Allison's Book Bag

Musings Meme: Current Reads #14

Posted on: December 16, 2013

MusingMondaysWhat are you reading right now?
What do you think of it?
Why did you chose it?

Sometimes reading about an author’s life will inspire or increase interest in that writer’s work. Case in point is Katherine Paterson. I grew up a fan, because of her well-known books Bridge to Terabithia, Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved. What elevated Paterson to the status of being one of my “favorite authors” for me was reading her essays on reading and writing for children which are compiled in: Gates of Excellence and The Spying Heart


Before the Gates of Excellence The High Gods Have Place Sweat

-Edith Hamilton

Gates of Excellence contains twenty-five of Paterson’s nonfiction writings. The bulk of the selections are essays, which give insights into Paterson’s life or into her beliefs. Paterson says that she can’t imagine her young readers finding her life of any interest, but knows that librarians and teachers will, and so she compiled these essays. To those categories, I’d add aspiring authors of any age, because from my youngest years I devoured any and all information I could find about authors. Interspersed with Paterson’s essays are her reviews of books for young people. It’s interesting to see what titles were just being published and what Paterson thought about them. The final four selections are acceptance speeches.

I don’t want to add another mediocre writer to the world.
But maybe that’s what God is calling you to be.

–Katherine Paterson, conversation between Paterson and a college professor

Paterson is often asked: “When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?” Actually, she started out wanting to become a missionary or a movie star. In college, she wrote fiction by imitating other authors. Her own career began in graduate school when professors encouraged her talent. Ones also sometimes inquire about why she decided to write realism instead of fantasy, especially when fantasy books were at the top of best-selling books. Paterson openly admits to not only enjoying fantasy but having attempted it in Bridge to Terabithia, only to realize fantasy isn’t her natural bent. Conversely, she notes how her fiction is often so inspired by her children that they persist in seeing themselves in her multitude of characters, even in the anti-hero Gilly. Besides sharing about her growth as an author in Gates of Excellence, Paterson also covers such experiences as the struggles of an American growing up in China and about the delights of motherhood. One chapter she completely dedicates to a discussion of wonder and describes a moment when her son brought her to see a cicada about to lose its skin.

I had been writing fiction for years without hardly anyone noticing when, suddenly, a book of mine won a national award and overnight I seemed to have opinions worth consulting.

–Katherine Paterson

Cover of "The Great Gilly Hopkins"

Cover of The Great Gilly Hopkins

Numerous times during reading Paterson’s essays, I stopped to share a paragraph or more with my husband. Why? Because Paterson sometimes discussed the best ways to introduce books to young people, which obviously is an issue that is important to me as an educator. She tells the story of a young student who found himself in Gilly, a book his teacher introduced to him. Before that experience, he hadn’t shown any interest in books. Paterson also confesses that she herself even avoided some books such as The Odyssey for years because, although ones told her she should read them, she didn’t find them of interest. As a novice author, I also latch onto any and all essays about how to write for young people, why write for young people, and how fiction can change lives. Paterson includes plenty of these too.

Fiction is not the Gospel. But it can the voice of one crying in the wilderness….

–Katherine Paterson

My favorite essays by Paterson are those which she writes about her own novels. Through these I learned that her son’s loss of his girlfriend inspired Bridge to Terabithia. Paterson even shares her first summary of his story. Through her essays, I also discovered that Paterson struggles like I do with writing mysteries. However, her children kept requesting one. One day Paterson came across an article about a Japanese puppeteer. The article inspired an idea, which inspired research, which inspired more ideas, and ultimately an entire novel.


The Spying Heart contains eighteen of Paterson’s nonfiction writings. As with its predecessor, they are a mix of personal essays and reviews. They also provide further insights into her childhood, her beliefs, and her novels.

… Someday you’re going to make a mint out of this misery.

–Katherine Paterson>

When I used to mentor teens, I often tried to encourage those with loads of trials that one day they would have a lot of offer because of all the suffering they endured. While growing up Paterson never viewed her pain as seeds for a future writing career, but the reality is she ultimately made a livelihood by drawing on her pain. Her essays share how isolated she felt when her missionary family fled China to America. She admits that there is a fourth-grade teacher whom she’d love to contact, to let her know of her success, because this teacher used to criticize Paterson for not using the teacher’s preferred method of penmanship. In her essays, Paterson also shares how her religious background shaped her. This is one place where I feel special a kinship to her.

