Kathryn Erskine has lived in the Netherlands, Israel, South Africa, Scotland and Newfoundland, but she has called Charlottesville home for the last 14 years. This month marks the release of Erskine’s first picture book, Mama Africa! How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song, and her sixth middle-grade novel, The Incredible Magic of Being. Though written in two different genres and originating on two different continents, the books manifest a unifying intention: to empower young people.
Erskine first learned of singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, the subject of Mama Africa!, a picture book biography, while living in South Africa as the daughter of an American diplomat. “That’s the first country I remember as being home,” Erskine says of her 5-year-old self. When she began school, she thought all of the native South African children must be sick because she only saw white children attending her school. “That’s when my mom had to explain apartheid to me,” she recalls. “I knew my mother didn’t like it but that she was powerless. And that was a really scary thought because at that age you expect parents to be able to fix everything.”
One thing her mother could do was play the banned music of Miriam Makeba. Erskine says, “It was just a great sense of empowerment that as a girl or a woman you had a voice even when people said you didn’t.” Erskine purposefully chose a picture book format to chronicle Makeba’s life of combatting injustice because, she says, “I really wanted to make it approachable to kids. I wanted young kids to feel empowered—sort of like I did as a kid—that you do have a voice and that your voice and your song is important and powerful.”
In The Incredible Magic of Being, Erskine strives to connect young readers to own their distinct voice. In the case of 9-year-old protagonist Julian, that voice may be a nerdy one, and that’s just fine. The novel follows Julian and his family as they move from Washington, D.C., to Maine, and Julian thrills at the idea of exploring the universe through his telescope without the interference of light pollution. “I think kids are smart and curious and I want them to know that’s okay,” Erskine says. “It’s a great thing to be curious, even if people make fun of you. Just keep going because there will be people who appreciate that and you will get so much out of life if you live it the way you want and find out as much as you can.”
An inquisitive child herself, Erskine says she often didn’t verbalize her questions “because I thought people would think I was too weird.” But now she says, “It’s okay to just come right out and talk about parallel universes and how you might have a separate family in another universe, or you might have friends that cross over that barrier.”
These are the kinds of questions she allows herself to ask through the voice of Julian. Something he considers in the novel is the possibility that, as he was being born and his grandfather was dying, they passed each other in the cosmos and his grandfather communicated with him. The jacket of the book, which features a marshmallow aflame in a starlit sky, references one of the things his grandfather told him: “Don’t burn your marshmallows!”
But there’s another reason for the marshmallow. “I’ve learned to put in food that I like so that when I go visit some place and they want to put out the food in the book, it’s something I like to eat,” Erskine laughs. “I learned that with Mockingbird,” she says of her 2010 National Book Award winner. “I really don’t like gummy worms.” And that’s okay, too.
An opponent of Apartheid, singer Miriam Makeba was exiled from her native South Africa in 1960 when her passport was revoked. With the help of Harry Belafonte she came to the United States and continued her career. She won a Grammy in 1965, traveled with Paul Simon’s Graceland tour in the ’80s and starred in Sarafina! with Whoopi Goldberg in the ’90s. Through the years she resided in France, Guinea and Belgium, and finally returned to Johannesburg in 1990.