Kathryn Erskine is the author of the children's picture book biography Mama Africa!: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song. Erskine's other books include Mockingbird and Seeing Red. She spent part of her childhood in South Africa, and now lives in Virginia.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography about singer Miriam Makeba?
A: Miriam Makeba was one of my heroes growing up and I wanted to introduce her to today's young people. As a child in South Africa, I learned about the horrors of apartheid.
Even from the perspective of my safe little world, I couldn’t understand why grownups came up with a system that separated people, that provided a school and playground and books only for me and other white kids.
It didn’t make sense. It was mean and unfair from my child’s perspective. Children can identify a just and humane society better than some adults. I knew they would understand her story.
Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Yes, her perseverance. I had no idea she’d survived so many traumatic life events like plane crashes, cancer, and losing her daughter and a grandson. She was an amazingly strong woman.
Much of my information came from her two autobiographies. It was good to be able to “hear” her voice. Listening to her music was a particularly enjoyable part of research, and remembering dancing to her music with my mother when I was a little girl, and later with my own children as a mom.
I did a lot of research about the setting and the era, the politics and society during her life, both in South Africa and the U.S., and what other people said about her, good and bad.
Obviously, a picture book biography can only be about one aspect of her life and, also obviously, as seen through the lens of the author. It’s my tribute to her, and the power of one individual’s voice.
Q: What do you think Charly Palmer's illustrations add to the book?
A: Everything. Really. When I was told he was going to be the artist, I went to his website and was so overcome with exactly how perfect his art was for this book, I cried. Not only are his illustrations ideally suited to the time period, they evoke the strong emotion of the subject, bold and determined.
I was thrilled when he won the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for his artwork in Mama Africa! He so deserved it, and I would say that even if I hadn’t been part of this project!
Q: What do you see as Miriam Makeba's legacy today?
A: The power of one voice to speak out against injustice, everywhere in the world, including right here in the United States.
In the pre-internet days, it took a lot longer to spread her message and get the world’s attention, and still she managed to help bring justice to her country. If she could do that without the internet, while being exiled from her own country, living in fear that her loved ones could be retaliated against for her behavior, surely we have the strength to speak out.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working with an artist on a picture book we think is pretty special, a middle grade novel, a young adult novel, and several novels for adults. I hadn’t planned or expected to write for adults but I simply write the stories that come into my head and the last several have been for older readers. It’s so interesting where this life takes us!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’m grateful to CABA [the Children's Africana Book Awards] and its mission to encourage the publication of children’s books that contribute to a better understanding of African societies and issues, and honored that they’re recognizing Mama Africa! as a best book for young readers!