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'Terabithia' Author: Reading in a MySpace World

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Are your kids wild for Bridge to Terabithia? The beloved author of children's lit is now taking up the banner to get your kids (and you) to read more.

katherine paterson

Jeanne Sager: With a Newberry Honor, two National Book Awards, and a Hollywood hit created from her bestseller Bridge to Terabithia under her belt, Katherine Paterson is one of America's best-loved authors of children's literature.

And with Terabithia's spot at number nine on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books between 1900 and 2000, and number eight on that list for the nineties, Paterson is also one of the most controversial.

So who better to lead the charge for the Library of Congress as the new Ambassador for Young People's Literature? Taking the helm just this month from the first-ever author to hold the post (Jon Scieszka), Paterson sat down to chat with momlogic about the challenge of keeping kids' eyes on the stacks in the digital age.

Momlogic: What does an ambassador for young people's literature get to do?

Katherine Paterson: Well, we get to talk to a lot of people like you! The purpose of the role is just to help you become more aware of the importance and the value of young people reading. To get adults and young people thinking about reading. The latest statistics tell us they spend an average of seven and a half hours a day hooked up to some kind of machine, and that means that's seven and a half hours they're not playing outdoors or playing sports or reading! I really believe strongly unless people read -- and this is people of all ages -- our democracy doesn't have much of a chance. Reading is a way of helping you learn how to think.

ML: Some of your books have shown up quite high on the banned books list. How has it helped the cause having someone in the ambassador's position who is known for books that take on challenging subjects?

KP: I hope it will help just simply because I'll recommend books for people (when they ask me) that I think they might enjoy.

ML: How do you feel about the parents who look to ban books or limit what their kids read?

KP: I was a caring parent, and I'm a caring grandparent. I think we all want to protect our children from the things that we don't think are good for them. We certainly wouldn't let them eat anything we didn't think they should eat. I suppose for some parents, limiting reading is along that same line of protecting your child. I don't really believe that it's possible for us to totally protect our children. We just make them neurotic and ourselves crazy when we try too hard.

I think children are wiser than we give them credit for. If they start a book and they know it's not for them, they'll put it aside until they're older or better able to deal with it. That's not always true, of course, and if you believe books have power for good, you have to admit maybe they might hurt somebody. But with my children, I never limited what they read because my parents, who were actually very conservative in many ways -- they were Presbyterian missionaries -- never limited what we read. They respected our choices. But when I realized my children were reading a book that had content in it that would bother me, and I felt they might not be mature enough to handle it, I would always read the book myself and be available to talk about it.

It's sometimes very good for children to read something that's not all that good for them. If you're reading it too, and it's your basis for talking about something that's difficult, it's a way to bring up something you wouldn't talk about in ordinary conversation.

ML: How does reading these books compare to everything else kids have to deal with -- violence in video games or even the news?

bridge to terabithia

KP: Isn't it interesting how we aren't limiting video games or the news or movies or anything else? It's books that we go after, which I suppose is flattering! People feel that books are that powerful that they have to be censored, but they aren't censoring things that to me are far more damaging. A book can't work without a reader, and it's a reader's imagination that will make the pictures. Whereas if you're watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game, it's there for you. Your imagination is not called upon to do anything in the situation. I think things like that could be far more damaging.

ML: Your platform as ambassador is Read for Life. Why is it so important that people continue past childhood to read and not turn to other entertainment for everything?

KP: One of the sad things is we find reading scores go down, and actual reading goes down about third grade. Kids are reading less and less for pleasure after that time. And I wonder if it isn't because that's when we stop reading aloud to them. I would really like to know the correlation between reading aloud in school and homes and the interest in reading after that time. Now I'm not sure I'm answering your question! (laughs)

ML: That's OK! You were! Why is it so important they keep reading?

KP: I may wander into dangerous territory here, but just watching the health care debate, people didn't read things. They listened to sound bites, people they agreed with. They seldom listened to anyone they didn't agree with, and made decisions without full information. I don't mind somebody disagreeing with me if they've got the information, and if it's on the basis of the information that they're disagreeing with me, but if you don't read, you're not getting that information. It's very sad to think about newspapers dying because that's where we used to get all sides of the question, with different commentators and columnists. People aren't reading newspapers anymore.

I was reading about an immigration issue recently and there was a very interesting, in-depth article in the New York Times. Had that been on the news that night -- it wasn't, but if it had -- it would have been just a couple of minutes and just the highlights. It wouldn't have discussed the problem in full. It wouldn't have given you an opportunity to decide, to say "I agree with what the court did" or "I don't agree with what the court did."

I don't think we can have a democracy if people aren't willing to get the information and think about it and talk about it and then act on it in a responsible way.

ML: How do you suggest people really get their kids reading for life?

KP: If the parent doesn't read, the value of reading isn't seen in that particular household. I was very fortunate because my mother read to me from childhood, and it made me realize what wonderful things were in books. I think first of all, parents need to read themselves. They need to read to their children. They need to give them opportunities to select their own books as they become readers themselves by making an effort to take them to libraries. They need, as taxpayers, to support libraries. They need to support trained librarians in schools and good school libraries, and they just have to elevate the importance of books and reading.

ML: Since we're talking about children selecting their own books, I know I found reading your books as a child that you never shied away from the difficult topics like death or racism. How do you make sure that kids have something they can relate to?

KP: Let's face it, if they're not interested, they're not going to read! One reason we really need trained librarians and parents who care is they'll look for books a child will be interested in. A good librarian knows not only the books that are available but also children, and can match the right book to the right child. Not every book is going to be of interest to every child by any means. Just lately I've been asking my grandchildren -- I have seven grandchildren -- what they like to read, and it's really quite interesting to me. Occasionally my book would appear (laughter), but they weren't the top books on the list, especially the 12-year-old! They're all into Percy Jackson!




next: Control Your Damn Kid!
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