Conversation: Katherine Paterson, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature
Katherine Paterson, the author of many beloved children’s novels such as “The Bridge to Terabithia”, was last week named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Her diplomatic platform is based on the theme ‘Read for Your Life,’ encouraging reluctant young readers to find books that truly engage them in order to build a strong, lifelong love of reading.
With all the fuss these days over what medium people will be getting their literature in in the future — Paper book or e-book? — it seems important to ask the question: Will there actually be an audience of readers in the future? As Paterson says, “it’s just squiggles on the page without a reader.”
I spoke to her today by phone from Vermont:
A full transcript is after the jump.
Editor’s Note: This conversation is a part of a running series called The Next Chapter of Reading. Recently, we talked to Wired staff writer Priya Ganapati about the latest in consumer e-reader technology. And on the NewsHour, we had a report about the Google Books plan to digitize and offer millions of books online.
JEFFREY BROWN: Katherine Paterson, welcome.
KATHERINE PATERSON: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to talk with you.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, describe this new position you’ve taken and then why you wanted to take it?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, it is a new position. I’m only second National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and I was very honored when they asked me to take the position, because this is what I love to talk about. I’ve been talking about for 30-plus years and it just gives me a wider platform. I mean, you haven’t asked me on the NewsHour before have you? I get to talk to people who wouldn’t ordinarily listen to me talk about the world of children’s books.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a problem in this country with young people reading less? Is it a concern that you have? Is that why you want to talk about it?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, it’s hard for me to say exactly how much children are reading. Certainly some children are reading a lot and the children that I talk to tend to be the readers. There are many distractions and of course where there are many distractions, the time for reading is cut rather severely. My real concern is that all the wonderful technological toys that are available to children now don’t ask of them what reading asks of them. Reading asks that you bring your whole life experience and your ability decode the written word and your creative imagination to the page and be a co-author with the writer, because the story is just squiggles on the page unless you have a reader.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you think that a lot of the new technology doesn’t ask that of them.
KATHERINE PATERSON: I don’t that asks that of them. I haven’t seen any yet that does. Maybe somebody will correct me immediately on this since I must say I don’t spend a lot of time with new technology.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well. but I mean. you can’t roll it back in a sense.
KATHERINE PATERSON: I’m not going to snatch the video game or the little iPod out of my grandchildren’s hands for goodness sakes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right, so what do you do? What do you want to do?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Let me just go back a few years. You remember J.K. Rowling?
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
KATHERINE PATERSON: She published a series of enormous books, children stood in line at midnight to buy those books when they came out each time. And the secret is to write and publish books that children want to read. Now not every book is going to be the book that every child wants to read and that’s why we need a wide variety of books and a wide variety of writers, but the trick is to get the book to the child, the proper book to the child who will love it, and that’s why we need trained librarians in our schools, and our public libraries usually have them, but public schools are having fewer trained librarians because they’re cutting costs and they think, well anybody can check out books, but it’s not a matter of just checking out books, it’s a matter of matching the perfect book to the reader.
JEFFREY BROWN: Maybe it would be interesting to know about your own experience, how did you come to reading?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, my mother read to us.
JEFFREY BROWN: Simple as that? The old fashioned way.
KATHERINE PATERSON: Exactly. And I think that’s the way a lot of children come to reading. Unfortunately, parents are very busy and sometimes they think you put a tape in and that reads the bedtime story to the child and you can go wash the dishes or something, but it’s not the same. The parent reading to the child is a physical relationship there, an emotional relationship that’s very, very important. And also if you read a book together then you have a language, a shared language and a shared experience that you’re going to go back to again and again.
JEFFREY BROWN: And in your case, of course, the reading led to a desire to write, I guess?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, yes, I think I wasn’t a writer as a child really, but I was a reader as a child, and eventually if you read enough then you want to try it out. I think most readers, unless they’re scared off because they think, well, how dare I? And I almost was scared that way, because I was an English lit major and when it was suggested that I might be a writer by one of my professors, I said that I didn’t want to add another mediocre writer to the world.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is that right? You resisted.
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, 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.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Well when did you overcome that? When did you realize that?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well this same professor got me a writing job, so she was determined. And after I wrote the book that she had gotten me the job for, I thought well this is something I really like to do, and I’ve got all these little children at home, I’m not going to go back to school teaching, so maybe I’ll be a writer and it only took me seven years to get my first novel published.
JEFFREY BROWN: That’s something, but the motto is dare to be mediocre, so perhaps you could be something more?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, so many people say to me, well, I’d just love to but I know I’m no good. And I say, how do you know you’re no good, you haven’t tried.
JEFFREY BROWN: I saw a quote for this National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, and it said, “In our family books have created a shattering and gracious encounter of illumination and healing.” That’s nice way to explain to people why books should matter.
KATHERINE PATERSON: Yes, they do matter, and that has been our experience and it’s been my experience all my life. And it’s an experience I really crave for every child growing up in our country. I crave it for adults, too, if they would just wake up.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it’s not just for young people.
KATHERINE PATERSON: It’s not just for young people. And in fact if children see you read and see that it’s important to you, then makes a big difference.
JEFFREY BROWN: And can I ask you before I let you go, I mean, I think one of your suggestions is to share favorites. What are some of yours, because I know people listening to this will want to know, well what should I get for the kids?
KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, of course, some of the ones I read to my own children, which were the old classics, A.A. Milne, “The House at Pooh Corner,” and Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, “The Secret Garden,” “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which I loved when I was 11 years old. But there are an awful lot of new writers that I wish a parent would not just stick to the ones that they read when they where children, but go ask your librarian for recommendations, and your public librarian is probably the person that’s going to be up on what’s new. A lot of wonderful independent book store people who really read what comes out and can make wonderful recommendations.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, Katherine Paterson is the newly named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and very nice to talk to you and good luck.
KATHERINE PATERSON: Thank you so much, Jeff. Great to talk to you.