This weekend a regional SCBWI conference invited me to speak about nonfiction. It was a lively gathering at a beautiful retreat near Baltimore — driving there was very strange, because in my experience in the New York, New Jersey, lower New England area you only see barns, silos, planted hills in areas that are very rich — they can preserve this faux rural past for the same reasons that Marie Antoinette built a farm in the gardens of Versailles — you can have that taste of the past because you do not need new money. Although sometimes the rural is also preserved in areas that are very poor — places that have not yet caught the developer’s eye. Whatever the reason for the vistas, they were beautiful to see.
One of the best parts of the conference was that I got to be the evangelist for nonfiction. Typically in writer’s conferences attendees are focused on story. They have endlessly been to told to Show Don’t Tell, to include rich detail, to create rounded characters, to avoid simplistic rhyme — in other words they have gotten a trimmed down version of MFA 101 — how to go from a person with an idea, or a family tale, or experience in working with kids, to an author — and a published author at that. But very few of the writers are non-fiction fans. For many of them, writing for kids is about the pleasures of story-telling — and entirely removed from the rigors and requirements of classrooms (which then stand for the world of nonfiction). So I get to go and show how much fun there is in thinking, researching, learning, writing, illustrating, sharing the entire real world with kids.
There is something thrilling about visiting a world that has paid so little attention to your craft, your area of interest, and — at least for that brief moment — winning them over, showing how much we have to offer. In a word, I got to show them the passion of non-fiction — a juxtaposition of terms that was completely alien for many of them. But that is the fun of being a missionary — you get to bring the good news, and see, for that moment, their eyes burn bright with new ideas.