Monday, May 21, 2012

The Timelessness of Katherine Paterson

To watch a video of Katherine Paterson's talk, click here.
I was lucky enough to hear Katherine Paterson speak recently in Lowell, MA. The Tsongas Industrial History Center, which is a partnership between UMASS Lowell Graduate School of Education and the Lowell National Historical Park, invited her to speak on May 3 about her historical novel, Lyddie, about a young girl who makes her way from Vermont to Lowell to work in the mills.

In preparation for the event, I re-read Lyddie and Bridge to Terabithia, and pulled out my copy of The Great Gilly Hopkins to take with me to get signed. When I got there, I bought Bread and Roses, Too and Jip, both Paterson novels I'm familiar with, although have not read before. I had everything signed that night - I'm a sucker for an author-signed book.

Paterson's speech was astounding. I'm not quite sure how else to describe it. She spoke of Lowell and her research for Lyddie, of course, but she also shared some about her writing process, how she does it, and how she doubts it. She told stories and shared instants in her career that were difficult or meaningful or both. She talked about not writing what she knows, but what she wants to find out.

When she was done, I turned to my companions and said, "How does anyone write a speech that good?" Paterson graciously took questions from the audience and then sat and greeted the long line of people wanting to have books signed, accompanied by her husband, who assisted the process by finding the title page in each book and handing it over to her (they will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year if I understood her reference correctly in her speech that night).

Paterson's prose is clean, clear, and inviting. It is simple and concise. It is exactly what a middle-grade novel requires, especially when historical in nature. The story draws in the reader, holds attention without waver, and delivers on education at the same time - something very rare indeed. Lyddie and Jip and Rosa and Jake (Bread and Roses, Too), if they were real, would have lived over 100 years ago, yet modern readers can relate to their stories. Teachers teach Paterson's books because they are worthy of study, to be sure, but also because their students will love them.

Gilly, Jess and Leslie (Bridge), and Louise and Caroline (Jacob Have I Loved) are 20th century young people. I think even 100 years from now, readers will still be able to relate to them as well - their stories can be universally understood and appreciated over the passage of time. Finding a home and an identity, dealing with death, and sibling rivalry are all here to stay, and so these characters will continue to provide insight into issues for a long time.

I fear sometimes that the books of my youth might be missed by the youth of today. Will my niece Sonia pass by The Great Gilly Hopkins in favor of something flashier or more recently published? I hope not. (And my niece is a bad example, really, since she has me sending her books - I'll make sure she gets Gilly's story at some point.) Seek out these modern day classics from Paterson. Even adult readers will likely find something new in Lyddie and Jip's stories - Vermont, slavery, mill work, lunatics, and the poor farm are portrayed in ways I've never considered. Read Lyddie first, and you'll appreciate the lovely intertextual twist Paterson builds into Jip that shouldn't be missed.

And so, in a blog that has focused in its first three weeks on the new, I take a step back and invite readers to do the same. Time may pass, technology may change, lives may march on. But the written words on the page stay the same and invite with each reading something new created by those who take the time to ingest and consider them.

1 comment:

  1. Love Katherine Patterson and love this blog! Her books were a big part of my classroom. Looking forward to reading more about your book finds.