme to tie them all together. A long journey from Alaska reminded her that Spirit and the other rover had simply gone on a long road trip so she set up the book to reflect that.

Karen impressed upon the audience how important first person interviews were to bring a fire fighter's experience to a young reader.

And when a physics professor in the audience asked how he could bring his field of study to kids, I suggested that he think about what he would do or say if he were showing a neighbor kid through his lab. As a professional, he knows all the answers. Now he just has to figure out what the questions are. What would kids want to know? How does his work affect or connect with a child's life? Why did he go into that field? What stories can he share?

Thank you to Karen, Alexandra and Steve for a spirited discussion.