#24: Katherine Paterson 2004
Wrestling for Meaning, December 8, 2017
Distinguished author Katherine Paterson, writer of many books for children and young people, reflects on being a “meaning maker in a world gone mad.” In a world full of tragedy and sorrow, she says, children need adults—and writers—who tell them the truth. Musing on Helen Keller, owls, Jesus’ parables, Venezuelan mudslides, supernovae, and reading Gilly Hopkins with prisoners, Paterson compares writing to wrestling with a divine adversary and demanding a blessing. Out of that struggle, writers become co-creators with God, providing healing and illumination through the making and sharing of stories. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and Calvin English professor and prolific author Gary D. Schmidt.
- Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia and The Great Gilly Hopkins
- Dale Brown
- “White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field,” Mary Oliver
- Father Martin Smith, “Co-Creators with Gods”
- Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent
- Voltaire, Candide
Lisa Ann Cockrel: [00:00:00] Hi there. Before we jump into this week’s episode of Rewrite Radio, I want to let you know about a little contest we’re running between now and the end of the year in which you have a chance to win a pass to the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing while helping to spread the word about this podcast. It’s super simple: review Rewrite Radio on iTunes, and if you’re review is voted the most helpful by December 31st, you’ll win a pass to the next Festival.
Check out all the details at festival.calvin.edu. We’re excited to get your feedback and also to share the Festival’s archives with even more listeners. And speaking of the 2018 Festival, registration is now open. We think this just might be the perfect Christmas gift for yourself or your favorite reader. Something to think about, and of course, if you register and then win the Rewrite Radio contest, we’ll simply refund your money so don’t put it off. Now, on with the show.
Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we celebrate the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio features Katherine Paterson at the 2004 Festival of Faith & Writing. In this talk, she discusses how and why she finds meaning in the midst of life’s chaos, the comforts and challenges of art, and also the vital importance of teachers.
Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books, including 16 novels for children and young people. She’s won countless awards including the Newbery Medal for both Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, and National Book Awards for The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Master Puppeteer. For her body of work, she received the Hans Christian Andersen Award and in 2000 was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.
To help introduce this recording we snagged Gary Schmidt, an English professor here at Calvin College and our own resident award-winning author. He’s twice received a Newberry Honor, for both The Wednesday Wars and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. All told, he’s written more than 15 books for children and young adults including Okay for Now, a finalist for the National Book Award, and In God's Hands, a picture book he coauthored with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, that was a runner-up for a National Jewish Book Award. His most recent project is a short story told from the perspective of Yoda in an anthology called Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View.
We caught this busy writer and professor in between conferences with students.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: [2:56] Hey Gary, thanks for walking down the hall to join us here.
Gary Schmidt: Any time I can walk down the hall.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: [laughs] So we’re going to be listening to Katherine Paterson's lecture from the 2004 Festival of Faith and Writing coming up. But you of course have a long relationship, long history with Katherine Paterson. You actually wrote a book about her work.
Gary D. Schmidt: [chuckling] That's right, yeah.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Let's go back and say, when did you first discover Katherine Paterson's work? When even just personally as a reader or as a writer?
Gary D. Schmidt: In graduate school, Anne and I were collecting children's books for the day
Lisa Ann Cockrel: [laughing] In anticipation.
Gary D. Schmidt: And so - in anticipation [chuckles], and certainly one of the ones, I mean we'd all heard of Katherine, and so one of the ones we did was to see if we could get Terabithia in a nice, old edition and on and on. And so, I was reading those pretty seriously once those were there. If you're studying medieval lit, as I was at the time, so you're reading German and you're reading Anglo-Saxon and you're reading Latin and you're just going crazy with all this, all this really difficult work, it's awfully sweet to come home at night and to sit down and pick up Jacob Have I Loved, a brilliant book, but aimed at a very different audience than, you know –
Lisa Ann Cockrel: A little more accessible language.
Gary D. Schmidt: Right, exactly. And so I was reading a lot of those then. So it wasn't, I mean it wasn't like it was a hardship to go do that. It was really a pleasure, and to meet someone like that was really exciting.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: So when did you first meet her?
Gary D. Schmidt: Well, I decided that if I was going do this, it would really be helpful to go beyond the normal resources that are out there that anyone can get but actually go talk to her and she lives in Barre. And so we decided to go and do that, also to meet her husband, and to find out a little about the dynamics there. He's a minister, was a minister. And so I wanted to see how that all played out. So, and I did think it would give us a new dimension to the book that others may not have gotten.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Gotcha.
Gary D. Schmidt: So we went out to, we usually go to Maine in the summer, went out with all the kids, and it was crazy. And I wrote to her, and she suggested that we come to the house in Barre, and that's the first time we met.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Okay.
Gary D. Schmidt: [00:05:05] And it was wonderful. It was, it was, you know, amazing. It was a great interview. A lot of interesting insights that I hadn't really anticipated. We talked, for example, about Jacob Have I Loved, no about Gilly Hopkins, and in that book, there's the mother whose dropped her off and is really pretty much abandoned Gilly, and throughout the book, Gilly wants to believe that her mother desperately, desperately needs to come back, that she really – as soon as can – she'll come back and get her, but that's clearly not true. At the end of the book, she finally does come, but when she shows up, she's only got a small bag. She's only going to stay for a weekend, and she's not going to take Gilly. And Gilly suddenly recognizes that everything that she thought about her mother was not true, and that's she not gonna bring her back. She isn't this person coming with love. And so she goes into the bathroom, she wants to throw-up, and it's just – it's a really devastating scene, but she's learned a lot in the book so that she's able to handle it.
So I asked Katherine at that point, "You know, you must really, really, in some ways, feel so badly about this person, she's such a mean person in the end, and so shriveled – Gilly's mother." And she looked and she went, "Oh no. No, no, no. If you knew her story, you would weep for her." And I thought, "Okay. That's what a writer does." I mean that she has this entire backstory about a minor character who we only meet for one or two pages, and who was presented in a certain way, but the way Katherine sees her or thinks about her is a much larger, larger way. One that is extraordinarily empathetic towards a negative character.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Well, one of the things that I feel like your work has in common, I don't know if she inspired or encouraged this or if it's just kind of co-production, but you both in your novels really, as the story about Gilly represents, really grapple with things and with suffering. There's not a lot of easy answers or kind of, I've heard you say, "Life is not a sitcom." You know, and kids know that, and we need to be able to talk truthfully to kids about our lives. Maybe talk a little bit about that aspect of your work that it shares, like why do you think that it's important that we deal with suffering in books for children and young adults?
