By ERIN ALLEN
“Read for your life!” exclaimed children’s author Katherine Paterson as she accepted her medal and new position of National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature on Jan. 5 in a special ceremony.
Two-time winner of the National Book Award and Newbery Medal, as well as many other awards, Paterson will serve in the position during 2010 and 2011; she succeeds Jon Scieszka, appointed in 2008, who was the first person to hold the title. Her platform during the next two years will emphasize “reading for knowledge, understanding and delight.”
“The telling of stories is the oldest form of communication in the world,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “Stories told in books are one thing that can unify the world because everyone can share stories.
“Our new ambassador is a wonderful storyteller. Her stories change people’s lives when they read them.”
The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council (CBC) and Every Child a Reader, the CBC foundation, are the sponsors of the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature initiative. The Librarian of Congress names the National Ambassador for a two-year term, based on recommendations from a selection committee representing many segments of the book community. The selection criteria include the candidate’s contribution to young people’s literature and ability to relate to children. The position was created to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of their lives.
Before passing the torch, Scieszka offered some sage advice to Paterson before giving a round of thanks to those involved in his tenure.
“Don’t wear your medal to the airport,” he said.
He also warned her to expect crazy gifts and mementos, rattling off a list of such things as gold pants, capes, sashes and his personal favorite, “The Ambassador’s Fanfare,’” played by a group of young students during one of his school appearances.
When Paterson took the podium, she recited an admittedly bad poem she wrote in elementary school that was published in her school’s newsletter—along with a note of criticism from a teacher.
“Something must have happened (since then). Even I can tell my work has improved over the last 70 years,” she quipped. “I have an answer for that—reading.”
Paterson’s international fame rests not only on her widely acclaimed novels but also on her efforts to promote literacy in the United States and abroad. A two-time winner of the Newbery Medal (“Bridge to Terabithia” and “Jacob Have I Loved”) and the National Book Award (“The Great Gilly Hopkins” and “The Master Puppeteer”), she has received many other accolades for her body of work, including the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, given by her home state of Vermont. Paterson was also named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000.
Paterson is vice president of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that informs, promotes, educates and inspires the American public to pursue literacy for young people and to support libraries. She is both an Alida Cutts Lifetime Member of the United States Board on Books for Young People and a Lifetime Member of the International Board on Books for Young People.
Her most recent book is “The Day of the Pelican,” a moving, dramatic story of a refugee family’s flight from war-torn Kosovo to America. It is the 2010 selection for Vermont Reads, a statewide reading program.
Born in China to Presbyterian missionaries, Patterson lived in 18 places in as many years. By her own admission, books were her friends.
“The friends I found in books not only helped me understand myself better but also helped me understand and reach out to others,” she concluded.
Following the program, the floor was opened up to questions from elementary school students from Brent Elementary, Capitol Hill Day School and St. Peter’s Interparish School, who all also received an autographed copy of Paterson’s “Bread and Roses, Too.”
Erin Allen is acting editor of the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.