Kathy Erskine is the winner of the 2010 National Book Award for her middle grade novel, Mockingbird. I’m blessed with the opportunity to run into Kathy from time to time, since she lives here in Virginia, too. What always stands out to me about her work is that she weaves humor, depth, and kindness together to create books that matter. I had the opportunity to ask Kathy about the way life events intersect with art, about her own book recommendations, and of course, about strong girls. ~MM
What were the challenges of writing a novel from the point of view of Caitlin?
I needed to do a lot of research because, although I know people and even live with someone with Asperger’s, I wanted to be as authentic as possible. I also had people read my manuscript who have Asperger’s or work on a daily basis with those on the austism spectrum. Other than that, I just got into character and dove right in.
What, in your opinion, makes Caitlin a strong girl, a heroine? What does she offer your readers?
She definitely has tenacity. And she’s brave, forcing herself to do things that are out of her comfort zone, even if they seem quite simple to the rest of us. It’s also great that she can approach things very logically and sometimes without too much emotion — a skill that a lot of people with Asperger’s have.
You have said that this novel was influenced by the violent events at Virginia Tech University. This novel certainly explores the many paths of grief and healing following school violence. But it also explores the world of children who live outside the typical mold. How did Caitlin’s story – the tale of a girl with Asperger’s Syndrome—intersect with your original idea? Why did you decide to connect them?
I wanted to write a book about a child with Asperger’s, and I was writing it, the Virginia Tech event occurred in 2007. It was appalling, and really had me struggling to figure out how to explain it to my children. I wondered how a child on the autism spectrum could understand or cope with such a tragedy, and that’s when I decided the book would open after Caitlin had lost her brother in a similar event.
You embrace humor in this novel. How did humor help you tell this story better?
In my mind, laughter is a part of everyday life. There are ups and downs, humor even in the midst of grueling situations — in fact, it’s probably most necessary then, in order to get through particularly rough times. Also, it’s appropriate in this story because the way Caitlin sees things or says things can be very humorous from the perspective of someone who is “neurotypical,” i.e., not on the autism spectrum. It helps to point out her different perspective, and is very realistic.
What are some of your favorite books that celebrate girls?
OK, I’m afraid I might get carried away here, and this isn’t all of them, but here goes:
Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr; A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Linda Urban; Blue, Joyce Moyer Hostetter; Far from Xanadu, Julie Anne Peters; Converting Kate, Beckie Weinheimer; Tomorrow the River, Dianne E. Gray; Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock; Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman; Wild Things, Clay Carmichael; A Northern Light, Jennifer Donnelly; The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly; Mare’s War, Tanita S. Davis; Leaving Gee’s Bend, Irene Latham; One Crazy Summer,Rita Williams-Garcia; Out of My Mind, Sharon Draper; The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson; Gentle’s Holler, Kerry Madden; Between Shade of Gray, Ruta Sepetys; Soar, Elinor!, Tami Lewis Brown; The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, Wendy Shang; Aunt Ceecee, Aunt Belle, and Mama’s Surprise, Mary Quattlebaum; Words in the Dust, Trent Reedy; She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story, Audrey Vernick; The Firefly Letters, Margarita Engle
You won this year’s National book Award for this work. How has this award made an impact on you, as a writer, or on your work?
It has made me feel — even more — that I need to write my best. I need to work hard to get the characters, nuances, everything, just right. I’ve always felt that if people are going to invest hours in reading a book I write, I need to make it worth their while. And I want it to stick with them long afterwards, too.
Are there upcoming projects you’d like to tell us a little about?
The manuscript I just finished is set in rural Virginia in 1972 and tells the story of a boy who has a mystery to solve — and what he finds out surprises him. I’ve written my first picture book (which took me way longer than a novel, believe it or not) and am working on an adult (grown up) book, and a book set in the Middle Ages which, incidentally, has a strong female character. In fact, I have pretty strong girls and women in all of my stories. I have so many partially written manuscripts — it’s a matter of finding the time to work on them all!
What are you reading now?
I’m eager to read Sara Zarr’s Once was Lost. She’s an amazing writer and I appreciate her books. I’m privileged to have an advance copy of Beth Kephart’s Small Damages — another talented writer. And I have a very special copy of Kick, the novel Walter Dean Myers wrote with a young friend, Ross Workman, which I’ve just started to read, and am thoroughly enjoying.
Complete this sentence for me: Strong girls… stand up for what they believe in, including themselves.