Gary D. Schmidt: She has a great essay, "Hope is More Than Happiness," and it was written for The New York Times for a Christmas edition long ago – not long ago, but a while ago, and she tried to define what hope is, and she wants it to not just a happy ending because there aren't all that many happy endings that are just easy happy endings like a sitcom. And the example she gives is a sort of unexpected one, and it's the story, it’s the film Oliver, the musical, which – and she talks about how in Oliver there's this kid who is placed in dreadful circumstances and he is in the poor house, he's in the orphanage, he's tied up with these thieves and robbers in very dark places. At the end, he's rescued, and you know, at the end of it, he's walking up to this patron's house, and he's going to be fine. I mean, he'll be okay. But she says, I think this is exactly right and this exactly what I agree, it's a musical – you expect to have all the dancing, the singing, everything, you know, sort of big climatic blah-blah-blah. And in fact, it isn't like that. Very quietly he walks up the stairs, and he leans into this sort of loving governess, and she holds him and he just weeps. And that's the end, and Katherine talks about he will be okay, but he'll always carry the memory and the sting and the consequences of that early childhood.
I think that's a really fair and important message to send, that you can't, it's not the case that everything will always turn out alright, that we do carry baggage, and children, too. And that they are going to have to learn not to ignore it or get rid of it, but in fact to deal with it. To grow the strength to deal with it. And so, and I think this is a huge influence of her on me. I mean, what I want to write about is kids who are facing really difficult times, but through the course of the book they're growing so that they can handle it. And I think that's exactly what Gilly does, and what Louise does in Jacob Have I Loved, what Jess will do in Bridge to Terabithia, and on and on and on. You grow so that you can handle the difficulties that life gives you.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for taking some time out of today.
Gary D. Schmidt: Oh yeah.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: I know you've got meetings with more students today and all kind of things going [laughs].
Gary D. Schmidt: I almost have as many meetings as you do. Oh my goodness.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Well, you know, it's hard but [laughs].
Gary D. Schmidt: That's really a problem. I'm going to have to deal with that [chuckles].
Lisa Ann Cockrel: And now, Katherine Paterson at the 2004 Festival of Faith and Writing, introduced by Gary Schmidt.
Gary D. Schmidt: [00:10:28] Good evening. I actually had two introduction to read you tonight. The first one was filled with words and with phrases like this: Newbery Awards, National Book Award, American Library Association Best Book Award, Regina Medal, Hans Christian Andersen Award, I could go on for quite awhile. I decided not to read you that one. Instead I want you to picture with me these scenes.
A young boy stands by a small river, by a crude bridge. His sister stands there with him."Sshh," he says. "Can you hear the people? They're wondering if you might be the queen they've been waiting for."
A young girl finds her mother again. The very thing she has been waiting for her all her life, but she discovers that what she has been waiting for is illusion. She knows that whatever comes from that moment on, she will live with the pain caused by that illusion for the rest of her life.
A young girl on the edge of an island, on the edge of adulthood must see and understand for the first time that the cage in which she finds herself is of her own making. To escape it, she must first acknowledge what she has wrought, and that is a terrifying thing.
A young girl works in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. She has one-by-one lost her father, her mother, her brother, her sister. But she still has her textile job until that too is taken away. She goes back to a home no longer her home to face the future, how?
A young boy born into slavery finds that his mother has given him a chance to be free. She has done a desperate act to do that. He may well lose that freedom, or he may save it at a terrible cost to someone he has come to love. What should he do?
A man leaves his stepdaughter behind for what he thinks will be the last time. He knows she will be safe. He knows that he will be forever and ever alone. Then he hears a foot on the path behind him, and he turns.
To those of us who have read the books of Katherine Paterson, I am not simply reciting narrative plot situations. I am, I suspect, for many of you, calling up much more than that. I am calling up deep sorrow. I am calling up hurt. I am calling up the sadness that lies just off the center of the world. I am calling up joy; I am calling up hope that lie at the very center of the world. And I do this by evoking the stories of Katherine Paterson. Jess, Gilly, Louisa, Lyddie, Jip, Jiro - sweet, sweet, gentle Jiro. All of these are character of our hearts. Characters who speak to us of those things that we know, but which are too deep, but which are too deep for tears. Sometimes too deep for us to articulate, except in story.
Twenty-five years ago, Katherine Paterson said, "I want to be a spy for hope," and that is what she has been. Her stories have spied out those deep things within us, and they have brought back glad tidings of great joy. But not joy unalloyed. “Christians,” she has said, “are spiritual descendants of a very hard-nosed Moses. They have no right to be naive optimists. They have every right to have hope."
In her short story, "A Sweet Stubborness," Katherine Paterson has Judson awake to the call that his father is dying. He will have to go to the hospital, leaving his wife and children on Christmas to say farewell. On the way, he picks up a young girl who is hitchhiking. She is actually running away from home. She's actually going to rob him. But as he rides with her, the story comes of the loss of his brother in Vietnam and of the Christmas long ago in which he, still a child, sang for his father, but his father said, "I can't hear the song. The air is full of bombs crashing. Bombs, bombs, bombs," he tells him. His mother's response: "No, the song is louder." When they arrive at the hospital, he leaves the angry, bitter, hitchhiker-robber, telling her in the car he will bring her home. He leaves his wallet with her. In the hospital he finds his father dying. He is in fact unconscious. His last words are these, "Tell your mother, the song is stronger." Judson dashes back outside, but the girl has run from the car.
Here is Katherine Paterson's conclusion to the story: "Listen to the voice of a spiritual descendant of Moses. I never saw her again. I could not tell her my father's last words, not that she would have understood. But then, in a way, he was wrong. Both he and my other were wrong. The song is not louder. It is swallowed quickly in the cry of anger or the clack of greed. No, the song is not louder. But it persists. It comes as it had come to me beside my father's bed, a melody of the most sweet stub - I'm sorry - stubborn sweetness for which we are never prepared, and we turn away from it again and again and again. But oh my child, I say to the empty night, even though the song is not louder, it is stronger, and someday it will find you out there alone in the darkness." Tonight, I give you one of the singers of that sweet and stubborn song, Katherine Paterson.
