I was recently invited for an interview by Brittney Breakey over at AUTHOR TURF. Brittney has really accomplished a lot with her site. It’s worth checking out. She’s recently interviewed Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sally Nicholls, Gennifer Choldenko, Jo Knowles, Kathryn Erskine . . . and my great pal, Lewis Buzbee.
For me, that’s a double-edged sword. I’ll be honest, I’ve always hoped to be the kind of person who somebody wanted to interview. It’s an incredible compliment. And a true honor.
In my career, some of the first work I ever did was interviews of authors for promotional brochures. I think Ann McGovern was my first interview, back when I worked as a junior copywriter for Scholastic. Or it might have been Johanna Hurwitz. I don’t think I saved them. This would have been in 1985, I guess. Life went on and I’ve interviewed some talented authors and illustrators over the years.
You’d think I’d have learned some things along the line, but my basic feeling is usually one of disorientation, a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing, most likely saying the wrong things, awkwardly. Oh well.
I do have lucid moments, times when I think, “Okay, not terrible.” But in general I can’t read things like this without wincing, without twitching and blinking too often. I don’t know, it’s weird. I try to be honest, authentic, and hope for the best.
Below, you’ll find a brief excerpt of a much longer interview. Click here for the whole shebang.
What’s the worst thing you did as a kid?
It’s interesting you ask this, because I recently wrote about it in my journal. A theme that I’m exploring in the book I currently writing (or should be writing), which is a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I have superstitions about talking about books before they are finished, but I’ll say this: In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, a girl in my homeroom died unexpectedly. I didn’t know her well, and wouldn’t call her a friend. When I first heard about Barbara’s death, I was with a bunch of friends –- I can picture it vividly, a bunch of us lounging around — and I said something dumb, snarky, immature. Of course, the death of a peer was completely new to me, a big deal, and I didn’t know how to react. I still feel a sense of shame about it, across these forty years, that one dumb thing I said that no one else even noticed. I’ve been reflecting a lot about identity lately, the idea of self not as a revelation, but as a made thing. Something you earn. Bryan Stevenson gave an incredible presentation for TED Talks -– everyone in America should Youtube it -– and he said, “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s a huge, complicated, controversial idea –- and it speaks directly to the topic of my next book. [NOTE: I've embedded Stevenson's talk, below.]
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?
Yes, I’ve wanted to quit. Absolutely. Mostly because it’s hard, and because I’ve felt (and still feel, though less so) insecure about my own ability –- that I was a pretender, a self-deceiver, a fake. Also, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny business that can crush your soul at times. As a husband and father, I’ve worried about my ability to provide for my family, to keep paying the bills. But that’s life, right? You have to keep getting up. You can’t just lie there on the canvas. That said: Every day I feel blessed that I can do this for a living. The hard is what makes the good.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
It’s not a quote, so much as an attitude about doing the work, a sort of blue collar distrust of pretentiousness. In a phrase, shut up, sit down, and write. Or not! But either way, shut up. It’s hard, writers are told that we need to promote ourselves, we need to “have a presence” on the web, we need to “get out there.” And I just keep thinking, we need to write great books. That’s all that matters.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
The whole thing is a challenge. One thing about having published a bunch of things over a long period of time is that I’ve come to understand that each book is its own, self-contained thing. You write the story that’s in front of you. Then you write the next one. And the next. You don’t control what happens after that and, on good days, you accept that plain fact.
Yesterday at Villa Maria Academy I worked with 42 beautiful eighth graders—building writing exercises out of picture books, collectively pooling words for poems that would have made William Carlos Williams proud, studying some of the many ways that a story can begin.
Schools are supposed to teach many things. In this classroom love is clearly a curriculum component. There were future special education teachers in the mix, young women deeply concerned about world peace, students magnanimously enthused about a classmate's striking literary gifts, at least one dancer, and readers who did not need to be introduced to Ruta Sepetys or Kathryn Erskine. They had found these authors on their own.
