Beloved YA Author Katherine Paterson Shares Wisdom Katherine Paterson is the author of many young adult novels, including The Great Gilly Hopkins and Bridge to Terabithia. The American Library Association recently honored her with the Wilder Award for her work. Host Michel Martin talks to Paterson about how she's been able to tell so many authentic stories about young people.
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Beloved YA Author Katherine Paterson Shares Wisdom

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Beloved YA Author Katherine Paterson Shares Wisdom

Beloved YA Author Katherine Paterson Shares Wisdom

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch conversation. That's where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work and, as this is the season of awards - the Grammys, the Oscars - we've been visiting with this year's winners of some of the most prestigious awards for children's and young adult literature.

And our next guest is someone whose work you or your children almost certainly know. She is the author of a number of young adult classics, including "Jacob Have I Loved," the "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Great Gilly Hopkins." She's received many awards for her works, but most recently, she was honored by the American Library Association with the 2013 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her, quote, "substantial and lasting contributions to children's literature." And Katherine Paterson is with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations once again.

KATHERINE PATERSON: Well, thank you, Michel. It's a delight to be with you.

MARTIN: Can I ask about the awards at this stage? I mean, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award is certainly a very sought-after, you know, honor. It is a great honor in your field. At this stage, though, do you care? Do they still bring a smile to your face?

PATERSON: Absolutely. You know, I should say, don't give it to me. I already have too much. But, when they called to say that I was being given the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, I must say I was thrilled, and I didn't say, take it back, take it back. (Laughing)

MARTIN: And another congratulations is in order, although I am curious about how you feel about this. Your book "The Great Gilly Hopkins" is being made into a movie and I understand that Kathy Bates and Danny Glover are signed on...


MARTIN: co-star, which is...

PATERSON: Oh, I am so thrilled. I told my sons that my one requirement was that I got to meet them.


MARTIN: I would hope.

PATERSON: Of course, they're going to be filming in California, so I don't know how that'll work out.

MARTIN: Well, I think they should come to Vermont.

PATERSON: Oh, sure. It's much nicer in Vermont.

MARTIN: I think they should come and get some advice from you about how to proceed here. This will be the second film. The second, right, the film that's been made of one of your books?

PATERSON: Yeah. Of a - yes - for theatrical films. Yes.

MARTIN: For theatrical films and your son is writing that screenplay. I understand that he worked on the "Bridge to Terabithia" that was released in 2007.

PATERSON: Yes, he did.

MARTIN: Were you happy with how that film turned out?

PATERSON: I was. You know, David fought and fought and fought to keep it as close to the story as possible and we didn't win all the battles, but I think we won the war. I've seen it five or six times and, every time, I've been moved to tears and...

MARTIN: Let's play a short clip for people who haven't seen it yet. Here it is.


ANNASOPHIA ROBB: (as Leslie Burke) Warriors.

JOSH HUTCHERSON: (as Jess Aarons) Try dragonflies.

ROBB: (as Leslie Burke) No. They're warriors from the treetop provinces.

HUTCHERSON: (as Jess Aarons) I don't know this game.

ROBB: (as Leslie Burke) What game? This is for real.

MARTIN: Your books are just beloved by many of your readers. You certainly know that, but your books have also been among the most challenged. Do you have any idea why that is?

PATERSON: Well, I think, if a book has the power to move a reader, it also has the power to offend a reader and you want your books to have power, so you just have to take what comes with that. I think it's mostly adults who are offended by my books. Very seldom do I get a letter from an irate child.

MARTIN: When this book was first published, there was a sense that maybe kids were being taken for stupid, that they weren't always given the opportunity to hear about serious topics in young adult and children's literature. Now, though, some people feel that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, that there's just way - you know, everything's about, you know, terribleness and horribleness. I just wondered if you have an opinion about that.

PATERSON: Well, I had a wonderful experience in Australia some years ago and I was just sitting at a table at lunchtime at a conference with a group of teachers and there were some - two or three social workers sitting at the same table. And the teachers were expostulating about how books for young adults were these days and so, finally, they turned to the social workers and said, what do you think? You work with troubled children all the time. Do you think that it's gone too far in the direction of realism?

And one of them - she just turned to me. I didn't even know she recognized me at the table. And she said, you know, our children really love "The Great Gilly Hopkins." And I said, well, that doesn't make any sense to me because, you know, compared to some of those children, Gilly's life was not all that bad. And she said, no. But it has the flavor and she said, you know, it's sort of like a perfume. It only takes a little bit of the essence to make the perfume. If you've got too much in there, it's overpowering. And she said it's the essence that the children need and that's what they recognize.

MARTIN: Your latest book, "The Flint Heart," it includes fairies, it includes magic. How did you come to that?