Katherine Paterson: [00:16:59] Well, if I had any sense I would go home now while I was ahead. [laughter] What an incredible introduction. The man can write, can't he? [chuckles] Wow. Unfortunately, it's now my turn [chuckles]. And somebody who knows about these things, if you can't hear or if I'm not doing this right, please let me know right away. I have scotch-taped into the front of this notebook, "Is mike positioned well? Class of water? I love you." [laughter] He's home with our new puppy, that why he's not here tonight. [laughter] Somebody had to care for the baby. [laughter]
I know it sounds hackneyed to say that I'm honored and delighted to be back at Calvin College for this wonderful festival, but I really am. In fact, I think I hinted for a return invitation. But the hint was misunderstood. I was thinking in terms of a panel with delightful co-panelists. Well, they gave me that according to the program. Or an interview with a writer I love and admire. They gave me that this morning. I was not, I promise you, asking for another chance to address you all tonight. If you were here for the 1998 Festival, I'm guessing you will remember that the opening speaker for that year was Elie Wiesel. There was standing room only in the Field House, and I feel sure most of us went back to our homes or to our rooms that night, totally overwhelmed by the man and his words to us. I went back to the guesthouse and to bed, but I simply lay there in the dark, unable to sleep, hardly able to close my eyes, replaying bits of his talk in my head. I'd been sitting very close to the front, so I could see his wonderful face as he spoke, and was also startling aware that this magnificent talk was being delivered extemporaneously.
And then it hit me. I was going to have to get up in front of many of those same people in less than twenty-four hours. [laughter] I had a speech all right. I had a twenty-five manuscript of a speech, and it was I that was going to have to follow one of the greatest living human beings who was perhaps the most eloquent speaker I have ever heard, an orator who had spoken to a huge, totally enthralled audience for an hour without using a single note.
[00:19:59] What could I say? What could anyone say after that experience? As I lay there, having gone from rapture to panic in less time than it takes to tell it, [laughter] I received in what I felt sure that night was a gift straight from heaven. A new introduction to my lengthy speech. As some of you were there six months ago and if you can remember that introduction you may not want to agree that it was divinely-inspired, or as is most likely, you will have forgotten every word I said, but my believing that it was a gift, got me through the rest of the night and the following day, and gave me courage to mount the platform and dare to speak from the same podium that Elie Wiesel had commanded the night before.
So now I will tell you this magnificent introduction. It went something like this:
"Tonight I'm going to talk about image and imagination so I want to begin with an imaginative exercise. I want you to take a piece of paper about this size (and I indicated with my hands the size of the posters that I'd been seeing all over Grand Rapids. A number of ladies opened their oversized handbags and began to scrabble about looking for paper of the prescribed size [laughter] so I had to say, ‘No, no, no. In your head, this is an imaginative exercise’). [laughter]
Okay, now. In bold letters, I want you to print right here on your paper the name "Elie Wiesel." And right down here I want you to print in the same size, bold letters, "John Updike." Now between those two lines, I want you to print your own name. [laughter] (The audience began to laugh, and then they can began really to laugh that wonderful, satisfying guffaw that makes you know you've been understood and so I said,) "Now that I've got your complete sympathy [laughter], last night, after adventures on the airlines, I opened the program for this wonderful weekend, and looked at the caricature of Frederick Buechner as Thinker and Joyce Carol Oates as Alice in Wonderland. Well, put your own funny face beside those two, [laughter] and send in my direction the same kind of kind sympathy you generously gave me six years ago."
When I was here last time, another present that I received was a copy of Professor Dale Brown's book of fiction and faith. In this book, Dr. Brown interviews twelve writers who talk about how their faith informs, shapes, intersects, or otherwise affects the writers that they are. Now, don't rush out this minute, but as soon as you are free, because I want you to stay here for the next few minutes, I hope you will go to the bookstore and buy yourself a copy of the book because I think you'll want to read and reread it as much for the quality of the interviewer's questions as the power and truthfulness of the answers they elicit.
In his conversation with Walter Wangerin, Dr. Brown engages the writer with the question of meaningfulness in his work and comments that the novelist Michael Malone has characterized most modern literature as sophomoric because the cynicism is too easy. Wangerin agrees. "That's right," he says, "It is. It is the shattering sense of meaninglessness we get in adolescence, but eventually we begin to use our wits to search for meaning. We get older, and writing is about that process, the seeking, the trying to name.
[00:24:17] Last month, I went to see a production of The Miracle Worker. I know many of you have seen the play or movie, and you remember that Annie Sullivan is determined to give the gift of language to a child who from the age of eighteen months has been blind, deaf, and consequently mute. Over and over again, Annie makes Helen feel objects and then spells the name of the object into her palm. "Doll," Annie says. "It has a name. D-O-L-L." But Helen can't make the connection between the object and the marks Annie is making in her hand. "Cake," says Annie, stuffing a piece of cake into Helen's mouth. "It has a name. Cake. C-A-K-E." This painful process is repeated on and on through tantrums, sullen rebellions, and more tantrums until that astounding awakening at the water pump, when the exasperated Annie shouts into Helen's unhearing ears as she writes in her palm, "Water! It has a name. W-A-T-E-R." Suddenly, Helen stops struggling to get away. The whole audience holds its breath as they watch the child's frozen mouth begin to move, until finally it makes the sound "Waah." I let out a sob, a sob so loud that the people in the row in front of me turned around and stared [laughter]. But I couldn't help it. It was a miracle.
Martin Smith, a very wise Anglican priest that I know, says that God in Genesis creates by speech, by language. And it is by language that we humans create meaning. "We give voice to the images and metaphors," Smith says, "and the chaos that surrounds us gives way to narrative, to a story." Perhaps few modern poets do this better for me than Mary Oliver. One Sunday in early Lent, our copastor brought one of Oliver's poems to share with our adult class. The poem is entitled, "White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field":
"Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones."
