Katherine Paterson has just concluded the first of two years as the nation's second Ambassador for Young People's Literature. We asked her to describe her first year in the role.
Yes, to answer the obvious question. I was absolutely thrilled when Robin Adelson called asking me if I would consider being nominated as the second National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. But there were problems attached. The first problem was not to tell anyone. I don’t mean don’t tell anyone until after the press conference this morning, I mean don’t tell anyone until January 5th, 2010. That was months away, but I was good. I didn’t tell anyone—well, I did tell my husband and my children when the Librarian of Congress made the appointment in the fall—but that doesn’t really count as telling, surely.
The second problem was following the inimitable, irrepressible, ebullient (one runs out of adjectives) Jon Scieszka in this exalted position. Jon is perhaps the funniest person I know. Audiences fall off their chairs laughing when he speaks. I ought to know, having done so myself. After I speak, people have been known to brag about how much they cried. So you see, I had no illusions that fanfares would be composed in my honor. I comforted myself with the thought that if the committee had wanted even a pale imitation of Jon, they would never have nominated me.
My family, especially my grandchildren, were a great help. Husband John, all four children and four of the grandchildren journeyed to Washington last January 5th to listen to the speeches, pose with the official ambassadorial cookie in hand, and cheer me on. I couldn’t wish for a better fan club. It was a wonderful occasion, brightened by Jon’s valedictory speech and closely followed by two joint appearances with the marvelous Ambassador Emeritus during which nobody cried.
And then I was off, seeking to represent to the nation the rich world of young people’s books. I had been warned about the interviews, and there were plenty of those, but this time I had a happy surprise. When I first encountered the press 30+ years ago, most reporters had never heard of me. That didn’t bother me—hardly anyone outside my narrow circle of acquaintances had. But not only did the average reporter make sure I was aware of the fact that I was unknown, he (and it was nearly always a he) made sure I realized that he had much more important work to do than to interview an unknown children’s writer and that he was annoyed to have gotten the assignment. In 2010, I was being interviewed by wonderful colleagues for the trade magazines, and even the young newspaper reporters behaved differently. It became apparent that many of them had read my books when they were children and still remembered them. Age and a long career do have their compensations.
Other compensations included being a part of the Children’s Book Week Gala in New York and being roasted by no less than Mo Willems himself. Another huge plus was being able to take part in the Library of Congress’s marvelous National Book Festival. The special delight there was the session where I and other contributors performed the final episode of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure as Readers’ Theater. This joint project of the Library of Congress Center for the Book and The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance launched in 2009 with a hilarious opening chapter by the first Ambassador, and it was my responsibility as the successor to write the final chapter. If you want to see what great fun was had by all, click here and here.
Being roasted (and also toasted) by my friends has been another delight of the year. When I missed a gathering I regularly attend, someone asked my friend, Grace Greene, where I was. “She’s in Washington being made a national embarrassment, oh, I mean, a natural embarrassment.” a pair of Freudian slips that has been repeated with delight throughout central Vermont. I needed this humility check after I saw myself as a Horn Book cover girl and read the gracious words inside.
A happy synchronicity of 2010 was the choice of my latest book, The Day of the Pelican, as the Vermont Reads book for the year. In October, John Cole and Guy Lamolinara from the Library of Congress flew up from Washington to help celebrate the culminating event of the Vermont Reads year and the choice of a Vermonter as the national ambassador.
I have yet to meet the adoring kindergartners that Jon promised me would greet me with salaams. I haven’t, in fact, spoken in any kindergarten classes since my youngest grandchild graduated to first grade. My school audiences have been, like most of my readers, upper elementary students who ask earnest questions like: “Do you have trouble constructing a character development path?” To which I reply: “A what?” never having heard of such before. After a number of similar questions about writing technique that their teachers have assured them are used by all professional writers, I am forced to confess that whatever it is that real writers do, l don’t.
But my knowledgeable interrogators are patient with me. They delight in showing me how they have responded to the books they have read. In December, in Fort Lauderdale I saw scenes from The Great Gilly Hopkins turned into colorful dioramas with modeling clay characters and pictures and descriptions of highly imaginative personal Terabithias. In the end my audiences forgive me for not knowing all about writing and we talk together about books and what they mean to us, which is what my job is all about, isn’t it.
So although I know that everyone who brings young people and books together is truly an ambassador for young people’s literature, it is a great privilege to carry around a title that reminds the rest of America of the important work we all are doing. I’m truly looking forward to another year of representing us in this varied and valuable work.