Thursday, August 21, 2008

Coming to a Theater Near You

What’s a lightning-speed way to get a group of reluctant nonfiction readers interested in true stories? Take them to the big screen.

I was recently at the movies with a group of kids between the ages of 7 and 13, most of whom prefer fiction and tend only to read nonfiction when directed. Everyone got settled with their popcorn and drinks. Then, the lights went down. The previews began. And two sneak peeks stole their hearts.

The first one: The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. This feature film follows the courageous life of college football titan Ernie Davis, who was the first African-American to win the Heisman trophy. We adults already have the context of racial issues in the 1950s and 1960s in our consciousness. But contemporary kids do not necessarily have the sights and sounds of the Civil Rights movement at their fingertips. The kids I was sitting with were mesmerized—not by the football or the stellar playing of Davis—but by the very premise of this movie. They were outraged. Intrigued. They looked over at me with eyes wide open in disbelief. They wanted to know more. And then the preview ended. They started to fire whispered questions at me, but there was no time. Another preview trailer was beginning.

Flash of Genius. Another true story. This coming attraction is based on the story of Robert Kearns, a college professor and basement tinkerer who invented the intermittent wipers from blender parts, sold it to Ford, and then became a victim of the giant bully. This film took place about a decade later than the Ernie Davis story. Again, a time frame the kids are not as familiar with as the adults sitting in the theater. The kids watched in horror at the unfairness of the Ford car company stealing the invention right out from under a powerless individual. They sat at the edge of their seats watching the character's unfailing determination to change a wrongdoing back to right, cheered when the character's children told the father not to back down even though the family seemed to be going broke fighting the battle. “How could they do that?” the kids asked each other. To me: “That isn't fair. Did they get away with it? Did that really happen? Is that a true story? Did Kearns really sue Ford?”

“Hey,” I whispered, “After this, why don’t we go find out.” "Yeah,” said the boy sitting nearest me. “That looks really good. I can’t believe a true story could be so exciting."

“Welcome to my world, you guys.” They laughed and gave me those rare nods of “you old people aren’t so bad” I have come to adore.


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