Today Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson adds the title of National Ambassador for Young People's Literature to her long list of honors. In a ceremony at the Library of Congress this morning, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington will officially name Paterson — who succeeds the first children's ambassador, Jon Scieszka—to the position.
Books like Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved helped make the effervescent Paterson—a 77-year-old mother of four and grandmother of seven—a natural for crossing the bridge to ambassadorship.
Scieszka’s platform was reaching reluctant readers. Paterson’s will be “read for your life.” With books, she said, kids (and adults) use their “powers of intellect and imagination” and experience “delight.” Stories also teach children about people from other religions, races, and countries, she said. “Books help us make friends who are different from ourselves.”
Scieszka—who wore kid-made ambassadorial sashes while traveling to 300 places during his two-year term—will remain active with the program. “Once ambassador, always ambassador,” said Robin Adelson, executive director of the Children’s Book Council. Typically Scieszka and Paterson will not travel together. “It’s really important for each ambassador to stand on their own,” said Adelson. But the two will appear together at the Children’s Choice Book Awards gala on May 11 in New York City. “They’re going to be a pretty powerful combination,” said John Cole, director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
Scieszka wholeheartedly endorses the selection of Paterson, whose books, he said, make people cry, whereas his make them laugh. “She’s a spectacular choice. It shows people the range of children’s books,” he said. When he was chosen two years ago, he said, “I was telling people, ‘I think they misdialed Katherine Paterson’s number. They dialed me by mistake.’ ”
Paterson and Scieszka's enthusiasm for books is contagious. Too many kids “don’t think of reading as fun,” said Adelson. “We need them to realize it is.” Often it’s just a matter of helping children find the right book. When Scieszka gives out recommended reading lists, publishers see a bump in sales, she said. “It does mean people are paying attention.”
Luckily, good stories provide great fodder for conversation. “If you read a book you really love, you can’t wait to tell somebody,” said Paterson, who is also v-p of The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance.
The post of children’s ambassador was created by the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature. A six-member selection committee chose Paterson for the two-year position based on her contribution to young people’s literature and her ability to relate to children. Committee members included retired school librarian Rita Auerbach; Young Adult Library Services Administration board member Betty Carter; Diane Roback, children’s book editor of Publishers Weekly; Angela Sherrill, children’s book coordinator at 57th Street Books in Chicago; Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the Horn Book; and Scieszka, who is also founder of the nonprofit literacy group Guys Read.
Each of the 30 lucky children who will be on hand for the 10 a.m. ceremony will go home with a signed copy of Paterson’s Bread and Roses—and a six-by-three-inch cookie shaped like an open book and decorated with blue icing on one side with “National Ambassador 2010-2111” and with the new ambassador’s name on the other.
For more on the new ambassador, and on today’s ceremony at the Library of Congress, see Children’s Bookshelf on Thursday.