Learning First Alliance

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"Read for Your Life": A Conversation with Katherine Paterson, National Ambassador for Young People's Literature

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Katherine Paterson is best known for her novel A Bridge to Terabithia, which won a coveted Newbery Award in 1978 and became a feature-length film in 2007. Terabithia is just one of almost forty works that have made Paterson one of the nation's most beloved authors for young readers.

The Library of Congress has just named her the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. (She assumes the title from Jon Scieszka, whom we interviewed in 2008.) As National Ambassador, Paterson will be an evangelist for reading at events across the country. The first of these events will be WNET's Celebration of Teaching & Learning in New York City on March 5. Her platform as Ambassador? "Read for Your Life!"

Paterson recently spoke with us from her home in Barre, Vermont.

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[Listen to the interview--12 minutes]

Public School Insights: You are the nation's second National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Jon Scieszka was the first. Obviously you are very different authors. What is the bridge from [Scieszka's] The Stinky Cheese Man to [your] Terabithia?

Paterson: I think the fact that we are very different authors is probably the bridge. We want to show the wide variety of books for children. Jon has done a lot of picture books. I have not done any picture books. I've done some picture story books—in other words, lavishly illustrated books—but not a real picture book.

And Jon is very, very funny. I hope I am not without humor, but I write quite a different kind of book. [And I write] mostly for an older age.

Public School Insights: Now that you have a united purpose as national ambassador, what would you say that purpose is? What kinds of messages to do you want to bring across in this role?

Paterson: We want to say to everyone--not just to kids--how important reading and literature for children and young people is. I'm quite aware of the statistics that have just come out that children are plugged into something on an average of seven hours 38 minutes a day. That does not leave a great deal of time for anything else—sports, just fooling around or reading. So in that little crack of time that they have left to us we would like to tell them how important we think it is for them to read.

Reading asks things of you that nothing else does. You cannot be a passive reader. It takes the gift of your intellect—you have to be able to decode the words and understand them. It takes, in a way, life experience, because a story doesn't make any sense to you if you can't understand what's happening in it. It also takes your creative imagination, because you have to make all the pictures. The whole child is involved in the process.

I think we’ve seen what happens to a country and to a society when people stop reading and listen to a few sound bites, making really important decisions on the basis of very little—and many times very biased—information. And I think that a democracy cannot survive without people who read and think, and then talk about what they think, argue about what they think, listen to other people and make intelligent decisions for the greater good.

Public School Insights: That raises a couple of questions for me. First, you stole my next line, which was about the Kaiser Family Foundation study [that found] children are plugged into something seven and a half hours a day. There have been some arguments in education circles that at least part of that—the Internet—could actually be a good thing for reading. Is that something you think you're going to address [as ambassador]? Are you skeptical about the internet?

Paterson: I use the Internet myself. I have been able to do some helpful research on the Internet. The problem is that it is not like a book that has been edited and vetted. You have to be careful about the information that you get off the Internet in ways that [you might not have to be] when you are reading the encyclopedia. Also, there is the temptation [when using the internet] to take one source as the gospel, rather than in the old days, when if you made a statement in a research paper you had to back it up by three different sources. I do not know if that is still happening. So I do think the Internet can help. But to say it is the whole picture...

Public School Insights: Another kind of media that students are spending so much time with is “motion picture,” to use an outdated phrase. Streaming video, and all of that. But Bridge to Terabithia, after having an extremely robust first life when I read it [as a child], had an extremely robust second life after having been made into a movie. Did that give you mixed feelings?

Paterson: I have sort of a biased feeling towards the movie, because our son wrote the first script and was one of the producers.

Public School Insights: He did a wonderful job.

Paterson: He fought to the death. It was sort of, “I don't care if I ever work in this town again, we are going to have a movie we can be proud of.” We did not win all the battles, but we felt that we won the major battles, and that what was of vital importance to us in the book was preserved in the movie. And the acting, of course, was really wonderful. Very, very well done.

My other son, who is a businessman, kept saying, “Even if it is a terrible movie, Mother, you are going to sell a lot of books.” I was saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Well, it sold a spectacular number of books. And I love that, because I think if you saw the movie first and went back to read the book then you could see what a book can do that a movie cannot. If you read the book first and then saw the movie you could see what a movie can do that a book can't.

[My son, the producer] David said the hardest thing for him was the whole idea of “Terabithia,” because with the book everyone makes up their own Terabithia. When you put it on the screen, it won’t be anybody else's Terabithia. But then it will begin to be everybody else's Terabithia, because the screen is so powerful. So you lose some and you win some when a book is even well filmed, because that element of imagination is taken over for you and somebody else does the work.

