When asked why she writes books for children, Katherine Paterson is likely to say, "Why not?" The acclaimed writer of children's and young adult fiction has learned not to be defensive about her work. She takes children seriously. Success has followed in the form of two National Book Awards, two Newbery Medals, and the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Her recent appointment to the post of Ambassador for Young People's Literature at the Library of Congress confirms her position among the foremost writers of our time.
In her inaugural speech at the Library of Congress in January of 2010, Paterson addressed the question of how she came to be a writer. Her one word answer is "reading." Paterson entitled that speech "Read for Your Life," encouraging her audience to "expand and enrich" their lives via reading and discussion, an old-fashioned grounding that she learned as a child growing up in China and later as a student in Bristol and other locales. She spoke of how a book, Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, changed her life. It is the reading that birthed the writing.
Paterson's predecessor at the Library of Congress, Jon Scieszka, says that Paterson is the right choice for the position and her mantra, "Read for Your Life," just the right formula. "She's a spectacular choice," says Scieszka; "It shows people the range of children's books." Paterson's now more than 35 books have been translated into numerous languages, adapted into films and plays, and acclaimed for stretching the boundaries of the genre. Her essays and speeches have contributed to a growing sense of the significance of story for the health and development of the imaginations of young people. Paterson insists that well-written stories will enable both children and adults to use "powers of intellect and imagination" leading toward what Robert Frost calls "delight" and even "wisdom."
In her essay, "The Story of My Lives," Paterson says that she gets "to write about real people who must confront the messy battles of the world as we know it." Such an insight hints at what has been powerful and controversial in Paterson's body of work. She refuses to shy away from difficult themes such as isolation, loneliness, the death of a friend, and the complications of growing up in a troubled world. She says, "A character or characters will walk into my imagination and begin to take over my life." Such honesty has led to many of her most celebrated works like the 1977 Bridge to Terabithia, a novel that has seen two film adaptations and a dramatic version which will be performed by a King College drama troupe during Paterson's visit to the Tri-Cities.
In her speech "Image and Imagination," anthologized in Jennifer Holberg's 2006 collection Shouts and Whispers, Paterson says, "I cannot tiptoe about trying not to step on the toes of nice people. I have to write as truly as I can about our human experience because if I falsify that experience, how can children find hope and encouragement in what I say?" She says that she aims to tell the truth, "To mirror, however dimly in my own stories, the healing life of the one story which is the revelation of the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth."
Paterson's aims touch on another controversial subject: what to make of a writer who is also a believer? The question has proven problematic for any number of contemporary American writers, among them Frederick Buechner who refers to his ordination as "a bad career move" in terms of his work as a writer. Many other writers are wary of the label "Christian writer," feeling that it suggests a didactic approach, message writing. In a speech called "Making Meaning," Paterson says, "If you ask me what message a book of mine contains, I'll get testy." Nonetheless, Paterson speaks often of her biblical orientation. Although she resists the easy piety of much so-called "Christian fiction," she thinks of herself as writing faith-informed stories. "I think I do write Christian books," she responds to those who ask why her books convey no carefully crafted religious moral. What Paterson seems to mean is that her insistence on truth-telling is, in itself, an act of faith. In fact, in "Image and Imagination," Paterson concludes, "I want, however haltingly, to speak a word of hope in a world that is harsh and fearful for most of the children I know. To tell, as truthfully and beautifully as I can, a story that might bring comfort to a discouraged or even despairing child."
Perhaps the best summary of Paterson's position appears in an essay called "Hope and Happy Endings." Talking there about the ending of her 1978 novel The Great Gilly Hopkins, she says, "No happily ever after, not really a happy ending, certainly not the heavenly city, but an ending rooted in this earth and leaning in the direction of the New Jerusalem." Such an insight reaches all the way back through the many award-winning books to a childhood rooted in Christian faith. Her career actually began in the Presbyterian Church where she wrote curriculum materials for elementary students. Growing up in the bilingual atmosphere of Chinese and English, Paterson turned to English when her family returned to the United States during World War II. Living in North Carolina and West Virginia before her family settled in Winchester, Virginia, Paterson considered careers in mission work and Christian Education. She graduated from King College in 1954, saying her time there consisted of "doing what I loved best - reading English and American literature - and avoiding math whenever possible."
Paterson tells her own powerful story of a career and a life on her website at www.terabithia.com. There she says, "Do I like being a writer? I love it. I often tell my husband that it's the only job I could hold now. I'm spoiled. I work at home in my own study, wearing whatever I please. I never have to call in sick. From time to time, I get to go to schools and other places where I meet delightful people who love books as much as I do. But there are days when I wonder how on earth I got involved in this madness. Why, oh why, did I ever think I had anything to say that was worth putting down on paper? And there are those days when I have finished a book and can't for the life of me believe I'll ever have the wit or will to write another. Eventually a character or characters will walk into my imagination and begin to take over my life. I'll spend the next couple of years getting to know them and telling their story. Then the joy of writing far outweighs the struggle, and I know beyond any doubt that I am the most fortunate person in the world to have been given such work to do."
Paterson, a founding member of the Buechner Institute Advisory Board and a King College graduate, will deliver the annual Buechner Lecture at the Paramount Center for the Arts on January 29 at 7 p.m. Her return to Bristol will include a reunion with many life-long friends from her days at King College and after. Her Bristol area friends talk of her continuing generosity and hospitality, her talent as a listener, her contributions to the cultural environment as a student at King College, and, of course, her wonderful books.
One old friend says, "What I think is important is that Katherine remains the same unassuming person she was 60 years ago, even though the intervening years have taken her around the world, to palaces of monarchs, to the seats of power in the U.S., to academia where graduate students pore over her writing, to prisons where she engages inmates in reading and healing, and to the embrace of children whose experiences she relives and records."
When she takes the stage at Bristol's Paramount Center in January, Paterson will be introduced by King College senior Abbie Roberts. An English and Spanish major at King College, Roberts says, "I suppose looking back on it now, I see that Katherine Paterson charmed and enchanted me into the world of books - a world that opens into an eternity of other worlds. That's the thing about books. It's because of someone else's imagination that your own takes shape." Roberts concludes, "When I read about Terabithia, my mind created a magical Terabithia that was all mine. It wasn't Paterson's Terabithia or Jess' or Leslie's or anyone else's. It was mine. And I think that's the thing that Paterson holds in the palm of her hand. She holds the key to a new enchanting place. She unlocks a mysterious and majestic door, and invites you to step inside."
About Dale Brown: A frequent speaker at academic conferences and churches, Brown teaches literature courses at King College and is the founding director of the Buechner Institute there. Brown is the author of numerous articles and the recent critical biography, The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings. Brown's extensive interviews with more than 30 American writers have appeared in his books Of Faith & Fiction and the just-published Conversations with American Writers: The Faith, The Doubt, and The In-Between. A Rotary Scholar to Great Britain in the 1970s, Brown has served as a minister, traveled the country in a singing group, taught in a secondary school on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, done a stint as a police chaplain in Texas, and worked in housing projects in St. Louis, Mo. Brown completed his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri. For 20 years, Brown was a professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. and for more than 10 years was the director of the Festival of Faith & Writing there.
TICKETS TO RELATED EVENTS:
Tickets for the Paterson speech as the 2011 Buechner Institute Lecturer and the performances of her play, Bridge to Terabithia, are now available at the Paramount Center for the Arts, 423-274-8920. Click HERE to find out the details.