Caffeine is in high demand when I walk into a West Village coffee shop to meet Paul Acampora. A dozen uniformed New York City firefighters are lined up around the counter and suddenly my scale of need for an Americano has gone from indifferent to desperate. How long is this line going to take? Will they run out of my favorite roast? Is the FDNY going to stake claim on every last packet of raw sugar before I can even order? It is the potential absence of a usually readily available staple that makes said staple all the more appealing, a fitting prologue to a conversation with the author of I Kill the Mockingbird.
Co-mingled with coming-of-age tribulations, Acampora’s novel is about creating a frenzied need for something by eliminating its accessibility (in this case, a classic piece of literature). With the advent of summer, Lucy and her contemporaries are issued a summer reading list to prepare for their entrée to high school; To Kill a Mockingbird is one of several choices. Lucy believes that slapping Harper Lee’s chef d’oeuvre in the middle of a crowded list implies that her classmates won’t read it. Sacrilege! So Lucy and her best friends Elena and Michael opt to circumnavigate the potential travesty by making copies of the classic book disappear. If supply diminishes, demand will go up and their friends will in turn enthusiastically tackle the world of Scout, Boo and Atticus. The trio create an on-line presence, anonymously dub themselves “I Kill the Mockingbird” and set to hiding the books. When their mission catches on faster and further than expected, their “literary terrorism” comes into question. Are they devious, delinquent or just enthusiastic readers bound to defend classic literature?
“The reality is you hope children will make good choices,” says Acampora. “And then they realize those rules are artificial in a way and they can start making their own choices for better or for worse and then you have to start learning about consequences—and that’s called wisdom….In the middle-grade realm, that’s happening fast, and it’s a great place to tell stories from.”
Acampora has previously told stories in this realm from the point of view of a young girl defying her mother’s plans for familial reinvention (Defining Dulcie) and a boy dually dealing with abandonment by his mother and a crush on a spitfire girl (Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face).
“Each time I try to do something that I didn’t think I did well last time,” says Acampora. “So the first time I had no idea what I was doing, but it came together, especially because of my editor Nancy Mercado who has so much faith in me it’s not even fair. And in the second book, I wanted to work with romantic relationships because in the first book I didn’t know how to do it. And this time I really wanted to do comedy. I wanted to be funny on purpose, not just by accident.”
There’s nothing accidental here. The harmonious interplay between the three main characters bubbles with that comedy as well as page-turning wit. Acampora is humble. He won’t say that I Kill the Mockingbird reads as though written by someone skilled at crafting coming-of-age characters with Scout-like gumption, but it does. And though we’re discussing his book, I declare that I’m already planning to re-read Ms. Lee’s.
“It wasn’t my intention to pitch To Kill a Mockingbird. My intention is always to write a good story. But as the book became more and more alive, I realized, ‘No, I want people to go to the source material, if you will, and see what a good book looks like.’ That doesn’t mean you’re going to fall in love with it because there are parts of To Kill a Mockingbird that are a big mess. But it’s also a great book.”
Now that the sun is a little stronger and snowplows are being filed into the recesses of distant memory, I’m ready and set for summer reading suggestions. Acampora says he’s unsure of exactly where he stands when it comes to “the force-feeding of reading” via summer reading lists, but I still ask him to put one together for me. After beginning with To Kill a Mockingbird and suggesting some science fiction and fantasy, he shakes his head and decides there’s a more efficient route to what I’m seeking.
“I go to my library,” says Acampora, “and I tell my librarians I just read The Fault in Our Stars, I just read Reality Boy and I just read the three-volume history of World War II. What should I read next? And they go, ‘Oh! Come with me!’ And that kind of list is so exciting.”
Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is admittedly addicted to horror films, is at work on his own teen novel and still thinks a ham is the best costume ever.