Reading rainbow: Local children’s authors address issues from racism to bullying

In 2010, local author Kathryn Erskine took home the National Book Aware for young people's literature for Mockingbird, about a fifth grade girl with Asperger's. Photo: Eric Kelley In 2010, local author Kathryn Erskine took home the National Book Aware for young people’s literature for Mockingbird, about a fifth grade girl with Asperger’s. Photo: Eric Kelley

It’s no secret that Charlottesville loves the written word. The home of the Festival of the Book, local treasures like Dedalus Books, and ongoing workshops and classes at WriterHouse, this town is the place to be for writers and readers of all ages. You might recognize some of the big local names (John Grisham, anybody?) but what about our writers who churn out books for the younger set? If you and your kids are looking for some new literature to enjoy together, check out the following trio of Central Virginia writers.

Kathryn Erskine

Netherlands-born Kathryn Erskine, who lived in South Africa, Israel, Scotland, and Canada before ending up in Charlottesville, never even considered a career as an author when she was a kid. She spent her childhood poring over every book she could find and kept “embellished diaries” full of elaborate stories, but it wasn’t until adulthood that she actually saw herself as a writer.

“I thought you had to have special credentials or a place in society in order to be an author,” Erskine said. “I didn’t think just anybody could be an author.”

Clearly those childhood misconceptions didn’t last. In 2010, Erskine received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Mockingbird, her 200-page young adult novel about Caitlin, a fifth grade girl with with Asperger’s. It’s a heavy story told from Caitlin’s point of view as she grapples with the recent death of her older brother Devon, who had always helped her navigate the ambiguous gray areas in a world that she perceived as black and white.

“I really wanted to write coming-of-age stories for young people,” Erskine said. “I’m not writing so much for the adult, but they kind of end up being stories that when you’re younger you may not get all the nuances of, but as you get older, you do.”

Erskine looks back on To Kill a Mockingbird, the Harper Lee classic that she read around age 9, and remembers identifying with the main character, Scout, and feeling frustrated with Scout’s father, Atticus.

“Now I see more of the layers and adult perspectives that I didn’t have as a kid,” she said. “I really write for the child, but I want to write a story that is approachable by everyone.”

Erskine’s other titles include The Badger Knight and The Absolute Value of Mike. She’s currently working on a couple of novels and trying her hand at picture books.

Deborah Prum

Criticism and brutal honesty are just part of being a writer. So when Deborah Prum’s 11-year-old son read one of her short stories and threw it back at her, saying, “If you’re gonna write a story, write an ending, otherwise don’t bother writing it,” she took the advice to heart.

“When you have somebody critiquing your work, you want to know that they want you to succeed,” Prum said. “You don’t want to make your big mistakes in public. You want to make them with only a few people, and you want them to be honest.”

Prum, who’s been in Charlottesville with her husband for about 20 years, writes both fiction and nonfiction for young people. As a nonfiction writer, she said her goal is to grab kids’ curiosity and get them interested in something they might otherwise not give a second thought. Her interactive e-book, Czars and Czarinas, is a funny account of the first nine centuries of Russian history, and includes slideshows, talking portraits, and quippy modern details like “Ivan the Great’s personal ad” to illustrate the history of his search for a wife.

“It’s about getting kids to read stuff they wouldn’t normally read,” Prum said. “Keep it light and humorous so they read things they wouldn’t normally wrap their brains around.”

Other books include Rats, Bulls, and Flying Machines and Fatty in the Backseat.

Meg Medina

Of the more than 5,000 books that were published for children last year, less than 3 percent were written by or about Latinos. Richmond-based children’s author Meg Medina thinks this is a problem.

“Public schools are majority minority now,” Medina said. “There’s a disconnect because, at this point, everybody should be reading everybody’s books.”

The 2014 recipient of the Pura Belpré medal for her young adult novel about bullying, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, the Cuban-American author focuses on writing “strong girls and strong Latino characters.”

“It’s a feminist read in some ways, and about Latina identity,” Medina said. “It’s a topic I think everyone is sort of struggling with, how to help girls be resilient and respond to it. It’s very honest about what it looks like in schools, and how schools can be ineffective and part of the problem. I hope the book moves us beyond just posters at school.”

Medina doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. She wants to expose readers to the realities of immigrant families assimilating into American culture, and encourage kids to embrace feminism.

“I see so many young girls backing away from feminism right now, because they interpret it as a hatred of men,” she said. “But for every girl who’s playing on a sports team, taking high-level classes, or kicking ass at a university, they’re standing on the shoulders of women who worked really hard to make it no big deal.”

Medina doesn’t live in Charlottesville, but with her own kids at UVA and an upcoming partnership with the local Junior League to promote her Girls of Summer reading list, she makes her way down I-64 pretty often. Her other books include Tia Isa Wants a Car and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind.