Katherine Paterson Stories of My Life

ISBN 13: 9780147509185

Stories of My Life

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9780147509185: Stories of My Life

From her childhood in China to the moment she won her first National Book Award, literary icon Katherine Paterson shares the personal stories that inspired her children’s books.

Told with her trademark humor and heart, Paterson’s life stories tell tales from her childhood growing up with missionaries, to living as a single woman in Japan, to raising four children in suburban Maryland with her minister husband. Read about the origins of some of her most beloved characters, go behind the scenes to the moments Katherine found out she won her many awards, and more. Filled with personal photos and letters, this is funny, heartwarming history from a legendary name in the field of children’s books.

* “What absolutely shines through is Paterson’s warm, self-effacing humor, and extraordinary humility. . . . Like Mark Twain, to whom she is distantly related, Paterson is a true American treasure.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
 
“Honest, flecked with good humor, and heartrending.”—The Horn Book
 
“A gift for Paterson fans.”—Booklist
 

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About the Author:

Katherine Paterson is a legendary children's book author whose career has garnered many awards, including two Newbery Medals and two National Book Awards. She is currently Vice President of the National Children's Book and Literarcy Alliance, and live in Barre, Vermont. She has four children and seven grandchildren.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

My daughter Lin was very ill when she was pregnant with her first child, and I went to try to help out. It was hard to know how to take care of her. She could keep virtually nothing in her stomach and most of the time simply lay in a dark room feeling miserable. I soon ran out of topics for conversation, until one day I remembered a story my mother had told me, so I said: “Surely I told you about the time . . .” But I hadn’t. She’d never heard the story I’d grown up knowing. I couldn’t believe I’d never told it to her, just as my mother had told it to me. And then I realized what had happened. I heard most of those stories at the kitchen sink while Mother was washing and my sister Liz and I were drying and putting away the dishes. For most of my children’s lives, we’d had a dishwasher.

I resolved then that I would write down the kitchen sink stories of my family, and write about my own life for my children and grandchildren and the several friends who thought I should write more about my childhood. But as I wrote and people began to read it, I added more and more. The thing just got out of hand and grew, not into a proper memoir, but beyond the simple collection of stories I’d first intended. Since writing a memoir has become all the rage, I found I could hardly give a talk without someone asking when I was going to write my memoirs. Well, call it ego or whatever you like, I decided if I was going to write the stories for my family and friends, I might just as well make them into a proper book with a proper editor and publisher instead of just doing them privately. I am a writer, after all, and I do love to tell stories—the bigger the audience, the better.

I’ve filled out details in the anecdotal tales about my parents with letters and brief memoirs that my parents wrote down when they were the age I am now. I’d taken a tape recorder to their house and asked them to talk their remembrances into it, but they were put off by the technology and decided instead to write them down for us five children. My father’s time in the Washington and Lee Ambulance Corps was augmented by the memoirs of a fellow driver, William Roth.

My mother’s mother had saved her letters from China, but they were less than satisfying. Much of the writing was intent on not worrying her mother when, in truth, her life in China was filled with many anxious times. After my father died, I remarked to his surviving sisters that it was a pity he had written so few letters, as I guessed his might have told more about our lives there. “What do you mean?” one of my old aunts asked. “He wrote Mama every week.”

“I don’t guess you still have those letters,” I said, not daring to hope.

She looked at me with disgust. “Well, we wouldn’t have thrown them away.” A few weeks later they came to my house in an old cardboard box—not every letter he wrote, I feel sure, but many more than I could have ever hoped for, starting with a few from his time in the army through the years 1923–1940, which were spent in China.

The longest story in the book is not exactly a family story, though the germ of it was told to me both by my parents and Maud Henderson herself. My friend and fellow writer Kate DiCamillo heard the short version and told me that if I didn’t write about Maud, she would, which drove me to research Maud’s life. To my surprised delight, I discovered that her letters from China to her half sister and a few others had been given to the library at the University of North Carolina. There were also records and letters in the historical archives of the Episcopal Church and references to Maud in the memoirs of Marian Craighill, the wife of an Episcopal bishop in China.

I am indebted to all these sources, but especially to my mother, who told me stories at the kitchen sink.

Three Frequently Asked Questions

Question #1: How did you become a writer?

When I’m asked this question, I usually ask the questioner if he would like to hear my first published work. If he looks at all interested I proceed to recite:

Pat, pat, pat.

There is the rat.

Where is the cat?

Pat, pat, pat.

