Meet the Biographer: Mary Losure

Longtime public radio reporter Mary Losure has an eye and ear for a good story. This year, she published her first book for young readers, The Fairy Ring, about the fairy photos two young girls took in Yorkshire during and just after World War I. This week, she chatted about traveling to Yorkshire and approaching the story as a journalist.

Kidsbiographer: I understand you did a great deal of traveling to research The Fairy Ring. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences in Yorkshire, where the girls took the famous photographs?

Mary Losure: The main thing, of course, was to visit Cottingley.  I climbed the same hill Frances did. At the crest I saw (as she did) Elsie’s tiny, narrow row house. The room that Elsie and Frances shared is a bathroom now, but the window still looks out over what they called the “beck” –the hidden valley where Frances saw her fairies.  The space under the cellar stairs where Elsie’s father developed the photographs is still there.  The cellar door opens onto the back garden and the little mossy path that leads to the beck.  I walked up the stream, though (unlike Frances) I had rubber boots and didn’t fall in. Parts of the village have changed somewhat, but the gray stone houses, narrow lanes, and nearby sheep pastures are still as they were then.  It’s something I really love about writing non-fiction—you can actually go walk around in your characters’ world.

Kidsbiographer: In the course of your research, you interviewed a number of people who knew Elsie and Frances. What did you learn that you found particularly surprising? Did you hear any anecdotes or insights you wished you could include in The Fairy Ring?

Mary Losure: One of the things that surprised me in England was how many people STILL believe that the Cottingley Fairy photographs showed real fairies. Several people in Cottingley told me they thought that as old ladies, Elsie and Frances got tired of being pestered and “confessed” the photographs were faked just to get reporters to finally leave them alone. It was one of a number of interesting wrinkles I had to leave out.

Kidsbiographer: You include the girls’ fairy photos as well as some of Elsie’s drawings in The Fairy Ring. Which of these images do you find most intriguing, and why?

Mary Losure: For me the most intriguing image is the one of Elsie and the gnome. I love the way for the photo, Elsie wore this gnomish-looking shapeless hat.  (She never wore hats like that in real life.)  I love the way she made him look the tiniest bit wicked, and how she holds out her hand to him as though they are just that minute meeting. It’s one of my favorite things in the whole book.

Kidsbiographer: Despite your straightforward prose style, The Fairy Ring has a magical quality, perhaps because you refuse to pass judgment on the nature of the fairies Frances saw. How did you, as a journalist, approach the story? I’m curious to know if your perceptions of the photos and the girls altered during your research.

Mary Losure: As a journalist, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell the true story, from first- hand accounts. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction. I like to know what really happened. And I knew the real plot was as good as any novel’s, if I could just tell it right.

I think what changed as I went along was my perception of Elsie. I hadn’t realized what an artist she was, and what a good sense of humor she had.  Now when I look at the photographs, I see her hand in them.  I see how she designed and staged each one. I see why they have the power they do.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about the book?

Mary Losure: The most gratifying response I’ve gotten by far was one night in a bookstore when an eight-year-old girl brought her copy of The Fairy Ring for me to sign. Her mother asked her “Do you want to tell her how many times you’ve read it?”  The girl nodded and said, very softly, “Four.”

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Mary Losure: But of course! Thanks for asking!

My next book is about a wild boy found in France in 1797, just after the French revolution. He’s an amazing twelve-year-old hero, and (like Elsie and Frances) he left a great paper trail behind him.  I went to France to research his life in archives and to retrace his journey from the wilderness to Paris. No fairies are involved, so I’m hoping that this time around, it won’t be so hard to convince people I didn’t make anything up.

The book is called WILD BOY: THE REAL LIFE OF THE SAVAGE OF AVEYRON. It’s due out from Candlewick in March of 2013. It will be illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering.

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