Our visiting author today was Sonia Manzano. Her memoir, Becoming Maria, recounts (amongst many other things) her time in an early production of the musical Godspell. In honor of this, we started out the day doing movement exercises with choreographer Regina Larkin. After warming up, campers practiced moving across the Sharp stage in different ways. Some walks were inspired by moments in the book. Finally, using choreography by Regina, campers danced to the song “Learn Your Lessons Well” from Godspell.
Then came our visit from Sonia. She started by showing us some clips chronicling her time playing Maria on Sesame Street. She spoke about how there had been no books or writing materials in her house, describing a time that her father had to write a phone number on a wall using her mother’s eyebrow pencil because he couldn’t find paper or a pen. She joked that she “would’ve become a writer sooner if only [she’d] had a pencil.” She talked about how despite this, she loved to read, and in particular loved Fifteen by Beverly Cleary.
She told us that her childhood helped her in her role as Maria. “Many people are told you have to overcome a difficult childhood,” she said. “But I propose that you embrace your difficult childhood and use it.”
She started writing while on Sesame Street, but it was the memoir Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt that inspired her to write her own memoir. She liked it because it recounted McCourt’s terrible childhood, but was still very funny. She told us how she likes the combination of funny and sad. She also read to us a passage from Becoming Maria about the time she went to see the movie West Side Story, which had a profound impact on her. She said that the movie “made all the crummy things in my life beautiful.” It was the most difficult part of the book for her to write, because she remembered the feeling so vividly.
Sonia talked about the importance of representation on television, describing how few people of color were on screen when she was a child. She said she knew that her work on Sesame Street was important beyond just the charming puppets. The goal of Maria’s wedding was to show that “Latin people fall in love, and have kids, and go on vacation, and have all the same desires as everyone else.”
She gave two options for writing prompts. The first was to write about a memory inspired by one of these three lines:
“The real story of this stupid selfie is…”
“It all started in Kindergarten when I…”
“I remember how this movie changed my life.”
The second was to write a dialogue between Cookie Monster and Elmo about any letter, number, or emotion and end it with Cookie Monster saying “Because it reminds me of cookies.”
After lunch and some free time, we split into three groups. One group of campers worked with memoirist Alice Eve Cohen to do memoir-writing activities. Another group played improv games in the Sharp theater, and the last group played card games. At the end of the day everyone came together and played a few rounds of Night at the Museum and Handshake Murderer.
Looking forward to tomorrow with Jennifer Donnelly, author of These Shallow Graves, followed by a tour of the then-gritty, now fancy, neighborhoods that come to vivid life in her book.