Katherine Paterson named National Ambassador for Young People's Literature

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; C01

The Stinky Cheese Man has been replaced by the Queen of Terabithia.

They have nothing in common, these two, and yet everything in common. Tuesday morning in the Library of Congress, with elementary school children as witnesses, the ceremony of succession was accomplished and a proud nation with so-so reading habits got a new National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

She is Katherine Paterson, the award-winning author of more than 30 books, probably best-known for "Bridge to Terabithia," which was published and Newbery-Medaled in the late 1970s but had its longest run on the bestseller lists after release of the 2007 movie.

The outgoing ambassador wisecracked about all the imaginary diplomatic perks he would be giving up. He is Jon Scieszka, the award-winning author of more than three dozen illustrated books and chapter books and the Web-savvy creator of an online kid empire -- but perhaps best known for his 1992 opus, "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales."

It's hard to imagine two more different writers being asked to perform the same mission. Scieszka was the first kid-lit ambassador, serving the two-year term.

"We couldn't be more different," said Scieszka, 55. "Sometimes you want to read 'Bridge to Terabithia' and deal with that, sometimes you're feeling like a 'Knucklehead' and 'Stinky Cheese Man.' Kids are willing to try all of it."

"If you're trying to catch young readers, you have to fish with the right bait," said Paterson, 77. "Kids that are going to be caught by Jon's books are not going to be caught by my books."

Corey Shaw, 10, a fifth-grader at Brent Elementary School -- one of three Capitol Hill schools that sent about a dozen students each to the ceremony -- has read both "Terabithia" and Scieszka's "Tut, Tut." He gave thumbs up to both.

"It's actually a very important and surprising book," Corey said of "Tut, Tut," about a trip back in time to ancient Egypt.

Of "Terabithia," about a boy and a girl who invent a magical land together, Corey said: "The ending was very sad. Then I thought about it, and it's not that bad. You have to remember that you have to get over things."

Indeed, many of the other students also turned out to be what you might call Stinky Cheese Terabithians, fans of both the incoming and outgoing ambassadors, which helped Librarian of Congress James Billington and the others behind the ambassadorships make their larger point. The ambassador's role is to raise national awareness about the importance of young people's literature in getting young readers off to a good start. By picking two such different writers as the first two ambassadors, the program reminds parents that there are many different ways to be a reader, Billington said.

"Read for your life," Paterson told the young people in the audience. "Read for your life as a member of a family, as a part of a community, as a citizen of this country and a citizen of the world."

Meanwhile, reading rates among young people are in decline, while there has been an uptick in reading among adults, according to the latest figures released by the National Endowment for the Arts. Just over half of 9-year-olds, fewer than a third of 13-year-olds and about one-in-five 17-year-olds read almost every day for fun, the NEA reported in 2007.

The ambassador's responsibilities amount to making appearances at major book events around the country to evangelize for young reading -- which Paterson has been doing for 30 years. "It will sound a little fancier now that I have this medal," she said.

A selection committee of children's book experts and the outgoing ambassador recommended Paterson to Billington. Sponsors of the ambassador program include the library's Center for the Book and the Children's Book Council, a nonprofit trade association. Several publishers also underwrite expenses.

Paterson's works include "Jacob Have I Loved," "The Great Gilly Hopkins," "Bread and Roses, Too," and, most recently, "The Day of the Pelican," about a refugee family's escape from the war in Kosovo to the United States.

Paterson lives in Barre, Vt., but inspiration for "Terabithia" came when she lived in Takoma Park. Her son David had a best friend, Lisa Hill, and the pair played imaginative games in Sligo Creek Park. While away on vacation, Lisa was struck and killed by lightning. Paterson wrote "Terabithia" to make sense of the tragedy, with protagonists named Leslie and Jess.

Before the ceremony in the library, David Paterson walked up to the rows of students. Katherine Paterson's four children, seven grandchildren and husband had come to watch her be honored.

"How many kids have read 'Bridge to Terabithia'?" he asked. Nearly 30 hands shot up. "You can tell your friends you met the original Jess."

Charlotte Harrington gasped. She's 9, a fourth-grader at St. Peter's Interparish School. "Terabithia" is one of her favorite books. "It starts out miserable, and then goes joyous, then goes downhill, then uphill," she said after David Paterson walked away.

When it was Charlotte's turn to get "Bread and Roses, Too," signed by Paterson, the girl told the author, "I loved 'Bridge to Terabithia.' It's one of the best books ever."

The Charlottes of the nation don't need an ambassador. But she and her friends had plenty of ideas for the new ambassador on hooking reluctant young readers.

"Give them a book that shows them what they feel like," said Fiona Campbell, 9, a fourth-grader at St. Peter's.

Isn't that what Paterson and Scieszka both have been doing, after their own fashion? Afterwards, they laughed about being such an odd couple.

"I think the No. 3 [ambassador] should be different from both of us!" Paterson said. "The variety of books is a wonder to behold, but we also have a variety of readers."

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