This piece appeared in the Shanghai American School newspaper in the fall of 1939. Right beside it was a letter from my teacher, Miss Essie Shields, that began: “The second graders’ work is not up to our usual standards this week . . .” ensuring that my first published work would be forever linked to my first critical review.

Hardly anything has survived of my childhood writing. I can’t remember that there was very much to begin with. I was a reader, not a writer. I do have one letter that I wrote the same year as “Pat Pat Pat.” My parents went to China as Presbyterian missionaries in 1923. The war between China and Japan began in 1937, and in 1939 my mother and we five children spent the year in Shanghai, while my father went back to our hometown of Huai’an, which was under Japanese occupation. The trip was determined to be too dangerous for family travel, as it required the crossing and re-crossing of battle lines and bandit country. Even though we were never sure that mail would get through when he was “up country,” we would write to him. Once, trying to be very grown-up, I thought I’d imitate the way my mother often closed her letters, which was “Lovingly, Mary.” My older brother and sister saw my letter and hooted. Not ever having been a strong speller, I’d signed it: “Lovely, Katherine,” a misspelling I was often reminded of through the years. But somehow, despite the chaotic times, my letter reached my father and, amazing as it seems to me, he kept it. When I found it and reread it years later, I was pleased to see that although at school I was imitating my hated Dick and Jane primers, when I wrote to my father, whose love I trusted, I could write pretty well for a second grader.

The truth is that, even though I was a very early reader (which made me hate the school texts, which bore no resemblance in my mind to real books), no one thought I had the makings of a writer, including me. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be a missionary or a movie star when I grew up.

My writing life almost didn’t happen. During my last year at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, one of my favorite professors stopped me in the hall and said she’d just been reading my exam and it made her wonder if I’d ever thought of becoming a writer. Now, I, the lifelong reader, the summa cum laude graduate in English literature, knew what great writing was, so how could Dr. Little imagine, on the basis of an essay on an exam, that I should be a writer? “No,” I said primly, I had no intention of being a writer because “I wouldn’t want to add another mediocre writer to the world.”

“Maybe,” Dr. Little said, “that’s what God is calling you to be.”

It was hard for me to imagine that God needed a lot more mediocre writers in the world, so I didn’t become a writer or a movie star, I became a missionary. It took me a long time to understand what Sara Little was really saying, and it was this: There are no guarantees of success, much less of quality. If you don’t dare to be a mediocre writer, you’ll never be a writer at all.

In the end, it was Sara Little who set me firmly on the journey. She recommended me for the scholarship at Union Seminary, where I met John Paterson, a young Presbyterian pastor from Buffalo, New York. I married him the following summer, and didn’t return to my life as a missionary. So then she suggested to the Board of Christian Education that I be asked to write a book on the Christian faith for fifth and sixth graders.

I began to write Who Am I? at about the time our first son, John Jr., was born, and it was published in 1966 after Lin had arrived and David was born. I realized that I loved to write and that I wasn’t going back to teaching with three tiny ones around, so I began to write in earnest. I needed something in those days that wasn’t, by the end of the day, eaten up, torn up, or dirtied up. I needed something to keep my mind from turning into mush. And so I began to write in what snatches of time I could find when all three children were safely asleep and my minister husband was off visiting the sick and comforting the dying. My desk was the dining room table that had to be cleaned off before we could use it for any other purpose. That I didn’t always perform this task in time is proven by childish scribblings on pages of the first draft of The Sign of the Chrysanthemum.

I didn’t start with a novel. I didn’t know where to start. I tried poetry, essays, short stories, none of which anyone wanted to buy. A woman in the Takoma Park church knew I was trying to write. She asked if I’d like to go with her to a writing coursebeing offered through the county adult education program. I was thrilled with the idea. Mom’s night out! We took the general writing course and then, when a course in writing for children was offered, we took that as well.

I got two valuable lessons from those courses. The first was that to be a writer you have to write. I have always been a student who does her homework, and I was embarrassed to go to a weekly class unprepared. So I was writing, sometimes in five-minute snatches of time, but writing something almost every day. Even after I no longer had the framework of the class, I knew that I needed to keep working in a disciplined fashion or I’d never finish anything. The second lesson I learned seems to contradict the first—it is that I did not again want to be a part of a writing group. I don’t like to share early drafts for several people to read and comment on. Other writers I know and admire swear by their writers’ groups, but I learned fairly early on that I am not that kind of writer. I’m a very private person. I need to do my work with no one reading over my shoulder or a group of people discussing it, even a supportive group.

