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A Profile of Katherine Paterson

Katherine the storyteller.

If Scheherazade and Katherine Paterson went tale-to-tale in a 
storytelling contest, Katherine would be the one to keep her head. The Arabian maiden may have managed to stave off death for 1001 nights, but do the math: that’s less than three years.

Katherine has been telling stories for forty years, and although her audience fell in love with her decades ago and she could have folded up her tent then, she is still telling stories.

Explorer and “Arabian Nights” scholar Sir Richard Burton could have been describing Katherine when he commended Scheherazade’s skills and charms, her familiarity with the region’s legends, history, and ancient kings and queens. She could recite poetry by heart. She was intelligent and good natured, well versed in the literature of her people, kind, and enjoyable to be around.

Katherine is all that and more. To this already effusive description I could add other, more idiosyncratic talents Katherine has brought to her stories. She can describe the engineering of a loom (Lyddie), explain the workings of eighteenth-century Japanese puppetry (The Master Puppeteer), and create magical kingdoms out of thin air (Bridge to Terabithia). She can tell a sook from a jimmy (Jacob Have I Loved), and I’m fairly certain that she has written frequently enough about milking a cow that she could do so without taking a tail in the eye.

In this conceit, I play the equivalent of Scheherazade’s little sister. For roughly fifteen years Katherine and I have had lunch together almost every week. In the early years we alternated houses, usually serving each other chili, which Katherine loves. My chili was pathetic, a New Englander’s attempt to re-create Tex-Mex food. Katherine’s chili took the roof off my mouth.

Eight or so years ago, we abandoned cooking. We started meeting instead at the Wayside, a ninety-five-year-old diner with maroon wallpaper, green Naugahyde booths, well-scuffed carpeting, and a hand dryer that sounds throughout the restaurant like a helicopter is lifting off inside the ladies’ room. On any given Wednesday, our fellow diners might be elderly couples, farmers, neighbors and friends, state employees, tourists, parishioners from the First Presbyterian Church in Barre, where Katherine’s husband was long a pastor, or a crew of four linemen from the power company, whose cherry picker is parked in the parking lot, and who look like defensive ends huddled together for a tea party with cucumber sandwiches.

We’ve been regulars for so long that we have our own server. Of course, Charlotte works a few other tables, too, because she has to make a living, but all the other servers know that we belong to Charlotte. By the time we reach our booth, this no-nonsense Vermonter, who brings us squash from her garden in the fall and homemade pumpkin bread at Christmas, has water with lemon waiting for Katherine and iced tea waiting for me. No need to order. A few minutes later, Charlotte delivers two BLTs on toasted whole wheat and a single side of coleslaw divided between two bowls. If there’s lemon meringue pie for dessert, we split a slice. If there isn’t, we remind ourselves that we’re watching our weight. Charlotte keeps our glasses full long after we’ve finished our lunch. At a quarter to two, Katherine leaves for her piano lesson, always lamenting that she hasn’t had enough time to practice. But we both know that the day she starts practicing more is also the day she will start writing less. Learning to play the piano well, therefore, is actually not a goal devoutly to be wished.

Katherine starts telling stories before she is out of her coat and settled into our booth. They spill from her like flowing water. Perhaps there’s been an interesting phone call that morning, an invitation to speak somewhere, the announcement of an award, or a struggle finding source material for the abundantly detailed setting of one of her books. But whatever the story, it is rarely linear. To achieve the richness she knows lies within this and every good story may require backing up, performing loop-de-loops through her childhood in China, dredging up some detail from her years trying to get launched as a writer in Takoma Park while rearing four small children, using a little backfill from her visits to makeshift libraries in Venezuela, and sprinkling a dusting of anecdotes from her meeting with the Empress of Japan. The stories Katherine tells in her books and over lunch have complex structures as exquisitely and elegantly designed as great suspension bridges. My sandwich is almost gone, and Katherine finally starts nibbling on the loose lettuce escaping from hers.

As Katherine tells her stories, the air between us fills with names. Katherine loves people, and she knows thousands of them. This is a great gift if you are trying to write a story that someone will care about. She speaks of her friends and acquaintances with joy, and generously assumes that I know the same people she does. This is rarely true, but if I look blank, she will happily provide an introduction. Consequently, I have known many of you for years, although you could not pick me out of a room with two people in it.

Only occasionally does anyone passing our table at the Wayside interrupt us, although we are both well known in our respective small communities. One of the most beloved children’s book writers in the world sits in the Wayside every week telling stories, and she is as seemingly unremarkable there as the man in the corner booth reading the local paper as he sips his soup. For the longest time, Charlotte did not know that Katherine and I are both writers. When I filled her in one day about Katherine’s international fame—the two Newbery Medals and one Honor, the two National Book Awards, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, being named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, now the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, and the scores and scores of other awards — Charlotte responded equably with, “Is that so?” She took a moment to study the unassuming mother of four and grandmother of seven sitting across from me, who from time to time shows up with one earring missing or looking as if she had used the ladies’-room helicopter to dry her hair. Once Charlotte satisfied herself that nothing fundamental had changed among us, that Katherine, despite these revelations, puts her pants on the same way everybody else does, she went back to the kitchen without another word.

Katherine, for her part, whooped. Katherine’s whoop is an explosion of unexpected delight, a sound as pure as any child makes, a rare treat, and a reminder that she will always be in some ways a product of the southern Piedmont. Her whoop is nothing like her laugh. Katherine laughs a lot. Her sense of humor is warm and self-deprecating. She has told me several times over lunch that her mother had no fear that her middle child’s fame would go to her head, having apparently said, “Oh, Katherine has a lot to be humble about.” Just telling this story makes her laugh again. Watching Katherine laugh, and knowing that she has gotten up before sunrise in order to write for a few hours before taking up the care of her beloved husband, I can see where the threads of hope that she has woven through her books have been plucked from her own life and character. Charlotte arrives and tells us in mock seriousness to keep it down. We are enjoying ourselves more than anyone else in the restaurant, but we don’t have to make a scene.

Although Katherine is a born performer who lights up when she reads aloud to a group of children, she is not by nature a chandelier dripping in crystals. There is nothing excessive in her books, no cheap glitter; there are no adoring customers sitting all around us at the diner. Katherine is adamant that her novels are fiction, the distillation of experience rather than the re-creation of it, but I can see that the well from which she draws is exceptionally deep and nourishing. She has led a remarkable life, and I hasten to add that it is not over.

We recently complained to Charlotte that lemon meringue pie had not been on the menu in ages. She brought the co-owner of the diner over to our table, and he brought the log from the kitchen that keeps track of which desserts will be prepared for each day of the month. While standing in front of us, he wrote “lemon meringue pie” in the slot for the coming Wednesday. That day, Charlotte brought us each our own slice. She and the couple who co-own the Wayside gathered around us as if this were a reality cooking show and Katherine and I would be voting one of them off.

Katherine said, “I feel very special,” as she picked up her fork.

She will bring this moment up again in some future story, and even though I lived it too, I look forward to hearing the telling. As Katherine said one dark day this winter when we were bringing light to each other’s lives at one of 
our Wednesday lunches, “The stories 
go on and on and on.” Scheherazade had no idea.

From the July/August 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more ALA coverage, click on the tag ALA 2013.

Nancy Price Graff About Nancy Price Graff

Nancy Price Graff is the author of books including The Strength of the Hills: A Portrait of a Family Farm (Little, Brown) with photographs by Richard Howard; In the Hush of the Evening (HarperCollins), illustrated by G. Brian Karas; and A Long Way Home (Clarion).

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