An Interview with Katherine Paterson

As a member of the selection committee, I knew last fall that Katherine Paterson was going to be our second National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and my partner Richard and I (along with our dog Buster) went up to Vermont to visit with Katherine and her husband John (and their dog Annie), ask a few questions, and partake of the best scones I’ve ever eaten, just baked by the Ambassador-in-Waiting herself (who graciously provided us with a bagful for the ride back). I managed to ask Katherine a few questions in between bites.

ROGER SUTTON: So, Madam Ambassador, what does your reign have in store for us?

KATHERINE PATERSON: I woke up one morning and realized that what I wanted to say to everyone—children, young people, adults—was: Read for your life. Reading has made such a profound difference to my life. I’m sure I became a writer because of the power of literature in my own life. It began when I was an infant and our mother read to us in our tiny Chinese house in Huai’an. We book people are always preaching about reading aloud to children, but unless you do, you can’t realize how it enriches family life. Teachers have almost stopped reading aloud to their classes because of the pressure of testing and tight curricula, but it is the books we read together and talk about together that bring us closer together. We are able, then, to have a common language with which to discuss difficult subjects. We can read the paper or current magazines and learn about national and world events, think about controversial subjects, learn how to disagree respectfully, and how, finally, to act on our convictions. We can read for pure delight, and if we do this as a family or classroom or other group we can build wonderful memories.

RS: Why do you think the position of Ambassador is a necessary one?

KP: According to the website, and I quote: “The position of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was created to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education, and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.” I think that sums up the mission quite well. As much pleasure as young people get from Twittering and texting, there is no way these activities will nourish their minds and spirits the way literature can. More than fifty years ago Sputnik dramatically raised the nation’s awareness of what was lacking in science and math education in this country. What we need to wake people up to now is the crisis in imagination and concern for the greater good. We have no idea what the next ten years, much less the next fifty years, will demand of the coming generation. What we do know is that unless we have a people prepared and eager to meet those crises creatively and compassionately, there is not much hope for this poor old planet of ours.

RS: One great thing about Jon and you as ambassadors is your knowledge and appreciation of children’s books beyond your own. What does being part of the children’s book community mean to you?

KP: My children never knew me before I became a writer. They knew me before I was a successfully published writer, but starting in 1978, when Bridge to Terabithia won the Newbery, they became not just book lovers but a part of the children’s book community. When John, Jr., joined the working world and saw how it operated, he said to me: “I guess you know, Mom, that you work with the best people in the world.” And I do know it. The children’s book world has given me wonderful friendships and an unbelievably rich life. For more than twenty years I have been a part of Children’s Literature New England, where children’s books are read and talked about at a level that stretches the intellect and renews the spirit. I am also vice president of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a group of authors and illustrators who have banded together to make issues related to young people’s literature, literacy, and libraries a priority for our nation. When I was asked to consider becoming the new children’s ambassador, it struck me that that was exactly what I and my colleagues in the NCBLA have been seeking to do for the last twelve years, so I was thrilled at the opportunity. Internationally, I have been active in the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) and its local section, USBBY. IBBY has widened my children’s book community to include friends and colleagues in nearly eighty countries.

RS: How does a writer balance the need for community (and, in the case of the ambassadorship, public service) and the need for solitude?

KP: Balance? Who balances? But I do know that I need solitude, not only to write but to nourish myself (being, like most writers, an introvert) so that I do keep trying to write. You may have noticed that the space between books has gotten longer and longer the last few years.

RS: The last time I interviewed you was in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11. How can books help in scary times?

KP: After what I remember as an idyllic nearly five years in Huai’an, the war between China and Japan began in earnest. My parents, siblings, and I were in the mountains on a rare vacation when the bombs began to fall, and we hid in dark rooms behind closed curtains or fled to shelter in the basement of a nearby church. Then we were eventually evacuated to Hong Kong where we were classic refugees, filthy from our long journey and carrying our few possessions. From there we came to the United States, where we fortunately had relatives kind enough to take all seven of us in until we were able to rent one apartment and then another. And we were, of course, considered very strange by our classmates in America. We went back to China—this time living in an occupied country where the only Japanese people I knew were soldiers with guns and bayonets—then evacuated once more to the U.S., where again we were alien and treated with derision and suspicion.

I’m sure my first nine years have had a powerful influence on the kind of books I write. After 9/11, someone asked me if I would write a book about that day, and I thought, Isn’t that what Bridge to Terabithia is about—sudden, unexpected terrible tragedy? I know when I went to schools that fall, I would read the part in the book that ends with Jesse thinking: “Sometimes it seemed to him that his life was delicate as a dandelion. One little puff from any direction, and it was blown away.” It was my oldest friend who pointed out to me that my newest book, The Day of the Pelican, reflects not only my childhood fears of war and powerlessness but the refugee experience of being despised and homeless. It is also the first time the actual 9/11 event has appeared in one of my books.

RS: Your allegiance to one editor, Virginia Buckley, is increasingly rare in children’s book publishing. What does working with one editor give you as a writer, and what do you count on from her the most?

KP: From her first letter, dated, as I recall, January of 1971, I could tell that Virginia respected what I was trying to do and wanted only for me to do it as well as I could. Whenever I read one of her letters in reply to a manuscript (and they still run to many pages) I get so excited about how I might be able to improve my book that I can hardly wait to get started on the revision. She has always given me total honesty and total support. I know there is no way I would be where I am today as a writer if it were not for her.

RS: What changes—whether cause for celebration or worry—in publishing are closest to your heart?

KP: Since my first novel was rescued from a slush pile, it makes me sad that most publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. Nor are many willing to take chances on novels that are not deemed immediately “marketable.” My first novel was set in twelfth-century Japan. If I were trying to start out as a writer today, who would be willing to take it on?

RS: Do you ever want to go crazy and write a vampire novel or bodice ripper?

KP: I don’t think I am capable of writing either of those. They take special skills I don’t possess. What I really want to do is to write a hilarious farce. The closest I’ve come to that is my couple of chapters in The Exquisite Corpse Adventure for the Library of Congress. That was great fun.

RS: And may you have as great fun with your ambassadoring! You’re going to do a wonderful job.

Five great books by Katherine Paterson

Yes, it was hard to pick just five titles from a distinguished career spanning more than thirty-five years, but the books listed below demonstrate that Katherine Paterson is equally adept in many genres. I left off Bridge to Terabithia on the assumption that you’ve already read it (and PS: it’s better than the movie).

Winner of a Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Paterson and illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, a retelling of a Japanese folktale, makes for a perfect picture book, its themes of honor and devotion woven tightly into the satisfying story.

First in a series of three (thus far) easy readers and illustrated by Jane Clark Brown, The Smallest Cow in the World introduces Marvin, a quintessential Paterson hero (stubborn and imaginative) and his contemporary farm family.

Something of a sequel to Paterson’s Lyddie, and winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Jip is a classic story of an orphan in search of his roots, set in pre-Civil War Vermont. Surprises abound.

Perhaps the most uncharacteristic of Paterson’s novels, Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom is a dramatic and bloody panorama of a mid-nineteenth-century rebellion in China, complete with a secret society (Christians) and women warriors.

In the Newbery Medal-winning Jacob Have I Loved, Louise is terribly jealous of her minutes-younger twin Caroline, who seems favored by fortune and the family over Louise. The 1940s Chesapeake Bay setting is practically another character in this intense young adult novel.

— Roger Sutton

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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