Seven years elapsed between the publication of Who Am I? and the publication of The Sign of the Chrysanthemum—seven years during which I was writing regularly and trying to sell what I had written. I sold one short story to a tiny magazine that ceased publication the month after it printed my story. I also sold one poem, but the magazine that paid ten dollars for it died before the poem was ever published.

I decided that since I was writing a story or a poem almost every week I would try to write, instead, a chapter every week, so that by the end of the year, I’d have a book, and even if no one ever published it, it would be something substantial that I had accomplished.

Question #2: Where do you get your ideas?

Some of my writer friends have so many ideas, they’ll never live long enough to turn them all into books. I look at them with a certain envy, for when I finish a book I say, “Well, that was a great career while it lasted,” because I am sure I’ll never have an idea worthy of another book. But by now I’ve written a lot of books, so I must have gotten those ideas from somewhere, and that somewhere is most often from my own life. Another lesson I’ve learned along the way is that there are no truly original ideas. There are no truly original plots. As the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes said three thousand or so years ago: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Except you. Except me. Every individual is new and unique, so we may be stuck with the same old plots, but because a new person is telling the story, bringing his or her singular life to bear on the story, it is fresh and new. So the only excuse I have for daring to write is that no one else in the world would be able to tell the stories that only I can tell. And an aside to those of you wishing to write—that is your excuse as well. The raw material for our unique stories is our unique lives and perspective on life.

I have a note card that has lived for years in my desk drawer. The card has three panel illustrations. At the top lies a zonked- out whale with X’s where its eyes should be. Below is the same beached whale with its eyes popped wide open in amazement as a voice coming from its mouth declares: “Incredible as it seems—” The sentence is completed by a person emerging from between the jaws of the beast: “—my life is based on a true story.” This book contains true stories of my life that I want to share with people I care about, a lot of whom are readers of my books. Sometimes a reader, often a friend, when hearing me tell an old story, will recognize in the story the seed of one of my books that I myself hadn’t realized. That’s one of the great things about having readers. They often know more than the writer.

This book is not a memoir. I swore never to write one. My memory is not good enough to turn these stories into a coherent narrative. Besides, I can’t believe the people I love would want to be minor characters in the story of my life. I’ve gotten permission from my husband and children to tell tales on them, but I’m hesitant to impose on others. So there will be many important people in my life that will not appear as characters in these stories. You know who you are. If you’re relieved, good; if you’re disappointed, I apologize.

Question #3: “How does it feel to be famous?”

The questioner is young and earnest and has just confided that although she doesn’t know what she wants to be, she knows she wants to be famous. I don’t really know how to answer her question. How does it feel to be famous?

And then I remember things that happened after Bridge to Terabithia won the Newbery Medal. I would be invited somewhere to speak and there would be a lovely dinner at which I was the honored guest. The people on either side of me at the table would say something gracious and congratulatory and then they would turn to the person on the other side and never speak to me again for the whole meal. There were a few times when the person in charge made it clear that she’d hired me for the weekend and expected to get her money’s worth, by gum.

I’d come home and whine to my long-suffering husband. “I’m a human being,” I’d say, “why can’t they just treat me like a human being.”

And then I remembered Anita. When I was in Chandler Junior High in Richmond, Virginia, all of us new kids were put in the same homeroom. It was a wonderful thing because we could make friends with each other, we didn’t have to try to cope with already cemented cliques that populated the rest of the school. I made several good friends that year, but there was one new girl that we were all shy around. The reason we were shy around Anita was because she was famous. She was the youngest member of the Carter sisters. Her mother, Maybelle, had been part of the legendary country music group the Carter Family. Her older sister June went on to marry Johnny Cash. At the time, her mother, two older sisters, and Anita sang regularly on the radio, and in concerts all over the South. We didn’t make friends with her because we didn’t know what to say to someone we considered famous.

Because she had moved around the country a lot, Anita needed catching up in a couple of subjects and for some reason I was asked to tutor her. To my amazement she was so shy that even one on one, she barely spoke above a whisper. Yet that summer I went to a concert at the stadium, and on stage, Anita was transformed. The huge crowd loved her and she obviously loved performing for them.

“If it is hard for me at forty-five to deal with the little bit of fame that I have, how must it have been for Anita?” I wondered. So I wroteCome Sing, Jimmy Jo about James, a shy boy who becomes a star. If you want to know what Katherine Paterson is really like, you should read that book. Like James, and perhaps Anita, I’m a shy sh...

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