I don't think, once having read this poem, I can ever think of death, the same way again. "What a wonderful, wonderful image," I said to Carl. "Yes," he said, "that is what I thought, but Gina," who is his wife and our co-pastor said, "That's all very well unless you're that little mouse running across the field." [laughter] But isn't that exactly the point. We are that mouse. We human beings scrabble through life unseeing, unhearing and suddenly the owl is swooping down upon us. That, friends, I suggest is not the time to say to the mouse, "Nevermind, sweetie. It's all part of a grand and beautiful design." [laughter] It is probably not the moment for a sermon at all. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of death, we are not often supported by argument or consoled by discourse, but we may indeed, we often are, comforted by art. I know September 11, a day of fear and terror, I finally had sense enough to turn off the T.V., and put on the CD Brahms German Requiem.
[00:30:02] But I'm guessing that most of us gathered here tonight don't rate ourselves as a Mary Oliver much less a Johannes Brahms. I'm a writer for children. What is my role as meaning-maker in a world gone mad. It was a week after September the 11th. We were finally having to give up the last faint hope that Peter, our son John's brother-in-law and close friend, would be found somewhere unconscious in a hospital or wandering senseless in a distant locale. I looked at my calendar and was distressed to see that I was slated to speak to middle-school students in Hinesburg, Vermont the next day. What I was going to say to twelve and thirteen year olds in the midst of this grief and terror that had not only our extended family but our whole nation in its death-grip. Finally, I decided to start by reading them a passage from Bridge to Terabithia, which I had written out of another time of family grief and tumult.
[00:31:26] “That night, as he started to get into bed, leaving the light off, so as not to wake the little girls, he was surprised by May Belle’s shrill little, ‘Jess!’
“‘How come you still awake?’
“‘Jess, I know where you and Leslie go to hide.’
“‘What do you mean?’
“‘I followed you.’
“He was at her bedside in one leap. ‘You ain't supposed to follow me!’
“‘How come?’ Her voice was sassy. He grabbed her shoulders and made her look him in the face. She blinked in the dim light like a startled chicken.
“‘You listen here, May Belle Aarons,’ he whispered fiercely, ‘I catch you following me again, your life ain’t worth nothing.’
“‘Okay, okay!’ She slid back into bed. ‘Boy, you're mean. I oughta tell Mama on you.’
“No, May Belle, you can't do that. You can't tell Mama about where me and Leslie go.’ She answered with a little sniffling sound. He grabbed her shoulders again. He was desperate. ‘I mean it, May Belle, you can't do that! You can't tell nobody nothing!’ He let her go. ‘Now, I don't want to hear about you following me or squealing to Mama ever again, you hear?’
“‘’Cause if you do, I'm going to tell Billie Jean Edwards you still wet the bed sometimes.’
“‘Boy, girl, you just better not try me.’ He made her swear on the Bible never to tell and never to follow. But still he lay awake a long time. How could he trust everything that mattered to him to a sassy six year old? Sometimes it seemed to him that his life was delicate as a dandelion. One little puff in any direction and it was blown to bits.”
"I don't know about you," I said to those children, "but I'm feeling like a lot like a dandelion today." I could see them visibly relax. Here was an adult willing to tell the truth. We can't make meaning for anyone, much less for the young, unless we are first willing to tell them the truth. Otherwise we are like Pangloss, Candide's false mentor, who in the face of earthquakes, inquisition, war, and pestilence, merrily insists that all is well, all is for the best, and the best of all possible worlds. A glib and foolish optimism strikes us almost obscene. The world our children live in, the one we cannot protect them from, is a world where evil and suffering and injustice is rampant. It is useless to pretend to children that all is well in our world, but cynicism, as Malone says, is the easiest way out for writers confronted with the world as it is. And there are writers for the young as well as for the old who choose this route. But we who are people of faith must seek against all odds to wring meaning out of what we would be easier, and in the world's eyes, more realistic, to dismiss as meaningless.
[00:35:03] Freud says we are at the best infantile but probably neurotic to try. But it's not Freud we are arguing with. If the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob does not exist, there is no contest. It is precisely because we have faith, because we believe in a God of justice and steadfast love, that we find ourselves in a painful, sweating, wrestling match in which the adversary is God.
Six years ago, in speaking of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel said, "Mine is a religion that believes we must argue with God." And then he paused and took a long look at those of us in front of him as if to ask, how about yours? I've told this story many times so that I'm sure there are those of you who have already heard it. It is the story I went on to tell that morning in Hinesburg. I feel the need to tell it again in the context of this talk because I think it says what we as writers often do, often must do. And that is use art to somehow make sense for ourselves something that makes no sense otherwise. It is our way of demanding a blessing from the divine adversary with whom we are in times of crisis, locked in mortal combat.
The story begins a little more than thirty years ago. A small school that our children attend is closed and all the students are moved to a much larger elementary school across town. David, our second-grader, is miserable. In the little school, he was both the class artist and the class clown. In the new school, he's simply weird. [laughter] Everyday he comes home and declares that he is never, never going back to school and you can't make me! And I, his mother who had been in fifteen different schools by the time I was eighteen, and had been initially despised at nearly every one of them, am over-identifying with my seven-year old, probably exacerbating his misery, but nevertheless getting him up every morning and grimly pushing him out the door, fearing that his unhappiness will never end.
And then one afternoon, without any warning, our bright, funny, little boy walks into the house. "Me and Lisa Hill are making a diorama of Little House in the Big Woods," he announces cheerily. I had never heard the name before but from then on I am to hear hardly any other name. Now, I'd like to promise you girls, I always say when I'm talking to students, that I was thrilled that my son's best friend was girl. But unfortunately, all I could think was, they thought he was weird before. If his best friend is a girl, he'll never fit in. [laughter]
But then I meet Lisa and my worries evaporate. Anyone would be fortunate to have her for their bestfriend. She is bright, imaginative, and funny. She laughs at his jokes and he at her's. She's the only girl daring enough to invade the second-grade boys t-ball team. She and David play together after school in the woods behind her house and talk to each other in the evenings on the phone. "It's your girlfriend, David," his older brother says, but David takes the phone unperturbed. Girlfriends are people who chase you down on the playground to grab you and kiss you. Lisa's no more a girlfriend than Rose Kennedy is a playboy bunny. [laughter]
The first seismic shock of the year comes in April. I go into the hospital for a suspicious lump that turns out to be cancerous. We're all deeply shaken. Aside from the occasional gerbil, it is our family's first brush with mortality. Then on an August day, the phone rings. It is a call from the Hill's next door neighbor. "I thought you ought to know," Mrs. Robinson says, "that Lisa was killed this morning." While her family was on vacation at Bethany Beach on a day when the lifeguard sensed no danger from thunder far off in the distance, a joyful, little girl dancing on a rock above the beach was felled by a bolt of lightning from the sky.
