Author Katherine Paterson, who has twice won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, and who served as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature from 2010–2012, returns with her first new novel since 2011. My Brigadista Year, a historical novel for middle graders, reveals a little-known bit of history through the experiences of 13-year-old Lora, a Cuban girl who volunteers for Fidel Castro’s 1961 national literacy campaign in a dangerous political climate. Paterson reflected on how her curiosity about this intriguing topic rekindled her desire to write.
What drew you to write about Cuba in your latest book?
I had been invited to present a talk at the International Board on Books for Young People Reading 2015 International Congress in Havana. Prior to my trip, I was at the state house in Vermont, where I live, when I ran into my friend Mary Leahy [sister of U.S. senator Patrick Leahy]. When I told Mary I was going to Cuba, she said, “I’m so jealous!” She told me how she had modeled her work with adult basic education in central Vermont on the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba. The Cubans had volunteers who lived with the people, who learned from the students just as the students were learning from them. I had never heard of it and I was intrigued by it.
What kind of research did you do for this book and what did you learn about that piece of Cuban history, and about Cuban politics?
In my research, I discovered Jonathan Kozol’s book Children of the Revolution: A Yankee Teacher in the Cuban Schools, and the documentary film Maestra by Catherine Murphy, which were both very rich resources for me.
As I read, and watched the film, I learned that in fall 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, he announced to the U.N. General Assembly that within a year’s time, Cuba was going to become a literate nation. More than 250,000 Cubans volunteered for his literacy effort, becoming known as brigadistas, or members of the volunteer teaching brigade. More than half of those brigadistas were female, and about 108,000 of them were between the ages of 12 and 18. These volunteers went into rural areas to teach the campesinos to read and write. As I was about to head to Cuba to address people concerned about literacy, I knew that I wanted to make this campaign the heart of what I was going to say in my speech.
By coincidence, I found out that my friend in Cuba, professor Emilia Gallego Alfonso, who was also the organizer of the 2015 IBBY conference, had been a brigadista. She’s the kind of person who always said whatever she thought. For so many of the women I read about, the campaign they had been part of as teenagers has been the pivotal experience of their lives. There’s a favorite quote from one of them that I use in the book: “I taught the campesinos how to read and write and they taught me how to be a person.”
It’s not that I think Fidel Castro is a wonderful guy, but I think we need to recognize that he did do some remarkably good things for the ordinary Cuban people. At the end of that year , the U.N. observers declared Cuba the only illiteracy-free country in the western hemisphere. And it’s still a 99.9% literate nation.
This is your first writing project in several years. What made this “the one” to pursue?
The more I learned about the brigadistas and the literacy campaign the more excited I became. I had really not written anything since my husband John died [in 2013]. I’d had a good run, and I thought I’d retired, but then I got excited about this, so I wrote to [Candlewick president and publisher] Karen Lotz. She’s a family friend and she had published The Flint Heart, which I wrote with my husband. I asked her whether she was interested and whether the book should be fiction or nonfiction. When she voted for fiction, I thought maybe it could be a fictional picture book sort of thing, but it got bigger. It’s one of those books I truly loved writing. Some books are sort of agony, but this was a pure delight.
Now that you’ve reignited a creative spark, are you working on anything else?
Not just yet. I’ve never been one of these writers who had millions of ideas. My family began to laugh at me because after I’d finish a book I’d say “Well, that was a good career while it lasted.” That’s the point where I am now—it was a good career while it lasted. But it’s not dead yet; I really thought I was through writing novels and I was thrilled to be able to write another one. Anything else is a bonus.
My Brigadista Year by Katherine Paterson. Candlewick, $15.99 Oct. 24 ISBN 978-0-7636-9508-8