Public School Insights: But the fact that the book sold so spectacularly after the film came out suggests that the film did not crowd out the book.

Paterson: Absolutely not. Everybody thinks your big book sales are going to be [the year you win the Newbery Medal for children’s literature], but it outsold the Newbery year by far.

Public School Insights: I have read that you are a proponent of reading aloud, and not just to our smallest children. Did I read that correctly?

Paterson: You read that correctly. There is a real correlation, and I will try to find some sort of statistics before I have been in this job too much longer, between the time when we stop reading aloud to children and the time when they stop being interested in reading. We stop reading to children when they can read fluently, sort of the cusp between the third and fourth grade, generally speaking. And from the fourth grade on we begin to see a lack of reading for pleasure, so that by the time they're in high school they rarely ever pick up a book for pleasure. They read the books that are assigned in English class, and that's it. Of course they are busy, and they have a lot more homework. But I think people who love to read will find time to read. If you have seven and half hours that you can be plugged in you could probably sacrifice a half hour or an hour of that to reading a book, if reading was really what you wanted to do. But the fact that children lose intense interest in reading just about the time that people stop reading aloud to them is, I think, rather significant.

Public School Insights: Do you think that schools have a role to play in producing avid readers, perhaps through reading aloud?

Paterson: Absolutely. But in recent years so much time is spent preparing for tests that the time that teachers used to take to read aloud at the end of a long day, the time every child looked forward to—that last half hour in elementary school when the teacher would let you sit back and even close your eyes while she read a wonderful book out loud to you…I think that is gone in most classrooms.

Public School Insights: I also think that some people see it as regressive to read aloud to older students.

Paterson: That's right. [Some people claim] you shouldn't be reading out loud to them—that they should be doing the work. In fact, I've had a teacher tell me that a principal caught her reading out loud and lectured her on it, saying that she was doing the work for the children and that they should be doing the reading. [But principal didn’t know] that that's how you learn to love the language—by hearing it aloud. A book that can't be read aloud is probably not very well written.

Public School Insights: To get back to another issue you mentioned earlier…You worried that the fact that people are spending less time reading makes them less open to hearing others’ opinions, getting all the facts and sifting through other people's positions. It's clear that a number of your books, for example The Day of the Pelican, address cultural conflicts. In education circles, we're talking a lot right now about the need to prepare students for a global society, but often reading or even literature does not necessarily explicitly come into that conversation. Are we missing it?

Paterson: I think that we are. I think this is a publication problem in some ways, and it is a…. Well, it goes round and round. I keep saying, because I've lived abroad and because I feel like children need friends through reading in other countries, why aren’t we translating books from other countries? Other countries translate American books. I was told by a person who really knows that last year there were about 12 - 12 - books published from another language for children. Not a large number. How are we going to truly know other people if we don't get inside their souls? Okay, I can write about a Kosovar family, but that book should have been written by someone who is a Kosovar Albanian, if you see what I mean.

Public School Insights: More direct experience of what happened.

Paterson: Yes.

Public School Insights: In The Day of the Pelican, you write from the perspective of a Kosovar Albanian who then makes comments about other wars in Muslim countries. Have you ever gotten any resistance to what could be seen as a political theme in a book for young adults?

Paterson: I haven't really on this book yet. I expect to eventually, because the Serbs don't come out too well in this book. I'm sure if I had written from their point of view they would have come out a lot better, but the people I knew and the story I was trying to tell was the story of the oppressed population in Kosovo.

The first incarnation of this story was in a newspaper serial that was published in about 100 newspapers. It was quite different because [each chapter] had to be three pages with a cliffhanger, but there was some Serbian unhappiness with that serial. So I expect I'll get some before I’m through on this.

People get very unhappy about books raising questions and making people unhappy. But I say that, if a book has any power at all, it has the power to offend. You have to risk that as a writer, I think.

Public School Insights: In schools very often people struggle with the fact that textbooks and other officially sanctioned materials have been so thoroughly scrubbed by both left and right that nothing is left.

Paterson: That is right, and then they have no power whatsoever. Or truth. Because the truth is always complicated.

Public School Insights: I know that you are going to be at the Celebration of Teaching & Learning [in New York City]. Do you have any plans for what you will do there or ideas of how you will use the role of ambassador at the celebration?

Paterson: We are still working out the details. But I'm looking forward to it. It sounds like it is going to be a lot of fun and that there will be some really interesting people there.

* Posting title edited for accuracy, 2/11/2010

Photo of Katherine Paterson: Helene Komlos Grill