Author Meets Subject’s Scrapbook. Also: SNOW!

April 25, 2011

We woke to snow in Cooperstown. Not the accumulation kind of snow; just the wow, doesn’t late April mean anything kind of snow.

Before setting out to the Hall of Fame, I told my family not to feel bad for me if they were the only ones in attendance at my talk. They promised.

It was a comedy of errors once we arrived, leaving our coats in the car, running for the closest entrance, realizing it was the wrong entrance, running from door to door in the aforementioned snow, until we found our way inside. But we did. And we weren’t late.

My husband, son and daughter were not the only ones in attendance; the seats were all filled. People listened. I talked too fast, forgot to say some important things, and didn’t remember to ask for questions, but somehow I still think it went pretty well. Or well enough. Wellish.

The coolest part was that Stephen Light (who holds the enviable title Manager of Museum Programs at the National Baseball Hall of Fame) had Effa Manley’s actual scrapbook there in the room with us.

I’m only a mild research geek, not the worst kind of research geek, but wow, did I love seeing that. When I had viewed the scrapbook for my research in the Hall’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center, I had looked at a microfiche copy on one of those crazy old machines. This was the real deal. With Effa’s scrawled notes all over the place. I especially liked that after a long, positive story about herself in a New York newspaper, Effa wrote, “This is a good story.” (!) More often she passed along the praise to her husband, Abe.

I loved paging through that scrapbook. (And I didn’t once try to hatch a Lucy-Ricardo-like plan to sneak it out. A true sign of maturity.)

She Loved baseball display at Hall of FameI signed a good number of copies of SHE LOVED BASEBALL, with a bigger smile each time I signed one for a Yankees fan. There was one Mets fan–an eight-year-old–who is the only girl playing baseball in her town’s all-male little league. I smiled quite a bit when signing hers, too.

Perhaps most exciting of all was talking about the possibility of a return appearance next spring. That trip would be in support of my next baseball picture book, BROTHERS AT BAT: THE TRUE STORY OF AN AMAZING ALL-BROTHER TEAM, illustrated by Steven Salerno. There was talk of taking over Doubleday Field for a game….I’m just saying.

Stay tuned.


What’s Left on the Cutting Room Floor

December 2, 2010

My reading self enjoys nonfiction books about people I’ve never heard of. The last few years have brought a fantastic crop: Chris Barton’s The Day-Glo Brothers, Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts, Jody Nyasha Warner’s Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged.

My reading self has never once questioned the choices those writers made. But my writing self knows there are many ways to tell a true story.

Every life has thousands of relevant facts. The writer sifts and filters and ponders to figure out which ones make the final cut. The text that emerges will inform readers’ understanding of who this person was.

That’s a hefty responsibility.

Of course, we all do this kind of selective editing every day. The stories we choose to share about ourselves, about our children, are the ones we want others to know.

It’s tempting to do the same for our nonfiction subjects–to show only their best selves. As one who writes for children, that’s sometimes uncomfortably close to what I actually do. Because my main filter, the one that catches the most stuff, is the Suitability for Children Filter.

In Brothers at Bat: The True Story of An Amazing All-Brother Team (Clarion, 2012), some of my favorite anecdotes—the testosterone stories in which the brothers out-macho each other with dubious judgment—never made it into the book. “You can’t do that!” my writer self wanted to scream at the now 80+-year-old subjects. “It’s a book for CHILDREN!”

In nonfiction, it turns out, you don’t get to tell your characters what they can do. But you do have a responsibility to decide which facts belong, especially since you can’t share them all.

Effa Manley, the subject of She Loved Baseball, was a civil rights activist. The text includes a boycott she led against a Harlem store that refused to hire black workers. It does not include the Anti-Lynching Day promotion Effa held at the Newark Eagles’ stadium. That promotion is a telling detail about the kind of thinker she was. But it doesn’t belong in a children’s book.

Such decisions extend into illustration. For Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship, my sister/co-author and I got to choose which of Tim Brown’s autobiographical paintings would illustrate the book. Instead of selecting the most visually appealing, we ran it through the Suitability for Children Filter. Paintings not included: Bark Eating Deer, Dog Peeing on Papa, Bit By Bark, Chasing Rats, Bark Chasing White Kids.

You get the idea.

Suitability for young children has to be the prime filter. Figuring out the ratios of the other fact-filters is a nonfiction author’s job. Finding the right balance of truth, appeal, relevance, and length is the craft of writing nonfiction.

My reading self appreciates a good true story. My writing self needs to be sure my books are as right as they can be. Other people’s reading selves may be counting on that.

Originally published in December 2010 issue of 4:00 Book Hook. Click here for more information and back issues.