We have been willing to risk bankruptcy of the wealthiest nation in the world to build weapons of mass destruction, but we have plead poverty when it comes to nurturing the imaginations of the young.

–Katherine Paterson>

Paterson has no lack of opinions about education. She criticizes schools for emphasizing decoding and computation rather than the cultivation of imagination. What is startling is that even back when her essays were compiled in 1989, tests were a focus of education. Paterson also describes an unfortunate school where windows were forbidden, because students needed to focus on academics and not have distractions from the outside world.

Why do you write children’s books? You don’t have any childhood problems that need working out.

–Katherine Paterson, conversation with another author

After making the above observation, Paterson realized at least one of her reasons for writing for children. From my adolescence, I’ve instinctively realized that fiction for young people shouldn’t provide packaged answers. The challenge of course is how to still provide children with hope. After sharing her question, Paterson goes on to discuss why and how one should write for young people. For her, this means always taking the side of the child, but also trying to show the broader perspective she has acquired as an adult. It also means always taking children seriously and as worthy readers.

Cover of "Jacob Have I Loved"

Cover of Jacob Have I Loved

Again, my favorite essays were those which Paterson wrote about her own novels. She shares how her own fostering experiences inspired The Great Gilly Hopkins, as did her reading of The Lord of The Rings. Paterson also talks at length about the slow process of writing Jacob Have I Loved. She wanted to write it in third person. Although she wanted to write a story of sibling rivalry, it wasn’t until she realized that Louise would live on Chesapeake Bay that the story came together. Besides explaining how certain novels came to be, she also talks about public reaction. For example, Paterson feared that publishers would reject The Great Gilly Hopkins for being a story of the prodigal son, but instead the biggest backlash came from those who criticized its profanity. Ironically, others complimented Gilly as a role model.

Although I have provided a sampling of topics from Paterson’s essays, there is much content that I didn’t reference. You should discover some delights for yourself. Actually, this year is my second time reading these two books, and they felt new again to me. That’s one of the beauty of these two books. I could reread them multiple times, but still find out something new about the gifted Katherine Paterson. Thanks to my parent-in-laws, who gave these two books to me.

2 Responses to "Musings Meme: Current Reads #14"

I am reading a book that was shamefully overlooked for the Pulitzer Prize — Columbo: The Helter Skelter Murders.

I found this gem at the most recent Lincoln Public Libraries book sale. I snatched it up like a fresh Boston Cream-filled doughnut for two reasons: because I love the Columbo television series, and because I have long been interested in the Manson murders. Oh, and also a third reason: because surely the combination of those two things will be glorious.

I’m only one chapter in, but it’s already clear that the title is misleading. Also misleading is this quote from Jack Anderson (who DID win a Pulitzer Prize, thank you very much) on the cover: “Columbo now takes on the Charles Manson murders.” And then there’s the cover, which shows, in addition to a photo of Peter Falk as Columbo, pictures of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate. One might expect, therefore, that the story is about Columbo’s investigation of the Manson murders. But no, it’s not.

For one thing, the story takes place in 1994 — a mere 25 years too late. But also, it’s revealed in the first chapter — Columbo stories are howseegonnagetems rather than whodunnnits — that the murderer is not Manson or anyone in his Family.

So what’s the Manson connection? The actual killer is a wealthy business owner whose scheme is to pin his murders of his wife and her lover on an employee who is a former member of the Manson Family.

Now, it IS revealed in the prologue that Columbo was among those who investigated the original Manson murders in 1969. So it’s to be expected that he will need to draw on his personal knowledge of those murders. Perhaps he will seek out other former Family members. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, he will find cause to interrogate Manson himself!

I know. You’re thinking: man, that Andulamb is really into some high-brow literature.

Some of your high-brow literature is on my bookcase waiting to be read by me. I always enjoy your recommendations!

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