At the end of the session one student shared with me her winter project—a report of sorts on THE HEART IS NOT A SIZE, my Juarez novel. She had told my story in her own words and created beautiful accompanying illustrations, and when she got to the page that introduced the little girl whom I had based on the child photographed here, I stopped. The likeness—the dark hair, the orange sleeveless shirt with the little bow—was so absolute that it seemed as if the Villa Maria student had traveled those dusty roads with us.
I rather wish she had. I would have enjoyed her company.
This week my Penn students are off for spring break, but I'll be back in (another) classroom tomorrow—this time among the eighth graders of Villa Maria Academy, where I've been asked to share some thoughts and favorite books for World Read Aloud Day.
In preparation I've been sitting on the floor surrounded by books (isn't that where everything begins?). I've been making decisions about what to carry forward.
My choices are these:
Owls and Other Fantasies: Mary Oliver
Carver: Marilyn Nelson
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Betty Smith
A River of Words: Jen Bryant/Melissa Sweet
The Marvelous Journey Through the Night: Helme Heine
The Book Thief: Markus Zusak
One Crazy Summer: Rita Williams-Garcia
Mockingbird: Kathryn Erskine
Between Shades of Gray: Ruta Sepetys
Goodbye, Mr. Chips: James Hilton
What will you read, for World Read Aloud Day?
I talk a lot about how much I love Philomel, Tamra Tuller, Michael Green, Jill Santopolo, and Jessica Shoffel, not to mention the amazing sales and marketing team—but hey, it's not without good reason. Among the many gifts of working with this house is the sense that I have joined an active, loving, functional family. These are people who care. These are people who read your books when they arrive and who send you notes throughout the process—notes that you cling to in the midst of hair-tossing winds.
Among the many gifts that Tamra has given is introductions to two of her own writers—both of whom were heroines of mine long before I ever thought I'd meet them. One is Ruta Sepetys, whose Between Shades of Gray
is a towering international success; Ruta and Tamra were just in Lithuania, for example, meeting with the prime minister about that very book. The other is Kathryn Erskine
, who isn't just the National Book Award winner for Mockingbird
, but a woman of such abiding curiosity and abundant imagination that when you ask, What are you working on these days, Kathy?,
you get a series of gorgeous history lessons and a few foreign phrases thrown in to boot.
Both Ruta and Kathryn kindly read Small Damages
and contributed their words to the back cover. A few months later, Ruta wrote to say it would be fun to find a way to do an event together (imagine!) and Kathryn asked if I'd be interested in doing an interview for Book Hook, an email newsletter written for parents, homeschoolers, teachers, librarians, and grandparents. The answer to Kathy's question was pretty easy (yes), and today I share the link to our conversation. This was the first interview I'd done for Small Damages,
and it was an honor to have had the conversation with Kathy.
I share a snippet below. You can find the whole by going to this link
and then downloading the February/March 2012 edition. Between now and then, I share the photo up above from one of my many trips to Seville. That gorgeous kid is the boy I love. In a few months' time, he'll be a college grad. I dedicated Small Damages
to him, because it was this young man who, at so many junctures in his life, would sit and let me read aloud from a book that challenged me greatly; he was the one who listened. Write about the living, not the dead,
he said one day after I had read a funeral scene. With his words, my story turned. So did my future.
Kathy: You really captured the mood of sultry, sun-drenched Spain. Can you tell us about your Spanish travels?
My husband, who was born and raised in El Salvador, has a far-flung family. His youngest brother lived in the south of Spain for years, and so we visited a number of times. Seville became a city that I could walk alone, discover on my own, a city I loved and love still. We would also drive out to the countryside. During one excursion, I met one of the best known breeders of the fighting bulls of Spain. I set SMALL DAMAGES in a cortijo very much like the one we visited. Miguel is in some ways patterned after that heroic breeder.
SCBWI's (and Esther's) 13th annual Winter Conference was my first of the international variety. I began my New York trip the day before the event so I could meet my sister Judy to walk down drizzly streets seeing the sights--and getting lost. We are not map people! One highlight: the New York Public Library
's "Celebrating 100 Years" exhibition, including the original Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore, Kanga, and little Roo.