PATERSON: Eden Phillpotts was a writer in the late 19th and very early 20th century and "The Flint Heart" was a children's book that he wrote. And we read it and we loved it and my husband kept trying to get people to republish it because it was long out of print and nobody wanted to publish it because it's very Victorian in many ways. Eden Phillpotts has a wonderful voice, but he loved the sound of his own voice and he went on and on for pages, some - a number of pages just listing the variety of fairies that lived on Dartmoor, and then he would include political jokes about the turn of the 19th to the 20th century in England, which nobody would understand today. So John and I decided we would just what we called freely abridge it, in that way we could add things that things needed to be added, we could subtract a great deal, but we could still maintain the basic story and characters and the wonderful language.

MARTIN: We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with the award-winning children's book author Katherine Paterson. She recently received the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association. That's something like a lifetime achievement award.

And can we talk a little bit about your personal story, which is really just as fascinating as your novels. I mean your parents were Christian missionaries. You were, were you born in China or did you go back...

PATERSON: I was born in China. I was born in China.

MARTIN: You were born in China and you lived there on and off during your childhood, and then you later became a missionary in Japan. Do you think that those years had an influence on your writing?

PATERSON: Oh, absolutely, especially my years in Japan, I think, as a young adult. One thing that happened to me, of course, having lived in China under the Japanese occupation, I feared and hated the Japanese and nobody could've convinced me when I was nine years old that I would go to Japan and live for four years and truly love Japan. And I've said more than once I think it is a wonderful experience to find yourself loved by people that you thought you hated, and that's what happened to me in those four years.

MARTIN: How do you continue to remain so close to what it feels like to be young, to be the age of a lot of the characters that you write about? I think that's one of the things that people appreciate, you know, about your work. But I must say, you know, just myself, even having kids that age, you know, sometimes I read them and I think, yeah, that is what it feels like to be that age. And I realize that I've forgotten. I mean I think that's part of the challenge of being an adult - especially being a parent - is you forget what it feels like to feel so vulnerable or so helpless.


MARTIN: And I want to know how do you hold onto that.

PATERSON: Well, I'm not absolutely sure, Michel, but I just feel that I carry that child around with me all the time, that she's still alive and well inside of me. And I try to listen carefully to her voice.

But it continues to be a miraculous thing for me that I can write something that's very personal to me and means a great deal to me and have it mean something important to another human being. I think that's the best thing about being a writer is it gives you readers who understand your deepest feelings and fears.

MARTIN: Can you tell us how you go about getting an idea, where you draw your inspiration from?

PATERSON: Oh land. You know, I finish a book and I think, well, that was a good career while it lasted and I think I'll never have a book-worthy idea again as long as I live and, you know, then something will happen or I'll hear a stray phrase or I'll read something and I'll think, oh, and it'll be the beginning. Not - it won't be the book, because one idea doth not a novel make, but it will be the beginning and it will sort of scratch around inside like the sand in the oyster until eventually it becomes what I realize is a real book.

MARTIN: Are your relatives afraid to talk around you for fear you'll put them in their books - your books?


PATERSON: No, they all want to be in my books, too.


PATERSON: It's killing because, you know, they think I've put them in my books and I really haven't because, you know, you can't put real people in books because real people are not believable and people in books have to be believable. You know, my kids all think they're in my books. And, you know, I do get an idea here or there from my four children, but the person who appears over and over and over again in my books, of course, is myself, for good or for bad. I mean you can find out all kinds of things about me through the more villainous characters.


MARTIN: Well what you mean by that, that real people, you can't put real people in books because real people aren't believable? What do you mean?

PATERSON: They're just too complex. And they're too contradictory. And you put them into a book and people say, oh, that doesn't make any sense. That person is not behaving the way that person is supposed to behave. And - but you look around at people in your life and they're not behaving the way that you expected them to behave.


MARTIN: Do you have any advice for people who would wish to follow in your footsteps - particularly people who would like to write for children?

PATERSON: My advice to people who are really serious about it is to read what's out there because then you can get a little more realistic idea of what's being published. I think a lot of people who always wanted to write a children's book haven't read a children's book since they read "The Little Engine That Could" when they were five or six. And then, of course, you can't be a writer unless you actually write, and it doesn't take as much time as people think. You know, the number of people who say, well, I'm going to write a book when I have time, they're never going to have the time. And I started writing seriously when I had four tiny children. Well, I mean I had one tiny child, two tiny child, three tiny children, four tiny children in just over four years, and that's when I began to write seriously. And I figured out that a lot is going on in your head when you're changing diapers and washing clothes and doing all those things that have to be done. And if you've got 10, 15 minutes a day to sit down and write, you'd have a book by the end of the year.

MARTIN: Well, we'll take that as a challenge, OK?


MARTIN: Well, congratulations again.

PATERSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: It's been delightful speaking with you.

PATERSON: I enjoyed speaking with you too, Michel. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Katherine Paterson is an award-winning author of many young adult novels and novels for children. She recently received the 2013 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award from the American Library Association to add to her many others. And she was kind enough to join us from Montpelier, Vermont.

Thank you so much for joining us.

PATERSON: Thank you, Michel.

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