Amid the celebrations there is, of course, significant angst about the future of “the book,” especially when it comes to young people and reading. Beneath the blockbusters in the young adult literature section — remember Harry Potter and some good-looking vampires were literary characters before they became teen idols — there’s an increasing fear that the genre’s audience is in danger of losing touch with great prose. Will the dog-eared treasures that we grew up with slip through our kid’s Kindle-clutching fingers? Will their technology-addled attention spans turn away from beautifully-told stories?
Katherine Paterson isn’t so tortured by those questions. The revered author of “Bridge to Terabithia” (HarperCollins, 1977) and two-time winner of the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal is currently in her second year serving as the Library of Congress-designated National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
”I can’t believe there will ever be a time when the book is truly obsolete. It is the perfect technology and feeds the soul” she wrote me when I posed the questions to her.
Q. What does it mean to be a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature?
Katherine Paterson: In a way I’m doing as ambassador what I’ve been doing for the past nearly 40 years. I go about telling folks how important libraries are and how unless we, young and old, read books, newspapers, and magazines of substance, the life of our democracy is in jeopardy. Now, I have a platform I didn’t have before.
Q. What differentiates young adult literature from adult literature?
Paterson: That’s a hard question. As a child one of my favorite books was “The Yearling,” a Pulitzer prize winner that is now often considered a young adult book. Some say it is the elements of hope and wonder in children’s books that make them special. But there are many dark young adult novels these days. Adults loved Harry Potter, though it was written for the young. In the end, it is probably up to the reader of any age to decide if this book is for him or her.
Q. What can parents do to foster a love of literature in our children?
Paterson: Read aloud to them and with them. Talk about what they are reading and what you are reading. They do see you read, don’t they? Read the books they read independently and/or books they recommend to you.
Q. What are a few must-reads for young adults in terms of classics? How about new books?
Paterson: “Charlotte’s Web,” of course. A.A. Milne and Kenneth Graham. “Little Women,” “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” New books are harder to recommend. If they love fantasy, Susan Cooper is wonderful. Brand new books: “The Hunger Games” are about the most powerful anti-war books around. M. T. Anderson is great.
But you’ll make all my friends I didn’t mention unhappy with me!
Paterson will be at the National Book Festival Saturday to talk about teens and books. She’ll also be reading at Politics & Prose on Sunday afternoon from her forthcoming book, written with her husband, John Paterson, “The Flint Heart” (Candlewick, September 2011.)
What are your favorite books from your teen years? Will you/ have you passed them on to your child?