[00:40:07] How am I to make sense of this to my eight-year old son? I can't make sense of it for myself. David tries. One night after his prayers he tells me that he knows why Lisa has died. "It's not because Lisa was bad," he says, "Lisa wasn't bad. It's because I'm bad. And now God is going to kill Mary," his little sister, "And you and daddy and Lynn and John," going down the list of his family and loved ones, all of whom God will kill in punishment for his will and imagined sins.
This is not the God I know. Not the God we thought we had taught our children about. But this was one child's earnest struggle to find meaning, which is why finally I began to write a story. I was trying to make sense of a tragedy that didn't make sense to any of us. As a writer, I know that a story needs to make sense. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And when you come to the end, you look back and even if it unexplainable intellectually, emotionally you know you have made the journey from chaos to order, from senselessness to meaning. Often you are at a total loss when someone asks you what your book is about. You can't put it into a neat verbal summary because if you've done your job, the whole story is the meaning.
As I began to write the story that was to become Bridge to Terabithia, it was in pencil in a used spiral notebook, so if it came to nothing I could pretend that I'd never been very serious about it. Eventually I transferred those first smudged pages to a type-writer. It was going along fairly well for a first draft until the day came when I realized, that when I went to work the next morning, Leslie Burke would die. I solved that problem. I just didn't go to work. [laughter] I answered my back correspondence; I rearranged my bookshelves; I cleaned the house, all of which were unaccustomed [clears throat]. [laughter] Scrubbed the kitchen floor, I think it was on my hands and knees - anything to keep Leslie alive.
In the midst of this, I went to a friend's house for lunch. "How's your new book coming?," she asked. Now no one is ever supposed to ask me about my current project, even of the members of my family don't do that. But Estelle and I had been school together and she has no respect [clears throat]. [laughter] So I blurted out that I was writing the story of a friendship between a boy and a girl in which the girl dies, but I couldn't do it. I just couldn't let her die. I guess I said, thinking I was being very wise, "I guess I just can't go through Lisa's death again." Estelle looked me straight in the eye. "I don't think it's Lisa's death you can't face, Katherine." I knew she was right. Surely part of the task of finding the meaning of our own lives is the obligation to face the end of our lives.
When thanks to Estelle I realized that it was my own death that had to be faced, I returned to the typewriter, and with sweat pouring down from under my arms, wrote the dreaded chapter and went on to finish the draft. Then, because it was simply too painful to keep around the house, I mailed the manuscript to my editor before the sweat had evaporated. As soon as I'd mailed it, I realized I'd made a hideous mistake. Even the rankest of amateurs know better than to mail off early drafts. Virginia would think I'd lost my mind or at least my ability to write. I waited in agony for the envelope returning my manuscript with the polite farewell from the wonderful editor who had lavished such care on my first three books. Instead I got a phone call.
"I want to talk about your new manuscript," she said [clears throat], "I laughed through the first two-thirds and cried through the last. It was okay." Somehow, even though she knew nothing about the traumas of the previous year, she had understood what it was I was trying to do. "Now," she said gently, "Let's turn it into a story."
[00:45:15] Then, like the great editor she is, she asked me the right question: "What is this story about? Is this a story about death or is this a story about friendship?" Until that moment, I had thought that it was a story about death. It had been a year about death. We were consumed with death. But as soon as she asked the question, I knew I had been wrong. "Oh," I said as though I'd known it all along, "it's a story about friendship." [laughter] "That's what I thought," she said. "Now you have to go back and write it that way." [laughter] If writing the early drafts had been a march through hell, revising the book became an exercise in joy. As the prophet Hosea has said, "The valley of trouble had been turned into the gate of hope." Writing as well as reading fiction can provide us with, in the words of Barry Lopez, healing and illumination. [pause, drinks water]
Besides Brahms Requiem, another source of great comfort to me during the dark days after September the 11th was a taped series of talks by Father Martin Smith entitled, "Co-Creators with God." In the midst of terror, death, and chaos, to set my mind on creation was very healing. In his talks, Smith says that for two thousand years, Christians have tended to go to one extreme or another in explaining our task as people of God. At one end of the spectrum are those that feel that God has a plan for every individual life, which we call "God's will for my life." And it is (and these are mostly Martin Smith's words) our duty by prayer and study to get a peek into our personal file and then act out what we find there.
That was the sort of religious atmosphere in which I, and I daresay many of you, were raised. Find out God's perfect plan for your life and stray from it to your peril. [laughter] At the other end of the spectrum are those that leave a person's life work totally up to each individual. That's what the gift of free will is all about, they maintain. God doesn't really have that much to say about who we are and what we become. God has given us intelligence and freedom, and it's up to us as free, intelligent human beings created in the image of God, to find the meaning of our own lives.
What we fail to do, Smith argues, is to examine all of those scriptural passages that call us "co-workers" with God. Let's say that we are partners with God as meaning-makers. Jesus sets us a wonderful model in the parables. In a parable, Jesus lays out a very peculiar story, one that challenges human nature and often human notions of justice, and leaves it to the listener to make sense of the story. This is what writers do. They tell the story and invite the reader to help create the meaning, which will be different for each reader because every reader brings to the writer's story a unique life story of his or her own. God, as Smith eloquently reminds us, calls us not to blind obedience nor to a lonely, stumbling through the dark, but into a creative partnership. I love to think of the work I do every day as a creative partnership with God. In turn we as writers do the same thing when we give our creations to readers and invite them to make the meaning of our story for their own particular lives [clears throat].
