Myth, legend and history come to life at first annual Steinfirst Memorial Lecture

Release date: 
April 1, 1998

Chapel Hill, NC Renowned children's and young adult author Mary Pope Osborne spent her own childhood living on various Army bases throughout the southern United States. It was while on the sand dunes of one of those posts (ironically one named "Fort Story") that the young imaginative girl and her twin brother spun elaborate tales of riding dolphins out to sea. In the following years, her fantasies were recast in writing. Through her writing, Osborne says, "the fantasy stopped being me and started being a character."

Osborne told the tale of her own life and stories to an audience of more than 100 adults on Saturday, April 4, at the First Annual Susan Steinfirst Memorial Lecture, hosted by the School of Information and Library Science as part of the North Carolina Literary Festival.

A 1971 graduate of UNC at Chapel Hill, Osborne received the university's Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1994. She is also a past president of the Author's Guild, the leading organization for professional writers in the United States.

With soothing voice and mannerisms befitting a children’s storyteller, the author recounted her sources of inspiration. Her first published work was the 1982 novel, Run, Run, as Fast as You Can, the story of an 11-year-old army brat, whose worries about her social life quickly fade when her family learns that her young brother is gravely ill. The book won the Most Popular Children's Novel of the Northern Territory of Australia and the Children's Choice from the International Reading Association and the Children's Book Council.

"Run, Run... was a miracle to me because it taught me I could be an author," Osborne said. The transformation to published author came only after Osborne had refashioned, at the request of her editor, the entire draft of her novel, leaving only a single page in its original form. Another insight about children’s literature that Osborne discovered was that in many cases the authors do not know their illustrators. Many people in between pull the project together, she said, leaving her to "just focus on the words while the artist concentrates on pictures."

Her widely acclaimed first novel was succeeded by three more realistic young adult books, a literary genre which, according to Osborne, is very difficult in which to get published and to sell to the public, because it "falls between cracks of children’s literature and adult literature."

It was in 1985 that the writer "fell into mythology" and since then, she’s "never gone back to real life." Myths hold for Osborne all the sacredness of world wisdom. She encourages others to read mythology for its ability to get into the subconscious and to arise in ways never imagined. Elements of old stories abound in today’s popular images, Osborne said, pointing to a scene from the 1984 movie Splash closely resembling a favorite story of the Middle Ages about French mermaid named Melusine.

"We're all dipping into reservoir of great literature. Children’s literature is not a kiddie pool off to the side," Osborne emphasized.

The author's experiences – growing up on various Army posts throughout the southern United States, living in a cave on the island of Crete for six weeks following graduation, waitressing, window dressing – have been grist for her writing. Her interest in religion sparked One World, Many Religions, which received an Orbis Pictus Honor award from the National Council of Teachers of English, and her international travel and sense of adventure return in the "Magic Tree House" series and her retellings of world folktales.

Her current "Magic Tree House" fiction series for first through third graders, has propelled Osborne into an-almost "rock star" status among children. "These books have changed my life. Millions of kids are reading them," she said, describing fan letters from young, aspiring writers.

Osborne expressed concern as a result of having talked with teachers who don't think their students use their imaginations. As someone who grew up constantly inventing games with her brother, Osborne makes a point of teaching children through her books how to make believe. Her goal in her writing, she said is to entertain as well as to teach.

In addition to her continued work on the 24-book series, Osborne and seven other Carolina alumni are working on a Manifest Destiny musical that the Kennedy Center has expressed a desire to produce.

Osborne is the first to present as part of the Susan Steinfirst Memorial Lecture. The lecture is funded by the family and friends of Dr. Susan Steinfirst, a beloved professor of children's and young adult literature at UNC at Chapel Hill's School of Information and Library Science from 1976-1996. Steinfirst died of cancer in March of 1997.

The School of Information and Library Science is home to approximately 250 graduate students, 70 undergraduates and 19 full-time faculty members. It prepares students to work with computer information systems and networks or for careers in library administration, acquisitions, collections management and other aspects of library work. The school offers master's degrees in information science and library science, a certificate of advanced study, a doctor of philosophy in information and library science and an undergraduate minor in information systems.