For Kathryn Erskine, art imitates life—deliberately. “I love reading and learning things from fiction,” she says, “and I figured others would, too.”
They certainly do: Her third novel, the 2010 National Book Award winner Mockingbird, features a fifth grader named Caitlin, who was inspired by Erskine’s daughter; both have Asperger’s syndrome.
In Erskine’s engaging new novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, the main character has a math-related learning disability that creates friction with his engineering-obsessed father. Once again, Erskine drew on the experiences of a family member—her son, who has a learning disability. The author says she’s learned a lot from him and wanted to incorporate those lessons in The Absolute Value of Mike. “I was a kid who got straight A’s, and thought that’s what you should do, that it meant you were smart,” she says by phone from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia. “My son does fine, but he’s not a straight-A kind of kid, and I realized he has all these life skills—he understands people, and he’s a problem-solver. I’ve learned great grades don’t guarantee success.”
The author wants kids to understand that, too. “I see children with learning disabilities or other issues who are down on themselves,” Erskine says. “I’d like them to take the message away that we all have something to contribute, and we need to follow whatever our passion is.”
Young readers will empathize with Mike’s frustration at his father’s insistence that math would be easier if he only tried harder—and they’ll share his trepidation when he’s sent to stay with relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer and work on an engineering project.
Mike becomes impatient with the project, but he is intrigued when he learns of a town-wide effort to raise money to adopt a little boy from Romania. Readers will be moved as Mike becomes part of something bigger than himself—and gains self-confidence in the process.
While a young Erskine wouldn’t have been daunted by a Pennsylvania trip (she lived in several countries as a child, thanks to her parents’ foreign-service jobs), she does know about international adoption—both her children are from Russia. “[Adoption] is something I thought others might not know that much about, but they’d be interested.”
Right now, Erskine is herself interested in a few different projects: an adult novel “for a change of pace”; a picture book “as an exercise to force myself to use very few words to get my point across”; and historical fiction for middle-grade readers.
“I don’t even want to use the h-word, because it turns kids off sometimes, but history is like a fantasy world—except it really happened!” Readers won’t need convincing. Thanks to books like Mockingbird and The Absolute Value of Mike, it’s clear that, if anyone can make learning an enjoyable experience, Erskine can.