Friday was even wetter than Thursday, so we wandered through the American Museum of Natural History
, where we lingered in the butterfly exhibit, and briefly strolled along the edge of Central Park.Esther's Wednesday post
covered many of the conference highlights, so I'll add just a few of my own:
- Jane Yolen's generous Mid-List Author Grant, to be awarded annually to an author who writes steadily and well but whose books have not received a lot of media attention. Eligible authors have at least two PAL level books but have not sold a manuscript in at least one year. Nominations for next year's awards will be accepted from June 1 to November 1, and winners will be announced at next year's conference. Watch the SCBWI web site for official details. Thank you, Jane!
- Kathryn Erskine's closing keynote, which used the acronym FOCUS as a guide for keeping our minds on our work. I especially appreciated her advice about blocking out distractions by creating a little waiting room in my mind. She recommended posting a guard at the door. (I wonder where I might find a fire-breathing dragon!)
- Meeting Steve Mooser, Lin Oliver, and the many enthusiastic, hardworking, dedicated, and brilliant author and illustrator volunteers who keep the SCBWI organization and events running smoothly, efficiently, and cheerfully.
By: Beth Kephart
Blog: Beth Kephart Books
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, Between Shades of Gray
, Michael Green
, Kathryn Erskine
, colleen conway
, Small Damages
, Ruta Sepetys
, Tamra Tuller
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I have written here of the extraordinary kindness and straight-through goodness of the people of Philomel—Tamra Tuller, Michael Green, Jill Santopolo, and, last night, the dearest note from Colleen Conway. I have written of how lucky I am to find myself in their company with the forthcoming release of Small Damages
. I have written, too, about the important and hugely acclaimed novels that Tamra has edited, and of the writers she has brought into her fold.
But have I told you how kind those writers are? How generous both Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray
) and Kathryn Erskine (Mockingbird
) have been with me? Perhaps I simply haven't had the words.
I still don't have the words. But this morning I invite you to visit with Ruta Sepetys by way of her remarkable, whimsical, internationally seasoned web world
. It's like being in Manhattan in the snow, Christmas season. Like finding yourself inside a kaleidoscope. Like talking to a friend.
This morning I did one of those things I try not to do—traveled over to the Amazon page to see if the cover for Small Damages
, my summer 2012 novel, has been posted. It has not, but a separate piece of news was there, something I had not known. Small Damages,
the book that took nearly a decade of my life, was inspired by my travels to Seville, and will be published by one of the most extraordinary houses anywhere, Philomel, is set to come out on my son's birthday. (For more on the incredible Philomel, go here
.) That is no mere coincidence. That is perfection. My son has been with me through every one of the dozens of drafts and, indeed, the book is dedicated to him.
And so I wait to share the remarkable cover with you. Believe me, it is worth waiting for. Tamra Tuller, my editor, and her team worked for literally months to produce something that is just so infinitely right that it staggers me. In classic Tamra style, she also took the time to share the book with her authors Kathryn Erskine (Mockingbird, The Absolute Value of Mike
) and Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray
). I had shared Kathryn's words on this blog earlier
, along with the treasured words of Rita Williams-Garcia (One Crazy Summer
This morning I share Ruta's:
Stunning. Kephart's lyrical prose lingers with you long after the final page. I simply didn't want it to end.
Those of you who have followed this blog know how graced I have been to enter the Philomel fold and to look forward, with editor Tamra Tuller and Philomel, to the publication of Small Damages
next summer. More about this Seville-inspired book can be found here
. But for the moment, I would like simply to thank the extraordinarily talented and generous authors Rita Williams-Garcia
and Kathryn Erskine
, who are the first to read this book, beyond the good people at Philomel. I will always be indebted to them for their words.
is a wrenching celebration of choice. To read Kephart is to splendidly dream with both eyes open."
— Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer
, 2011 Newbery Honor Book and 2011 Coretta Scott King Award Winner
"As this delicate and luscious novel unfolds, the lines are blurred between love and loss, past and present, real and magical, and even life and death."
— Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird,
2010 National Book Award winner, and The Absolute Value of Mike
By: James Preller,
Blog: James Preller's Blog
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, Best Books for Middle School
, Gordon Korman
, Kathryn Erskine
, Sharon Draper
, Tom Angleberger
, Virginia Young Reader's Choice Awards
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Last week, Florida crumbled into submission. This week, it’s Virginia tapping out under the brute force of my choke hold of a book.
