Kathryn Erskine is the author of six children’s novels including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red,and most recently, The Incredible Magic of Being, and the picture book, Mama Africa: How Miriam Makeba Spreads Hope with her Song. On Saturday, January 27th, Kathryn will teach Taking Risks in Writing for Children from 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM. She took some time out of her very busy schedule to talk to us about risks she has taken as an author.
WriterHouse: The Incredible Magic of Being received the 2017 Best Books Award from Amazon’s editors. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
Kathryn: It was definitely a case of the story coming to me, the way my characters always do, but I found one of the characters, Mr. X, a particularly tough nut to crack. I was fighting him the whole time. Literally. I had interviews with him that turned into arguments. I even found myself acting like Pookie, the snarky teenager when dealing with him. But he eventually led me to the risk that I think I was avoiding. Julian’s voice started in my head during a very rough period in my life when I had no energy or creativity to write, so Julian was a joy. This story also came after cancer treatment so it was a way of acknowledging the gift of life and how incredible and magical it is to be in this universe.
WriterHouse: What risks did you take in writing this story?
Kathryn: Quite a few risks! First, there’s a quirky character with anxiety which means I had to accurately and non-offensively present an emotionally gifted child with a vivid imagination and many fears. His moms are gay and married, which is still a big problem for some schools and families. I tackled a form of magical realism that was tricky (more on that in class) and may not appeal to all readers, or agents, or editors. The story structure is unconventional. The language and topics covered are often “nerdy.” Finally, there’s a FART in every chapter (more on that in class, too)!
WriterHouse: Why is it important to take risks when writing children’s books?
Kathryn: Growth. Children are smarter and tougher than most people give them credit for, and a lot of them are undergoing tough issues themselves. If they’re not, they need to understand their peers who are. Also, you owe it to yourself to stretch and challenge. Take a risk, but have wisdom, and have your reasons, because you will most certainly be questioned by editors, teachers, and kids. There are issues out there, especially now, we need to address. As artists, we face those risks and tackle them. Artists push the envelope. As Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
WriterHouse: What are the rewards when these books are successful?
Kathryn: You touch a nerve – hopefully a positive one. You connect with people who might not always see themselves in stories. You open minds. You encourage free thinking. You model bravery. You might even inspire other writers like yourself.
WriterHouse: What would you like people to know about “Taking Risks when Writing for Children?”
Kathryn: We’ll talk about risks and why it’s OK to take them, and the benefits, as well as risks that are unwise. I would never tell anyone to stop writing anything but I will point out what might not get published. We’ll take a look at a variety of current children’s literature from picture books to young adult. Please bring your questions and drafts so we can address any specific issues you may be having. Looking forward to seeing you!