[00:49:56] It was in 1998, standing at a phone in Professor Gary Schmidt's office that I got the news that I was the 1998 winner of the Hans Christian Andersen medal. Gary said he called the Nobel committee to see if we could do a twofer, but [laughter] I don't know whether he was left on hold or the answering machine didn't come back. The Anderson medal is given every two years to a Children's writer and illustrator for his or her body of work. And the following year, the United States Board of Books for Young People, who were thrilled that an American had won the international prize, gave me a wonderful gift. They gave me thirteen-thousand dollars that I would have the privilege of giving away to any place in the world that was helping to bring children and books together. Needless to say, I felt a heavy responsibility to use their gift wisely. I was still pondering a choice when in December I read the newspaper accounts of a horrendous catastrophe in Venezuela. I sent an email to Caracas to Carmen Diana Dearden, past president of the International Board on Books for Young People. [coughs] Carmen Diana was the person who handed me the medal in New Delhi, and she had subsequently become a good friend. The timing was providential. Carmen Diana is not only a publisher, she was chair of the board of a literacy advocacy group, and she had been discussing with her colleagues as to what beyond physical necessities they could do for the devastated survivors of what is known in Venezuela as "The Tragedy."
The Tragedy occurred when the coastal mountain range, swollen by months of heavy rains, simply collapsed along its river and stream beds, killing anywhere from thirty thousand to a hundred thousand people and leaving many others bereaved and homeless. Carmen Dianna told me the mountain looked as though a gigantic tiger had clawed the slopes, leaving gouges of destruction from peak to valley. Using a four-wheel drive to take them over the mountain since the road was impassable, the volunteers first went to a small school in the barrio of Queinepe. They had sent word ahead that the storytellers were coming and the frightened, exhausted people of the community came and brought their children for an afternoon of respite.
In the midst of a story, there came a rumbling sound. Everyone including the storyteller, froze. [coughs] Even the fearless Carmen Diana sidled over to the window to see if the mountain was once more collapsing. She was able to assure everyone that it was a plane taking off from the newly opened airport in the town nearby and the story continued. Before the afternoon was over, books had been read aloud, games played, and the volunteers and the people of the community were singing together. [coughs] Afterwards, two parents came up and asked to borrow some of the books. It hadn't been part of their original plan to lend out the precious books, but the volunteers said, "Of course." And those two parents, one a mother the other a father, took the books home, gathered their families and their neighbors, and began to have storytime in their own homes.
Banco del Libro had planned to train teachers, and they did, but they also decided to train these first parents. A team coordinator and her group of her volunteers met with these parents and teachers once a week for five months. As part of the training each week, Carmen Diana decided to read aloud a Spanish translation of Bridge to Terabithia. When she got to the place in the story when it begins to rain, she could feel the tension mounting in the room. "Shall I stop reading?," she asked, "Yes." There a pause and then someone said, "No, go on." She read straight to the end of the book that same afternoon.
"Everyone was crying including me," she said. And then the mother they called "Shy Maria" to distinguish her from the other Maria said quietly, "I think this means that we must begin to build our own new bridges." And build them they did. At last count, there were well over sixty lending centers and four communities in the state of Vargas. The local leaders are teachers and parents, some of whom went back to school to learn how to read well enough to share books with their children and their neighbors. People's whose only reading in the past was the occasional newspaper or magazine are not only discovering the joy of books but are sharing that love with others. One participant told a leader, "Everything is so terrible after The Tragedy, but now I know when I need peace, I can open a book and begin to read."
[00:55:56] I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers and theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil, either natural or moral. But we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem and where rational argument will always fail, somehow miraculously in metaphor and simile and image and simple narrative, there is both healing and illumination. We write stories not because we have answers but because we have questions. The writing of the story is the wrestling with the angel. Rabbi Heschel has said, "Art is boring unless we are surprised by it." And a wrestling match is fixed, it is a cheat if you know in advance how it's going to turn out. Oh the writer may have some notion of the ending of the plot, but she is seeking for much more than plot. We write to struggle for sense, for meaning, which we do not already know. And the first reader, who is of course the writer herself, will inevitably be surprised by the blessing wrested from the angel.
Between sessions at a middle school in a Southern city, a teacher came up to me with a reluctant student in tow. The boy was taller than either I or the teacher, and he walked with a decided slump. The teacher looked at him.
"Ask Mrs. Paterson you're question, Reginald," she urged. Reginald wouldn't look me in the eye, but he did manage to mumble out his question. "I want to know how come you wrote Gilly Hopkins." Those of you who know me well enough will be relieved to know that I did not take time to tell him the story in full detail. He might have well have grown a beard when he was waiting. [laughter, clears throat]
But I did tell him that, "I wrote it because my husband and I had been asked to serve as temporary foster parents. And although I thought I was at least an average mother of my own four children, I felt I'd slunked as a foster mother. When I asked myself why, I heard myself saying things like, ‘Well, I can't deal with that problem. They'll only be here for a few weeks.’ Or, ‘Thank goodness they'll only be here for a few weeks.’ And what I was saying, Reginald, what I was doing was treating two human beings as though they were disposable." Reginald gave me a quick look to see if I was on the level.
I continued, "That's why crimes are committed. That's why wars are fought because somebody thinks somebody else is disposable and we know, don't we, Reginald, that no one on earth is disposable." I knew he was listening now, so I said, "I wrote the book to figure out what I thought I would be like if I felt other people thought I was disposable, and I thought I would be very angry." Reginald gave me a nod.
"See, Reginald," the teacher said gently, "That was what I was trying to explain to you the other day. You can use writing to deal with your feelings, to figure out things for yourself. That's what writers are always doing, I said."
"Reginald has a lot of really tough problems to face," the teacher said. "We've been talking about how he can do that. I told him I thought writing about it might help."
"That's what I do," I said. And friends, the amazing thing I've learned time after time is this, when I'm willing to give the deepest part of myself whether admirable or not, when I'm willing to share my own struggle, my own wrestling, readers are able to respond to what I have written from their own deepest core.
[01:00:31] It was about fifteen years ago that I was asked to speak to a book club that was discussing a book of mine. This reading group was comprised of prisoners, incarcerated in a Chittenden correctional center in Burlington, Vermont. The prisoners had read The Great Gilly Hopkins and wanted an opportunity to talk to the author about it.