No, it wasn’t you; I have no idea what I just said, either. Gibberish, mostly. I’m gibbering. Perhaps it’s time to contact the people at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. So let’s try again and not bury the lead this time:
I just learned that Bystander was nominated for the Virginia Reader’s Choice Awards Thingy.
I keep finding out about these award/contests in seemingly random ways. There’s no official letter, no word from my publisher. It’s usually an email from someone who figures I already know.
But I don’t. I so don’t.
Anyway, again, great news for Bystander to be nominated as one of the better books for middle school readers. That’s six states I’m aware of, or seven, if we’re willing to count Confusion as a state. I always make a point of listing the other titles nominated for these awards. I do that because this blog won’t be of interest to anyone, including me, if it’s all about James Preller all the time. Also, I enjoy discovering the titles of these books, something new and unexpected always pops up, and I’m forever looking for good books to read and/or purchase for my kids. It’s an honor to share a ballot with such accomplished writers.
Virginia’s Reader’s Choice Awards for Middle School
Bystander, James Preller
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, James Swanson
The Leanin’ Dog, K.A. Nuzum
Mockingbird, Kathryn Erskine
Out of My Mind, Sharon Draper
Pop, Gordon Korman
The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, Tom Angleberger
Ways to Live Forever, Sally Nichols
When the Whistle Blows, Fran Cannon Slayton
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We are pleased to bring you another poem by Noah Levin (an OUP employee also!) Feast your eyes below.
by Noah Levin (more…)
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Buffalo Readings Live at Vox Pop, 4/13/07 Brooklyn, NY. (more…)
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Happy Friday everyone! I’m particularly happy today because the sun is supposed to come out this weekend and I am quite sick of rain. Today we present more stimulating work from The Buffalo Poets. Be sure to check back all day to read their work!
By King Otho (more…)
I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have another wonderful poem from King Otho. The bad is that it is the end of National Poetry Month. Perhaps we can all include more poetry in our lives (and this blog) throughout the year and not just during Poetry Month. Enjoy!
by King Otho
the heart its power
the fruit its
bless this congregation of
bones and meat cells
I got lipids parting
I can see the amino acids
Fluid druid solemn molecule
it’s in it that it is in
What was that he just said?
About the whiskey?
And the handcuffs?
Oh no my dear, you see
this is the new model.
There’ll be hardly any clogging
no noticable seams
All for three times the original price
and don’t forget the mail in rebate
NO NO NONONONO NO
It’s the shoestrings
that’s how you can tell
Mexican labor don’t know
how to tie a shoe up like
Paulo is a tobacco roller.
The dark steamy Cuban wherehouse
filled with rolled Rrrrrr’s and
They read to them down there.
Sitting on shiny cars
moist brown wrinkles under
white athletic undershirt.
And nothing you smoke weighs
under three pounds.
Senor, he thought it was
The Russians promised
The economy of the people
is folded hechos
No no Elsie
It was three butters crisp
ten doiley placemats
And a handfull of hard candy.
The eyebrows are the hardest part,
but if you’re carefull
they can be sprayed on.
Your expression can be chosen from
our handy sample book.
Simply apply the cardboard spraymask
and a new look, in seconds!
A straight beats a flush
how many L’s in legally?
Two trains leave Miami
Moving in opposite directions
How long till the
End of Time?
If you flattened out the
facts curled up in your
they would cover a
Born out of the seedy underbelly of the poetry scene at the turn of the millennium - The Buffalo Poets
for their unique energy and wit, began hosting open readings as a direct reaction to Slam Poetics and cookie cutter style poets found in New York City.Hailing originally from New York City, the Buffalo are composed of four core members: Roger Kenny aka King Otho, Aaron Arnout, Noah Levin and David Acevedo. The Buffalo have many artists throughout America including, James Honzik, Michael Franklin, Kevin Callahan and the infamous activist Rafael Bueno.
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Farewell poetry month! Till we meet again next year here is a poem to ponder by David Acevedo.
