Katherine Paterson, two-time winner of both the National Book Award (The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Master Puppeteer) and Newbery Medal (Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I loved), is the second person to be named National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. She takes over for children’s author Jon Scieszka, who was named the first ambassador in 2008. Paterson was selected for a two-year term based on recommendations from a selection committee representing many segments of the book community. Her international fame rests not only on her widely acclaimed novels, but also on her efforts to promote literacy in the United States and abroad. She said books had altered her life on more than one occasion. The National Ambassador post is sponsored by the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book, the Children’s Book Council, and its foundation, known as Every Child a Reader. Paterson discussed her new role and the importance of public and school libraries with AL Associate Editor Pamela A. Goodes.
Award Winning Author Katherine Paterson Is Ambassador for Children’s Reading
April 16, 2010
“Read for Your Life” is your ambassadorship theme. Why? I wanted to talk about a broad range of things that would be inclusive of not only reading that you do for your own enjoyment, nourishment, and information, but also for your life—not only your solitary life but your life as a member of a family, as a person who’s in school, as a person in the community, and as a citizen of the world. I think reading helps us in all of those areas in our life.
Which one of your novels is your favorite? It’s really hard for me to decide because I wrote each one of them at a different period of my life. And at that point, it was the thing that I was the most concerned about that I was writing about.
What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed? The book I’ve read recently was The Help by Kathryn Stocket, the story of social activitist Eugenia Skeeter Phelan [set during the nascent civil rights movement in Jackson, Missippi., where black women were trusted to raise white children but not to polish the household silver].
What role can libraries and librarians play in your efforts and for overall literacy goals? I love libraries. The classroom and the playground were just very frightening places for me when I came to the U.S. as a child from China. But the librarian was so understanding and the library was such a wonderful place. I had never been anywhere with that many books assembled in one place. I know what a library can do for a child from my own experience. As immigrants coming to this country, the library was a place where they really become Americans, where they learned not only the language, but what living in a free country was all about. We have so many coming into our country now and the library is still the place where the language lessons are taught—where they can come freely and just educate themselves. In these difficult times, libraries are needed more than they ever were. There’s no place in the world, certainly not in our country, that offers as much freely to every citizen or non-citizen as a library does. I go there for my own wisdom to get books for reading and for research, but also I want to support public and school libraries in any way I possibly can during my ambassadorship.
How important are school librarians to maintaining good reading skills for students? Most children won’t find the right books for themselves. It is the librarian who most knows the children and the books and is able to bring the right book promoting the love of reading in every individual child. There’s just story after story of children being handed the right book and that’s been their entry into the world of literacy and literature. If there isn’t a trained person to know not only the books, but the children, then that’s not going to happen. I hope that we will never forget that handing a book to a child is an important part of that role and not just reduce it to teaching somebody to use the computer.
Recently results from the 2009 National Assessment for Educational Progress shows that reading scores are up from 2007 for children in grade 8 but unchanged for those in grade 4. What do these results tell you about children and reading? I don’t know whether we should take heart from that or not because for so long the scores seem to be going down as soon as you hit 4th grade. I don’t know if that means that we have begun to focus on the older kids, which we should have done long ago.
As a two‑time Newbery medal winner, how did receipt of this honor change your life and possibly paved the way for your role that as National Ambassador? It did change my life because nobody had ever heard of me and my books. I was thrilled to be published, but I wasn’t so widely read before the Newbery. When I as asked how the Newbery changed my life, I said that when I heard the news I promised myself that I would never mix another quart of powdered milk as long as I lived as I could now afford to buy fresh milk. But more importantly what happens is that you’re suddenly in a wider world of children’s books and not just the little one of your own creation. That’s been such a wonderful experience for me to not only get to be close friends with other writers, but to talk to teachers and librarians and to see the kind of work that all the heroes of literacy are doing. What is more creative and imaginative than working with children and opening up the world for them? It’s just a different kind of creative enterprise and it’s one that I probably would not have known about so much if I hadn’t been out in the public quite so much.
What are some of the activities or programs that are planned or have already taken place in your role as national ambassador? The Read Across America program took place in early March. I went to New York and was a part of the launch for that. I spoke at the National Education Association and Channel 13 in New York City. I’ll be going to the National Book Festival and the American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. I do plan to be a part of Library Advocacy Day to tell Congress that we really do have to have support for libraries. We really do. I hope our wonderful book‑reading, book‑writing president will help us do that. I know he’s got an awful lot on his plate, but it’s so important that we support libraries during this difficult time.