It was my first trip to prison. My brave husband had spent time in the Selma jail during the civil rights era, but I'd never been to jail before. Now that airline security has become so much tighter, my entrance into prison wouldn't seem quite so strange [laughter, clears throat], but back then it was quite frightening. I registered at the window and then de-vested myself with purse and briefcase, which were very closely examined. Took off my coat and sent it through the x-ray. Put my belt and my necklace and my earrings in the basket. But even then when I walked through the metal detector, the alarm rang. I couldn't understand it, I protested that I had no more metal on me.
"You have buckles on your shoes," the guard said accusingly. Meekly I took off my shoes and tiptoed through in my stockinged feet. Then I went through a series of heavy doors, the first shutting behind me before the next opened. Finally, I was in the room where the prisoners were waiting. Twenty men and four women were seated around a long table with the instructor who had invited me. After an initial awkwardness, I didn't quite know how to open the conversation. [clear throat’ We began to talk in earnest about the book that they had read and what it had meant to them to read it. And I find that it's very hard to remain awkward around people who obviously love a book you've written. [laughter, clears throat]
One of the young men said that when he a teenaged he had been briefly in a foster home with a foster mother who had been truly kind to him. She had wanted him to read Gilly Hopkins at that time but he sort of shrugged, "I was a kid who didn't want anybody telling me what to do. I guess that's why I ended up in here. Now that I've read the book," he said, "I know what she was trying to say to me."
"Just out of curiosity," the instructor asked, "how many of you were ever in foster care?" Every single prisoner raised a hand.
As part of the program, each participant was given a paperback copy of the book so at the end of the session the inmates lined up to have their books autographed. "What's your name?," I asked a young man handing me his book.
"Oh, it's not for me," he said, "It's for my daughter. Her name is Angel." It had been an emotional afternoon, but that one sentence was the one that haunted me for nearly thirteen years. Finally, I began to write my fourteenth novel about a child whose father is in prisoner. My wonderful editor wanted me to change both the title of the book and the name of my eleven-year old heroine. Every single person in the publishing house hated my title. [clears throat] I was a bit hard to fight. So I let them change the title of the book, but I was adamant about the the name of the central character. "No," I said, "I can't change that. Her name is Angel."But one idea is, I often tell students who ask about ideas, does not a novel make. If you try to write a book based on a single idea, you're not likely to get beyond the third chapter. It takes more than one strand, sometimes a good number to weave the fabric of a story.
[01:04:43] At least a dozen years after that day in the prison, I was in California and a friend gave me a copy of a small magazine that her husband was editing. [clears throat] On the back of the magazine was a dramatic photo of supernova remnant Cassiopeia 'A' and under the picture was this quotation, "When the Chandra telescope took its first image in August of this year, it caught not just another star in the heaven but a foundry distributing its wares to the rest of the galaxy. Silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, and iron were among the elements identified from Chandra's x-ray image. These are the materials we are made of," said the project scientist. The thrill that every writer recognizes went through my body. I knew I had an idea for a book in that quotation. It was a while before I recognized it as the missing strand I had needed to write Angel's story. What would it mean to a child that the world has discarded as waste material to learn that she is made of the same stuff as the stars.
"It's scary," Angel said.
"How big everything is, how far away. I'd be just like ant to that star."
"Nah, not nearly that big. The world isn't that big."
"You mean we're like nothing? The whole world is like nothing?" It frightened her to think of herself, her whole world like less than a speck in the gigantic sky, like nothing at all.
"Yeah, we're small, but we aren't nothing,” he said. “Want to know a secret?"
He reached over and pinched her arm.
"Ow!," she said. It didn't hurt so much as surprise her.
"See this?," he said lifting her arm up where he'd pinched it. "See this stuff here? This is the stuff of stars."
"What you mean?"
"The same elements, the same materials that make those stars up there is what makes you. You're made from star-stuff." It didn't make sense.
"Their burning in the sky and I'm just standing here not shining at all."
"Well yes, but that doesn't mean that you're made from different stuff, just that something different is happening to those same elements. You're still close kin to the stars." She was trembling out there in the August night in nothing but her pajamas, but it wasn't because of the cold.
One of my great frustrations as a writer of stories for children is the adults who are afraid to entrust meaning-making to the young. This results in book banning and challenging, but even those eager to share a book may feel the need to dictate meaning. I've a friend whose young son had never been much of a reader until one day she gave him a copy of Natalie Babbit's masterpiece, Tuck Everlasting. For those of you who have never read the book, the question being wrestled with on its pages is that of everlasting life. Not eternal life in the biblical sense, but living on forever and ever on this earth. Would it be a blessing, as some believe, or a curse?
Somehow this ten year old who had been struggling with the fact that his birth mother had given him up for adoption, found in Tuck Everlasting a healing and comfort no one could have imagined would be provided by a book that to the ordinary reader had nothing whatsoever to do with rejection or adoption. But Chris found in its pages meaning for his life. He couldn't articulate why this book made sense to him in this strange way, he just declared that he loved it and he read it over and over again and loved it more with every reading.
As it happened, it was the very book that his fifth grade teacher chose as a class study that year. At first, he was thrilled. The whole class would be reading his book, the first book he had ever read that truly belonged to his heart. Then the discussions began and worst of all the tests. And they were not about his book at all. They were about a book chalk full of esoteric symbolism and philosophical messages that meant nothing at all to his life. On the final exam, he made a C minus. He had a no idea what the ferris wheel stood for in chapter one or why the villain's suit was yellow. He only knew that it was a book that had changed his life, but now it was as though he and the teacher had read two different books and her book was the right one. He never opened his again.
[01:10:21] In her wonderful little book When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor speaks of the narrative style of Jesus and points out how courteous it is, how respectful of the listener. “Story and image,” she goes on to say, “both have great pockets of silence in them. They do not come at the ear the same way advice and exhortation do.” Although they are, I believe, even more persuasive, perhaps that is because they create a quiet space where one may lay down one's defenses for a while. "A story," she says, "does not ask for decision. Instead it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins." I simply love that. "A story does not ask for decision, Instead it asks for identification, which is how transformation begins." Despite the genealogies, the laws, the exhortations included, the Bible comes to us chiefly as story. The story of God and humankind, and what is the climax of the story? Incarnation, God with us. God identifying with us and that is where the transformation begins.