Tomorrow's guest is Kathryn Erskine! Kathy's giving ONE lucky comment a signed copy of Quaking, temporary tattoos of the book jacket and peace stickers. Check back tomorrow for the Q&A and enter to win.
And I'm going to actually take the day off! I've got a hair appointment and am coming home to watch a movie, slather on a face mask and paint my nails a cheerful spring color. I felt like I needed a day after finishing my new YA before I jump into something new. Know the feeling? It's cold and rainy outside so it's the perfect day. :)
A good friend of mine called me early that morning as I was heading out of town to a critique group meeting. I was SO excited because encouraging reading is one of my goals as a writer. Writing a "Top Ten" book for reluctant readers, those who would rather do something other than read, hopefully means that my writing is compelling enough to make people WANT to read.
Please welcome the author of Quaking, Kathryn Erskine!
First, how wonderful that QUAKING was chosen as a 2008 ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers! That’s fantastic! How did you get the news? What was your reaction?
How did you come up with the plot for QUAKING? I was concerned about why we were in Iraq and how people respond to war and violence in general. That's why I didn't make it Iraq-specific but it obviously speaks to our current situation. I also wanted to relate the issue of violence in war to a more personal level. Matt is going through her own post-traumatic stress syndrome. War or violence in any form has powerful effects on individuals and society. I wanted to raise questions and awareness but not necessarily answer the questions. Those are issues for thought and discussion. Finally, the Quaker tenets of peace and tolerance were a good backdrop for the story and gave me an opportunity to share with readers what I've learned about Quakers. I’ve read reviews for QUAKING and they’ve been great. But how would you handle a bad review? I firmly believe everyone has a right to say what they think and how they feel about a book. Books are subjective and are going to appeal to some people and not to others. The bottom line is you have to read a book for yourself to decide what you think. Nobody else can tell you how you feel about it. I love QUAKING’s cover! Did you have any say in it? I did but I think my editor had a much better idea. I'd love to claim it as mine! I think it's brilliant. Did it take long to write? It took a little over a year to write. Once it got picked up by a publisher there were revisions, of course, which helped tie the threads together and make it a stronger story. When you’re not writing, what are your hobbies? I love traveling, exploring just about anywhere and anything, walking, spending time with family and friends, playing games (card, board, strategy, Sudoku, etc.), and I've just taken up fencing (the sword kind) -- look for that in a future book! Who are some of your favorite authors? Oh, gosh, there are so many! Some of those who have influenced me through their work or their wisdom are Katherine Paterson, Patricia Reilly Giff, Judy Blume, Jerry Spinelli, Patricia Lee Gauch, Lois Lowry, and Christopher Paul Curtis. Who's one author you haven’t met whom you’d love to meet? Christopher Paul Curtis. I LOVE his writing and his voice is so funny and thoughtful and caring all at the same time that I can't help believing he's like that in real life, too.
What advice can you give first time authors who have a book coming out soon? Try get your book and name out there. It's not something most publishers have time or money to do for you any more. Even if you're an introvert, like a lot of us are, you can still talk to friends and keep an active website. And don't get discouraged. Your local Barnes and Noble might not carry your book even if you get on ALA and VOYA lists (mine still doesn't) but that's a factor of upper management. A lot still seems to happen through word of mouth and small, independent book stores (love those guys!) so you can still get your book out there.
Are you working on anything new? Since QUAKING, I've submitted a novel about a 14 year old boy that, while it has serious undertones, has some pretty wacky characters. Right now I'm finishing up a novel that handles serious issues but has humor, too. Next is either my novel set in Newfoundland, Canada or my historical novel, both written in draft but needing work. That's if I don't get sidetracked by my latest idea (another 14 year old -- yes, I seem to be stuck at that age!) or one of my many other novels in progress. So little time, so much to write!
Kathryn Erskine spent many years as a lawyer before realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading. She grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools, her favorite being the Hogwarts-type castle in Scotland. The faculty, of course, did not consist of wizards, although . . . how did the headmistress know that it was “the wee redhead” who led the campaign to free the mice from the biology lab? Erskine draws on her childhood—and her second childhood through her children—for her stories. She still loves to travel but nowadays most trips tend to be local, such as basketball and tennis courts, occasional emergency room visits, and the natural food store for very healthy organic chocolate with “life saving” flavonoids.
