The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Katherine Paterson: The Nation's Champion of Children's Books

Katherine Paterson. Photo by Samantha Loomis Paterson

Katherine Paterson isn't exactly one for sugarcoating emotion. For many children, death was first experienced in Bridge to Terebithia. Sibling rivalry was discovered to be a universal syndrome, not just a personal one, in Jacob Have I Loved. Other cultures and the pain of civil strife were exposed through books such as Of Nightingales That Weep, Sign of the Chrysanthemum, and most recently, The Day of the Pelican. With 16 young adult novels and seven picture books, the two-time Newberry Award-winner has been helping children navigate the complexity of feeling since her first book was published in 1976.

These days, Paterson has taken on the formidable task of getting children to turn off the TV and pick up a book. In 2010, she was made the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, a two-year position created by the Library of Congress and the Children's Book Council in 2008. Paterson says the Ambassadorship was designed to encourage reading and to "call attention to the importance of reading in our lives." I talked with the author to see why reading is indeed so important, what role books played in her own childhood, and why children's writers are often considered to be the second-class citizens of the literary world.

NEA: Why was the Ambassador position something you were interested in taking on?

PATERSON: Because that's what I've been doing for the last 40 years—I've been going around talking about the importance of reading. It made me very happy to have a rather larger platform to make my case.

NEA: So make your case to me: why is it important for children to read?

PATERSON: I'm sure you have been reading all the articles lately about what happens to people's brains when they're only on electronics. I think we can see it in our whole political unhappiness these days that people are not reading deeply. Reading takes work. Practically nothing else that we do electronically takes any work really. It might take a little work to figure out the way of doing it; children seem to be born knowing that these days. [For] the rest of us, it's hard for us to figure out all these ins and outs.

But if you're talking in shorthand code all the time, and thinking in shorthand code all the time, what happens to reflection? It reduces politics to sound bytes. Nobody really listens carefully or critically to what's being said. But if you're not reading the newspapers, if you're not reading history, if you're not reading fiction, which helps you understand how other people think and feel, then you?re not really equipped to deal with the world as it is. We're living on a very shallow plane right now because so few people are thinking critically. And I think reading is what helps us figure out how to think critically.

NEA: And do you think those skills begin to be developed during childhood?

PATERSON: Oh yes. I was just at the National Book Festival, and when you're with mostly people who write for old people [rather] than children, the children's writers are not held in great respect. But then you get the big people like Toni Morrison on the stage, and she talks about what reading as a child meant to her. Edmund Morris did the same thing, talking about the books he read as a child and what effect they had on his life. He fell in love with Theodore Roosevelt in a book he read as a child, and then he grew up and wrote a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. I've heard David McCullough talk about how as a child he read Ben and Me, which is a wonderful, playful biography of Benjamin Franklin written by his mouse. And that's what made him become a historian. So the reading that we do as children has an enormous effect on our lives because we're so impressionable at that point. It's hard to catch up with that when you get older.

NEA: I know that you had an unusual childhood traveling between China and the United States. So I'm wondering what role did books play in your own childhood?

PATERSON: An enormous role in my childhood. We lived in China when I was very tiny, and my mother read aloud to us. Of course, we lived up in the country where there were no English bookstores or English libraries, so the books we read were the books in our own home, and we read them over and over again. We had a wonderful American friend who used to send us books. That was like opening a treasure chest when Mrs. Brown would send us books. Mostly the books I read as a child were great English classics, A.A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame and Beatrice Potter, Robert Louis Stevenson. I sort of taught myself to read, or absorbed it from my older brother and sister when I was very young. When I came to the United States and it was very strange, books were my friends, and have always been my friends, even though now I have very good [non-book] friends. I love to read, and I'm always into at least one book.

NEA: What are you reading right now?

PATERSON: I'm reading now, absolutely for fun, Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next. I had enjoyed The Eyre Affair, I think it was his first book about Thursday Next. And so I was in a secondhand bookstore last week, and I thought I might get some Thursday Next books. I just finished reading Sense and Sensibility, which I really loved re-reading that, but I thought it might be fun to do a Thursday Next next.

NEA: The theme for your tenure is "Read for your life." Can you elaborate on what you mean by that exactly?

PATERSON: When they asked me if I would be the ambassador and said I had to have a platform, I thought, "Politicians have platforms." I couldn't imagine a platform. They suggested several things, none of which seemed to be me at all, and I kept trying to figure out something. And I had a dream, actually. I dreamed I was back in Venezuela, where I'd been back in 2000—this is where the story gets long.

