Award-winning novelist Kathryn Erskine has written about a lot of topics, but there is one theme that unites them all: hope.
“That’s really why I write,” she says. “There are always people around who will help you, always a reason to keep trying, so don’t give up!”
Erskine will be at Sweet Briar on Nov. 1 to read from “Mockingbird,” a 2010 National Book Award winner. The Writers Series event takes place at 4:30 p.m. in Mary Helen Cochran Library’s Reahard Learning Gallery and is free and open to the public.
It’s a lesson she took to heart in her own life, too: Before making her living as a writer, Erskine was a lawyer.
“[Hope is] what made me a writer — I almost gave up until I realized it would take time, effort and many failures before finding success,” she says.
Since publishing her first novel in 2007, Erskine has won multiple honors — several for each of her books. Her debut, “Quaking,” was followed in 2010 by “Mockingbird,” her most decorated novel, and later “The Absolute Value of Mike” (2011), “Seeing Red” (2013) and “The Badger Knight” (2014). All of them, she says, “deal with tolerance and understanding, and they all seem to be about finding family in some way, often a nontraditional family.”
Her first picture book, “MAMA AFRICA,” the story of South African civil rights activist and singer Miriam Makeba, will be published in 2017. Writing for much younger readers — and using far fewer words — was a challenge the self-described “wordy” novelist embraced.
“You need to leave room for the artwork, not physical room but the emotional space for an artist to create, and ultimately enhance, the story,” Erskine explains. “It’s rewarding, though, to see how much can be shown in just a few, selective, and hopefully poetic, words.”
The best picture books, she adds, are those that can be appreciated at different levels.
“In addition to meeting young readers where they are, you also want to provide the opportunity for stretching.”
Meanwhile, Erskine is already on to the next challenge. She is working on several new books for young readers, teens and adults — including one written entirely in verse.
“Like a picture book, there are so few words that you really have to cut it to the bone without losing the impact or meaning or flow,” she says. “It took me a while to get it right and I’m still revising some of the verses.”
Born in the Netherlands, Erskine has lived all over the world, growing up in Europe, Africa, Canada and the United States. She now lives in Charlottesville, Va., but continues to travel across the country and internationally for speeches, readings and school visits. This is her first reading at Sweet Briar, but not the first time she has set foot on campus.
“I had a friend who went to Sweet Briar and visited her during our freshman year,” she recalls. “I was taken with its small size and beauty — and the support, camaraderie and pure fun you could have at an all-women’s college!”