Summary of QUAKING:
After years of being batted around, fourteen year old Matt has learned to rely on herself at school and everywhere. Biology is good. I am an expert. We are studying morphing, but I have already morphed. I have my own exoskeleton. . . I have spent years developing my armor and I will not let it be pierced. She must call on all of her resources to handle Mr. Warhead, the Rat, and the Wall at her new school, not to mention the Beast in her head. But somehow it is even more difficult to cope with the warm Quaker family, her "last chance," who has taken her in. Why does Jessica insist on acting like a mom? Why can't their little boy with his gack covered fingers just leave her alone? And why does Sam have to care about her--and everything--so much? Doesn't he realize that only gets you hurt? And even though Matt knows that pain very well, why is she finally letting down her armor and allowing herself to care?
Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0399247742
Kathy's generously giving away ONE signed copy of QUAKING and tattoos of the jacket and peace stickers to a lucky commenter! Leave a comment on Blogger, Live Journal or both spots to be entered. Your comment must be received by Sunday at 9pm. A winner will be drawn at random and announced on Monday. Good luck!
Super-duper-OMG-I'm-so-thrilled-it's-the-best-news-ever CONGRATULATIONS to Kathryn Erskine, whose MG/YA novel, Mockingbird (Philomel, 2010), was just named a National Book Awards finalist!!
Can you tell I'm excited?
This is one of those rare books which, after reading the first paragraph, the little voice in my head said, WOW. Beautiful, spare prose, far-reaching. Organic, exquisitely crafted. We celebrated its official release here on alphabet soup, and I'm simply over the moon that Mockingbird has received this well-deserved recognition.
Hooray for Kathy!! See all the finalists here.
More Random Cuppie-o-Grams here.
Copyright © 2010 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan's alphabet soup. All rights reserved.
By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: November 18, 2010
Congratulations to Kathryn Erskine! She is the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
by Kathryn Erskine
Reading level: Ages 10-12
Hardcover: 235 pages
Publisher: Philomel; 1 edition (April 15, 2010)
Publisher’s synopsis: In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white. Things are good or bad. Anything in between is confusing. That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained. But now Devon’s dead and Dad is no help at all. Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how. When she reads the definition of closure, she realizes that is what she needs. In her search for it, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white–the world is full of colors–messy and beautiful.
Kathryn Erskine has written a must-read gem, one of the most moving novels of the year.
Add this book to your collection: Mockingbird
Several children’s literature experts shared “Ten Trends in Children’s Books” in a year-end list for Scholastic.
Books featuring “special-needs protagonists” have increased (such as this year’s winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Kathryn Erskine‘s Mockingbird). The experts concluded that publishers released “25 to 30 percent fewer picture book titles than they used to” in 2010. Popular kidlit genres in 2010 included dystopian fiction, paranormal romance beyond vampires, and mythology-based fantasy.
Scholastic Book Clubs president Judy Newman gave this quote: “We’ve seen some exciting innovation in children’s publishing in 2010, including new formats and platforms for storytelling that are helping more and more kids become book lovers. At the same time, we’re seeing a rejuvenation of some classic genres, which I think is evidence of the timeless power that stories and characters have on the lives of children.”
New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.
Kathryn Erskine (pictured, via), tackles tough subjects through children’s books.
Her debut novel, Quaking, responded to the Virginia Tech tragedy. Her second novel, Ibhubesi: The Lion, dealt with apartheid. Her third book, Mockingbird, featured a character with asperger’s syndrome–winning this year’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. We caught with her to learn about her writing process. Here are some highlights from the interview.
Q: Can you talk about the writing process you undertook for Mockingbird?
A: As in all my writing, I do a lot of research to put myself in the most authentic place. For Mockingbird, I researched how families deal with death and trauma, but focused on Asperger’s extensively, attending workshops and seminars, interviewing teachers and caretakers who interact daily with kids on the spectrum, in addition to living with a close family member who has Asperger’s.
New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.
And here they are—the books I've been craving—all arrived at once. Mira Bartok's The Memory Palace
, Robb Forman Dew's Being Polite to Hitler
, Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker
, Kathryn Erskine's Mockingbird
, and Jacqueline Kelly's The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Christmas, all over again.
The question sometimes is: What divides us, one from the other? Is it our ability to see, or listen? Does it come down to empathy, or empathy's archenemy, preconception?
With her National Book Award winning young adult novel, Mockingbird
, Kathryn Erskine brings us into the heart and mind of a fifth-grader named Caitlin, whose mom is deceased, whose brother has been killed by an act of school violence, and whose dad is nearly paralyzed with sadness. This would be too much for any of us, but it's particularly overwhelming for a little girl who has Asperger's syndrome—a girl who is bound to a most literal understanding of words, a girl who must study a book of expressions to understand the meaning of faces, a girl for whom making friends is not only difficult but not, at least a first, a top priority. Caitlin's older brother, Devon, meant the world to her; he was, in fact, the one who best understood how to crack open the world on her behalf. With Devon gone, all the tricky negotiations are now Caitlin's responsibility—Caitlin and the school counselor and a boy named Michael who help untangle some of life's knottiest threads.
Readers look for momentum in plot, the what-is-going-to-happen-next?. Erskine's great literary achievement with this beautifully written book is how deeply she invests her readers in caring whether or not Caitlin will make a true friend, or agree to lend color to her immaculate black and white drawings, or, mostly, help her dad finish an Eagle Scout project that her brother had started before his death. Perhaps that might not seem like much to those who line up at midnight to find out whether Katniss Everdeen will survive the battering of District 12 in the year's other major Mocking book (Mockingjay
), but I would argue that what Erskine creates here is bigger, more essential—a powerful look at one who is "special" and a loving portrait of a community reeling in the aftermath of a terrible act of violence. Mockingbird
can be read in one sitting. It absolutely should be.
Every once in a while I run across one of those stories with a main character so beyond the bounds of my everyday existence I marvel at how anyone could create her/him and do so in such a believable way.
Erskine has done so with her character, Caitlin. A fifth-grader, Caitlin has Asperger's Syndrome. She's really smart but has a really tough time understanding and expressing emotion. Maneuvering through life means learning an exhausting list of facial expressions that decode what what people are thinking and/or what they really mean. Add to that that the the person who helped her maneuver the world, her older brother, has been killed in a school shooting.
Erskine bites off a huge chunk of storytelling with her character and the external event of a school shooting. She maneuvers both phenomenally. Caitlin is one of the best characters I've read lately. I had no idea what it's like inside the mind of a child with Asperger's. Erskine gives her readers a glance. It's a glance that doesn't pity. It doesn't minimize. It is. As such, I came to both empathize and understand Caitlin. It's a phenomenal bit of writing. Add to it weaving Caitlin's story seamlessly together with the affects of a school shooting on a community and exploring how to find "closure" and this work moves from phenomenal to unforgettable.
The one aspect of this novel that I was less impressed with was that it, like When You Reach Me
, relies on an outside piece of art, in this instance To Kill a Mockingbird
, to carry part of the story. One day I may do this myself and kick myself for not understanding or for finding fault with this particular writer's tool at present, but when a writer can weave as well as Erskine, story doesn't need outside art to support it, or deepen the emotional resonance. It's already there. And there in spades. For me, bringing in the outside world in this way detracts from the story being told. It pulls me outside Caitlin's story. It also expects a lot from that external art and the reader. I'd hazard a guess that not many children today have seen, To Kill a Mockingbird
. Thus, what effect will the film really have on the reader? Wouldn't a fictional film do the job even better by staying within story by being a created part of it?
If you're looking for a deep story about school shootings, how they affect a community, what it must be like to "feel" and perceive the world as a person with Asperger's all wrapped into a story that pulls you toward it in a gentle but insistent way, read Mockingbird
. There is so much here. Much to discuss. Critique. Enjoy. Ponder. And grow from.
For other great Spring diversions, hop over to Barrie Summy's website
. She's got temptations galore!