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Katherine Paterson is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, an honor co-sponsored by the Library of Congress Center for the Book and the Children’s Book Council. 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. A two-time winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, she has received many other accolades for her body of work, including the Astrid Lindgren Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her new books are “Giving Thanks” (Chronicle Books), featuring Pamela Dalton’s exquisite cut-paper illustrations, and “A Stubborn Sweetness and Other Stories for the Christmas Season” (Westminster John Knox Press).

Previous National Book Festival Appearances

The Scoop

What sparked your imagination for your new book –The Flint Heart – which you wrote with your husband? How about Brother Sun, Sister Moon?

When John learned that The Flint Heart was the book Margaret Mahy (one of his favorite authors) wanted to be sure children of the 21st century could read, he set about finding this long out-of-print book. He loved it and so did I, but I was sure no modern publisher would put it back in print as it was, so with the encouragement of Karen Lotz at Candlewick we did a "free abridgment" of this early 20th century fantasy. We had a great time doing it together. In the case of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, I was asked by the publisher, Christopher Franceschelli, to do a re-imagining of the St. Francis hymn that would accompany the stunning papercutting artwork of Pamela Dalton. When I saw examples of her work, I couldn't say "no."

Can you tell us some of the highlights in your role as National Ambassador for Young Children?

The actual ceremony at the Library of Congress was wonderful. Nearly all of my family got there as well as many friends. Students from a nearby school were also there and it was just a lovely occasion. I have always loved the National Book Festival, and coming to one as the ambassador was especially fun. And then one of my favorite occasions was being the national prize won by a small school in Sebago, Maine where the whole community took part in literacy activities planned by Dawn Bonavie, the first grade teacher. I had to cross a mountain in a blizzard to get there, but it was well worth it. One great aspect of the appointment was that a number of the folks that interviewed me had read my books when they were young. It made a bond I hadn't had before with the media.

From the 2008 National Book Festival

What sparked your imagination for your newest story "The Eyes and Ears of the Public" in Our White House: Looking In and Looking Out?

To be honest, it was the image of Helen Thomas being sent from the front row of the press corps to the back of the room.

What challenges do you face in your writing process?

I have to learn all over again how to write every time I start a new book. You see, I've never written this book before and whatever I learned writing previous books won't be all that much help.

How do you overcome them?

I try to listen very carefully to how this particular story wants to be told. For example: I don't like to write in first person, but two of my books refused to be written in any other way. I finally realized that Louise in Jacob Have I Loved and again, Robbie in Preacher’s Boy were so self-involved that their story had to be written entirely from their point of view.

What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?

Read. Read. Read. That's how I learned how language works and how to construct a story.

Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?

Well, fun is where you find it, and what might seem like fun for one person might feel very painful to someone else. For example, if I ask you to write about school lunches, as you remember them from first grade, would that be fun or awful?

What is your list of favorite children or teen books?

Too many to name, but to list a few:

  • The Secret Garden
  • The House at Pooh Corner
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • The Good Master
  • Horton Hatches the Egg
  • The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
  • Ramona the Brave
  • Kidnapped
  • Little Women
  • Because of Winn-Dixie
  • Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party
  • The Land
  • The Yearling

How do you decide on themes for your books?

Themes seem to emerge as I am writing the story. I don't feel as though I decide on them so much as discover them.

How important is research in the development of your books?

Very

Can you explain the process as well?

Well, first I read as much as I can, then I begin to write, which helps me discover all the stuff I don't know and have to learn ,which, in turn, makes me read more and begin to look for people who know a lot about the subject and who might help me answer my questions. Then I go back to writing until I hit another snag and have to do more research. It's a very messy process.

What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?

Read to them and don't stop when they learn how to read. Share with them books you love and tell them why you love them. Talk about books, about characters, about questions the story raises. Ask genuine questions, ones that trouble you, not ones looking for a "right" answer.

If you were not writing and promoting reading and books for children, what do you think you would be doing?

Paying more attention to my family, my dog, my house and my garden.

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Brother Sun, Sister Moon

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The Flint Heart

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The Day of the Pelican

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