In Candide, the wandering hero tries desperately to cling to the teaching of his mentor and believe against all the evidence that all is well, that everything that happens for the best and it's the best of all possible worlds. Finally, he's forced to face reality. It is to anyone with his eyes open, a tragic and devastating world. What can a human do in the face of overwhelming evil, both natural and moral? Candide concludes all one can do is tend his garden. That work, even though there's no guarantee that it will endure or bear fruit, that work is the only way to confront the chaos that life is.
Contrast this with another story. That of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah's in jail and rightly so. He has been saying a lot of very unpatriotic things. [laughter] He has insisted on publicly declaring that his country is bringing destruction down upon itself for its evil doings. Then just when his prophecy is coming true, the Babylonians are blamming on the gates of the city. Pretty much guaranteeing that Jerusalem's inhabitants will either end up dead or captive. Jeremiah does a very peculiar thing. He sends out his friend Baruch to buy a piece of Judean real estate. The difference between Candide and Jeremiah, it seems to me, is that Jeremiah knows that he's in partnership with God. Against all odds, he believes the word of the Lord that someday that field will tended and the fruits of that field will flourish. Jeremiah's truth is not simply the reality of evil, but the reality of God's faithfulness in the midst of evil. Jeremiah stakes his life as well as his money that God will continue to call God's children to be co-creators in this world.
[01:14:14] There's not much temptation for a children's writer to write meaningless fiction where no one changes and the story goes nowhere. Children won't put up with it. But even if they did, I wouldn't write it. As co-creators with God, we are by definition meaning-makers. When I was looking at the website reading the words and desperately trying to come up with a title for the speech, I read the words Festival of Faith and Writing and I thought, "Yes, faith and writing. When faith and writing join, meaning is the child born of their union." I was really enjoying thinking of myself, the writer, as meaning-maker and co-creator with God, when in the midst of my delight, I remembered my usual audience, which is not fellow writers, but teachers. All too often I’ll have one of these over-worked, under-valued heroic saints, say to to me wistfully, “I wish I could right a book.” Somehow valuing my life’s work above their own. It makes me deeply ashamed.
What about all those people in whatever field endeavor who are serving their neighbors and their neighbors’ children? All those people who think of themselves as ordinary and envy us for being creative. Let’s face it: Is there anything more creatively demanding than nurturing a child’s growth and development, than helping a child learn to become a full human being? I don’t think so.
On Easter Sunday, our pastor told a story of the visiting teacher, who was sent to the hospital to tutor a child confined there. The lesson she was told that the child must have in order to catch up with his class was on nouns and verbs. Now this wise teacher was wondering why a sick child should be burdened with learning parts of speech. She was even more perplexed when she was taken to the burn unit of the ICU to meet her student, who had been horribly burned. She was in shock and hardly knowing what to do, and so she talked to this almost comatose child about nouns and verbs for the required length of time and fled the hospital
When she returned somewhat trepidatiously the next day, a nurse met her on the way in. “What did you do yesterday,” she demanded. The teacher began to apologize that inappropriate as it seemed, she had been told to teach the child about parts of speech, that probably her supervisor was unaware of the child’s condition. She was very sorry.
“No, no, no,” the nurse explained, “we thought he was going to die, he’d given up trying. And after you left, he rallied. We think he might live after all!” [laughter] Later the child himself was able to explain just what had happened. “It was terrible, I sure I was going to die. But then this teacher came in and starting talking about nouns and verbs I knew they wouldn’t send someone in to teach about nouns and verbs if they thought I was going to die!” [laughter]
It was the first time I’d ever thought of English grammar lessons as words of hope. [laughter, clears throat] But certainly not the first time I’ve known a teacher to provide hope to a child in what seemed to be a hopeless situation. Many teachers I know do this on a regular basis everyday of the week. And they call us creative.
Not long ago I was asked to speak to a group of public school teachers who would be taking their classes to see a production of the play Bridge to Terabithia. I spent more than an hour telling about how the book came to be written, and re-written, and then how Stephanie Tolan and I had adapted it into the play that their classes would be seeing.
There was the usual time of questions. At the end of which a young male teacher thanked me for my time and what I had told them that morning. “But I want to take something special back to my class,” he said. “Could you give me some word to take back to them?” I was momentarily silenced, after all I had been talking continuously for almost an hour and a half, surely he could pick out from that outpouring, [laughter] a word or two to take home to a student. [laughter]
But fortunately I kept mouth shut long enough to realize what I ought to say. “I’m very biblically oriented,” I said. “And so for me, the most important thing for me is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children and young people, and in that sense I can offer them words. But you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society teaches our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television, but by your caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I want to share with each of them.”
That day long ago in the Chittenden prison, one of the inmates had asked me, “Do you think Gilly would have made it if there had been no Maime Trotter?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I just don’t know.”
[01:20:12] If you ask me what message a book of mine contains, I will get testy, but that doesn’t mean I think that I have nothing say to my readers. What I want my story to say to isolated, angry, fearful youths, to all the children who feel that their lives are worthless in the eyes of the world:“You are seen, you are not alone, you are not despised. Indeed, you are unique and of infinite value in the human family.” As a writer I can try to make meaning for the words of these lost children in the words of meaning, but I can’t stop there, thinking that my task as meaning-maker is done. Nor, I dare say, can you. It is up to each of us not simply to write the words, but to be the word of hope, of faith, of love. To be the word made flesh.
And I thank you.
Lisa Ann Cockrel: Many thanks to Katherine Paterson. You can learn more about her work at katherinepaterson.com. Thanks also to Gary Schmidt here in the English department at Calvin College for talking with us about Katherine’s work, and also for his many years of service to the Festival of Faith & Writing. You can learn more about Gary’s most recent book Orbiting Jupiter at hmhbooks.com/schmidt/.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Today's episode was produced by Jon Brown, Amanda Smartt, and yours truly. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Peter Ford, Gwenyth Findlay, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Debra Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Chloe Selles, Isabelle Selles, Debbra Visser, and Jane Zwart.
You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful. Also, we've got twenty-six years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you've been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I am Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.