I was given the Hans Christen Anderson Award in 1998. The American division of the International Board on Books for Young People was so proud that an American had won the international award that they gave me a surprise present, which was $13,000. But it was a present for me to give away, and I was to choose some cause for books for children in the world to give this $13,000 away to. Of course that seemed like a big responsibility—my friends from all over the country had donated this money. So I was trying to figure out what to do with the money when a terrible natural tragedy happened in Venezuela. There was rain, rain, rain, rain, and whole mountainsides just collapsed and buried whole villages and thousand of people were killed and many others were left homeless and bereaved. And so I emailed Carmen Diana Dearden, who was a good friend of mine and had been president of the International Board on Books for Young People. I said is there any way this $13,000 could help in your work [in Venezuela]? She's a publisher of children's books and also was head of the largest literacy organization in Venezuela. They had been trying to figure out what besides just food and clothing and temporary shelter they could do for victims. So they decided to initiate a program called Read to Live. They took books and storytellers in four-wheel drives over the mountains—there were no more roads—to a school that was there and sent out the word that the storytellers had come. They read aloud and they told stories and they had songs with people just to sort of cheer them up. They began a whole program of teaching the people there—they thought they were going to [be working with] teachers, but then parents asked to be involved in how to use books to help children in this terrible tragedy. So the $13,000 was used to buy books, which they loaned out to people to read in their own homes. They would gather their families and their neighbors together and have storytime in their homes. And they called it Read to Live.

So I had a dream about them, and I thought that's what you do: you read for your life. You read to enrich your own life, and you read for the life of your family as you read together and talk about the books that you've read, and you read for your community to understand other people, and you read for your country, because you have to understand in order to be a good citizen, an informed citizen, and you read for the world so you can understand other people who are quite different from yourself. So that's how I came up with it. I didn't tell them when I announced it that I had gotten it in a dream.

NEA: Has anything surprised you about being in this position so far?

PATERSON: I'll tell you what's surprised me and made me really happy. Over the years, I've done a lot of interviews. When I first began to win prizes and people began to interview me, sometimes they would very seriously apologize to me for interviewing me, because really they did much more important things for the paper. They'd gotten tricked into talking to a children's writer. And you'd sit there trying very hard to keep the interviewer from sounding absolutely stupid, which sometimes was a big fight.

Then suddenly, this past year, when I became ambassador, I began to have these very intelligent interviews. In fact, people began to say to me at the end of the interviews how much my books had meant to me when they were children. It of course made all the difference in the world in how the interviewer approached me because they loved my books, and they remembered them. That was really quite a wonderful surprise.

NEA: No author who writes for adults is ever asked why they chose to write for adults. But that's always the question for children's authors: why did you choose to write for children? Why do you think there's this extra layer of justification needed for children's authors?

PATERSON: I think there is this very strange notion that if you're any good, you'd be writing for the "real people." I don't know where these people leave their childhoods behind. Anybody knows that the reading you do as a child is the most important reading you'll ever do. So it is a very strange question that you have to explain to people. I say, "I found out fortunately very early on that I ask the same questions that children ask." And that's what I care about. I don't care about adultery and academia. I care about life and death, and is it possible to love another person—the very important questions that we ask ourselves when we're ten years old.

NEA: Do you still have vivid memories of what it felt like to be a child?

PATERSON: I often say I don't have a really good memory for details, but I have a wonderful memory for feelings. I think it's my emotional memory that's served me well as a children's writer. Adults will fuss at me for the intensity of my emotions in my books, and that they're too intense for children. And then children will say—and I'm quoting directly—"This book was a miracle. Mrs. Paterson knows exactly how children feel."

NEA: Throughout your career, how have you seen children's literature change? Do you have any sense for what its future might hold?

PATERSON: I see sort of a tendency to try to imitate technology in books. I don't think it works. It doesn't work for me; it may work for more technologically-savvy people. I think what's going to last as far as literature is concerned is what's always been important, and that is a really good story with characters you care about. Gimmicks and tricks will come and go, but the reader, and what every human being I think truly hungers for is a really good story. And I think when the newness of all of our technology wears thin, people are going to be hungry for good stories, and [will] find that technology doesn't satisfy that. Technology always had to be faster and quicker and more clever, and you get sated with that. But you're never tired of a really good story.

NEA: Can you explain what you mean when you say that books try to mimic technology? In what way exactly?

PATERSON: Well, there's a book I saw recently that was sort of all written in the kind of language you have in texting, imitating texting. I don't think books do that so well. If you want to text, text.

NEA: You once said in an interview that, "I finally realized that if you are not willing to be mediocre you'll never be anything. You have to dare to write. It takes nerve." What's nervy about it?

PATERSON: This goes back to when I was in graduate school, and one of my professors stopped me in the hall and said, "Have you ever thought about being a writer?" This is on the basis of some exam paper I'd written for her. Having been an English major and knowing what really good writing is, I said, "No. I wouldn't want to add another mediocre writer to the world." And she said, "Well, maybe that's what God is calling you to be." (This was a seminary.) I had a little trouble thinking that God wanted a whole lot of mediocre writers. But I finally realized what she meant was if you don't dare to be mediocre, you're not going to do anything, you're not going to be anything at all, because you don't dare to write. So what you have to do is just dare to write. People want guarantees before they write that they're going to be good. I have all kinds of people saying, "I want you to read this for me and see if it's good." I'm not going to do that. You have to dare to be bad. You have to dare to put yourself out there and try and if you won't try because you're afraid you won't be good, then you'll never do it.

NEA: Have any books or authors changed your life?

PATERSON: My whole life has been shaped in a great way by the things I have read. And that's why I think it's so sad when people don't read. Caroline Gordon, who's a not well-known writer at all, but who was a very wonderful writer, wrote a book on how to read a novel once, which is just as valuable as how to write a novel I think. But she says that a great novel is a conversion experience: you aren't the same person afterward that you were before. And I think that's true.


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