BRATTLEBORO — Author Katherine Paterson, who writes books for children and young adults, is a two-time winner of the prestigious John Newbery Medal for children's books and a two-time winner of the National Book Award.
To put that in perspective, it almost never happens.
Paterson, 92, has written more than 30 books and won over 20 national and international awards. She writes with empathy, vividness, and clarity about the uncomfortable truths of characters who immediately come alive on the page.
“Most of us who write for children write because we want the books we needed when we were little,” Paterson told me during a 2017 interview for Vermont Business Magazine that took place at her Montpelier home.
“If you had a totally happy childhood where everybody loved you, I'm sure you can probably write a perfectly good book for children,” she continued. “But I think those of us who were weird and on the outside have a leg up.”
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Brooks Memorial Library will host a presentation by Paterson at Centre Congregational Church, 193 Main St., on Friday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. She will speak about her just-published novel for young people, Birdie's Bargain, in honor of Veterans Day.
Paterson gave her latest book a strong Vermont flavor. The father of the central character, Birdie, is in the Vermont Army National Guard and about to leave for his third tour of duty in Iraq. To save money, Birdie and her family move from Brattleboro to live with her Gran up north, and she has to deal with being the new kid in a new school in an unfamiliar place.
Convinced that her father is not going to survive a third deployment, Birdie makes a deal with God: she'll “be a witness in the world if...you will just keep my Daddy safe.” But she finds this deal is something that is easier said than done, and it tests her faith in unexpected ways.
“It's a heck of a lot harder to write for young people than it is to write for adults,” said Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica, who has been a judge for both the National Book Awards and the Newbery awards. “And anybody who's ever written a picture book will tell you it's like writing poetry. You have to distill to the very essence. You can't have an extra word, or anything inauthentic. It's a lot harder.”
LaTronica said that Paterson, who wrote such enduring and beloved young people's books such as Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved, has a knack of connecting with young readers.
“How can you not learn and experience empathy when you read about her characters?” LaTronica said. “She has such heart in all her books. And not in a sappy, sentimental way.”
“People say you learn empathy by reading fiction. Sometimes, with her, they're characters that you worry about. Sometimes they're in peril. Sometimes you cry for them when they die. She really makes me care about her characters.
“That's why she has all those awards and other writers don't. She really puts herself into the characters and onto the page, and that's what I love.”
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Bridge to Terabithia has the dubious distinction of showing up on the American Library Association's list of most commonly challenged books in the United States.
It's a good list to be on; Paterson joins Stephen King, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jack London, among others.
For those who haven't read the book, it tells the story of two rural youngsters, a boy named Jesse and a girl named Leslie, both outsiders at school, who become great friends and create an imaginary and magical world called Terabithia in the forest; it's on the other side of a small stream that they cross by swinging on a rope, one at a time.
Since it was published in 1977 and later filmed twice, I don't think I need a spoiler alert. [Editor's note: Consider this a spoiler alert, with a major plot point coming your way.]
What aspect of a young person's book can attract such censorship? Death, that's what.
For example, one of the two main characters in Bridge to Terabithia dies unexpectedly. To the reader, it is quite a shock.
When Jesse is off on a day trip with his teacher, he comes back to learn that the stream has swollen, the rope has broken, and Leslie has fallen in and died. Her death leaves the reader unprepared and devastated, just as it leaves Jesse.
“How could you kill off Leslie?” was practically the first thing out of my mouth after I sat down to talk with Paterson.
Paterson's decision to have one of her main characters die - instead of breaking an arm or leg, for example - has garnered her the most criticism.
“I get these letters from adults saying death is not an appropriate topic for 10-year-olds,” Paterson told me. “But I had two children who lost friends. David was 8 and Mary was 4 when friends died. It's not appropriate, but it happens.”
Children's books that feature death run counter to an American squeamishness about the subject.
“Death is a terrible thing for a child,” Paterson said. “Loss is hard. Now people say, 'I gave the book to this child because they've had this terrible loss.' But it should be a reversal. They should read it before anyone dies.”
Her writing philosophy is simple.
“You write what you can,” Paterson said. “I began to discover that's what I could do. And I was asking the same questions that children asked - the vital questions of life: love and hate, life and death. The very, very basic questions.
“So you write to answer your own questions, don't you? I get accused of writing books that are too intense for children, and children tell me differently.
“My favorite story: I was at an adult conference, and this woman got up. She obviously had read my books and knew I was speaking, and she was furious with me.
“She said, 'Your books are for children, and they're too intense. No child could ever understand them.'
“And I said, 'I would have felt judged, except the week before I had gotten a letter from a teacher who wanted to tell me about a book report that the so-called bad boy in his class had written.
“He had read The Great Gilly Hopkins, and he wrote, 'This book is a miracle. Mrs. Paterson understands exactly how children feel.' I don't have a good memory for detail, but I have a good emotional memory. I do remember how it feels. And even though I'm an elderly person, I still have that 9-year-old and that 14-year-old inside of me.”
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The feeling of being an outsider is familiar ground for Paterson.
Born in China in 1929, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, she has lived in the Montpelier area since the mid-1980s, when her late husband, the Rev. John Paterson, was assigned to a church in Barre.
People respect one another's work in Vermont, Paterson said.
“If you write for children, you're quite accustomed, if you go places where writers gather, to being sneered at because you merely write for children,” she said. “They say, or at least they think, 'If you were a good writer, you'd write for real people.'”
“That doesn't happen here,” she continued. “I don't have to apologize to anybody for writing for kids. And everywhere else I go, I don't apologize. But I know what they think.”
After Paterson published her memoir, Stories of My Life, in 2014, which she wrote while her husband was dying, she thought she might be done with writing.
“I was kind of brain dead,” she said. “I thought, 'I'll never have another idea worth pursuing.' My children just roll their eyes when I say things like that. But I thought, 'I've had a good run, and I'm past 80, and even Philip Roth has retired. And I don't want to write the book that makes people think I should have stopped several books ago.'
“And then I got excited about this idea and thought, 'OK.' I was so thrilled to be writing again.”
That idea turned into her 2017 book, My Brigadista Year, about Lora, a 13-year-old girl who joins a literacy campaign instigated by Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1961.
“I didn't realize how much I missed [writing],” she said. “It was a delight.”