Montpelier author Katherine Paterson on her new book & connecting with young readers through her own memories
Montpelier author Katherine Paterson captured the imagination of millions with her 1977 novel Bridge to Terabithia. The Newbury Medal award-winner touches on friendship and loss and is beloved by readers young and old.
Now Paterson has a new book out that holds special resonance, particularly with the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Her latest book, a young adult novel titled, Birdie’s Bargain, features a military family and the myriad of stresses they feel.
VPR's Mary Engisch spoke recently with Katherine Paterson. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Engisch: Katherine, Birdie's Bargain is set in 2014. And during her childhood, Birdie's dad has deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Was this the first novel you've written that takes on themes around the armed forces and the impact that serving has on families?
Katherine Paterson: Yeah, it was. And initially, you ... books start in funny places. This book started years ago, with just a picture of a little girl, standing the middle of a driveway, watching a car drive away. And realizing that she's too late to catch the ride, wherever it's going. And it's her fault. Because she made up her mind, she didn't want to go, and then she changed her mind too late.
And the little girl, in my mind's eye, was wearing a T-shirt that said, in very large letters, "I heart Jesus." You get a picture like that but you don't get a story with it! So you have to figure out as writer, why that little girl is standing in the middle of the driveway, yelling after her departing car, wearing a T-shirt that says, "I heart Jesus." And so I had to figure out and I thought, I think her father must be going off to war. How anxious that would make her, and she's not going to see him off at the airport, because she's so afraid that something terrible is going to happen to him.
"I never know when I write a book exactly who my reader will be. The reader, I guess I write for initially, is the young reader that I was and a child that I was."
Were you in a military family? What event from your childhood helped inform Birdie's Bargain?
My parents were missionaries. But I've talked to people who've grown up in military families and have a lot in common, the moving around a lot. And of course, I was 5 years old when the war between China and Japan started. And so I've been through war, in my early years, the terror of bombing and of being occupied by enemy soldiers. You know, I remember that very vividly.
Katherine, the main characters in the book, the whole family feels this constant worry when their loved one's in combat. And so Birdie makes this bargain with a higher power. I'm wondering how you were able to write Birdie's story so that this could apply to young readers of all faiths?
I never know when I write a book exactly who my reader will be. The reader, I guess I write for initially, is the young reader that I was and a child that I was. I came from a very conservative Presbyterian background. And so that's why I decided that the bargain would be with God, if, if she would be the kind of person God wanted her to be, God would keep her father safe.
Do you interact with young people often? Or are you mining your own memories of your 10-year-old self?
Well, it's more my own memories. Because I'm 89 years old. A lot of times, I feel like I'm 9 or 10 years old. That child lives vitally within me. I don't have that good a memory for events. But I have a very good emotional memory for how it felt.
You know, you write these books for young adults, where they touch on these big topics, friendship and loss and financial insecurity. And your characters live in worlds with really specific circumstances, but they somehow always feel universal. How do you make that happen?
It's a miracle to me. I don't know how, how it is. And I go to school rooms, kids would say to me, "How do you know how we feel?" And I think it's a miracle, isn't it? And it really is, and you know, I don't know how they feel. I only know how I felt when I was that age.
It's amazing to me that I can connect with young readers. I'm very, very grateful, because I think they're the best readers in the world.
I often think it's a wonderful idea for parents to read the same books their children are reading, or read together. If it's a book that you suspect might be hard for a child.
When my children were growing up, I tried to be very aware of what they were reading, and to be there. Read the books that your children are reading rather than decide to censor them. My parents were very conservative, but they never told me I couldn't read something.
I mean, so many generations of young readers know the book, and they've now also seen the screen adaptations. Can you talk more about Bridge to Terabithia and why you wrote it?
I wrote Bridge to Terabithia because my son's best friend was killed by lightning. I had to make sense out of something that didn't make any sense. And I know a story has to make sense. So I began to write a story.
I read it to him before I sent it to the publisher. I thought that he had a right to say, don't publish it. What he said was, "I want to dedicate to Lisa and me."
He said he used to carry it around. He didn't know whether to be proud of it or ashamed, because he was getting to be known as the guy in a book. And he was getting famous while his best friend had died.
So I think it was actually when he wrote the script for the movie, and was so involved in the movie that — you don't get over the loss of somebody you love. You know, it's always gonna be a part of you. When someone you love dies, or betrays you, it can deepen the person you are and make you a more compassionate, loving person if it doesn't destroy you.
I said in one of my books, "Joy and pain always seem to come wrapped in the same package."
Katherine Paterson will be part of a virtual fundraiser at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m., for the Children's Literacy Foundation, and at the Brooks Memorial Library event on Friday, Nov. 12, at Centre Congregational Church in Brattleboro.
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