A funny thing happened on Katherine Paterson’s way to a speaking engagement in Cuba in 2015: she found inspiration for a new historical novel. In My Brigadista Year (Candlewick, Oct.), the Newbery-winning author and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature 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. The first steps of Lora’s journey began stateside, however, in Vermont, where Paterson lives.
Paterson had been invited to present a talk at an International Board on Books for Young People’s conference held in Havana that year. Before her trip, Paterson ran into her longtime friend Mary Leahy, sister of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who told her how she had modeled her work in adult basic education in Vermont after the 1961 literacy campaign in Cuba. Shortly after Fidel Castro came to power, 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 the new literacy effort, becoming known as brigadistas, or members of the volunteer teaching brigade. The volunteers lived with the people and learned from the students, just as the students were learning from them. I was intrigued by that” says Paterson. “More than half of those brigadistas were female, she adds, “and about 108,000 were between the ages of 12 and 18. These volunteers went into rural areas to teach the campesinos to read and write.” In 2015, as she prepared to visit Cuba to address the issue of literacy, Paterson notes, “I made this campaign the heart of what I was going to say in my speech.”
“For so many of the women I read about,” says Paterson, “the campaign they had been part of as teenagers has been a 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.”
Paterson’s research on this topic and her travel to the country clearly kicked her creativity into high gear after not having worked on a book in several years. “I had really not written anything since my husband had died [in 2013]. I’d had a good run, and I thought I’d retired, but then I got excited about this,”she says. “It’s one of those books I truly loved writing. Some books are sort of agony, but this was a pure delight.”
Today, 9:30–10:30 a.m. Katherine Paterson will sign My Brigadista Year at a ticketed session in the Autographing Area, at Table 5.