Stories of My Life -
New from Katherine Paterson
Former Children’s Book Guild president Katherine Paterson believes friends are more precious than awards -- and she has many of both. Her newest book is filled with stories of both and she has graciously agreed to share an excerpt with us here. Read on…
I am often asked, by young and earnest questioners, how it feels to be famous. I don’t really know how to answer that question. How does it feel to be famous?
And then I remember things that happened after Bridge to Terabithia won the Newbery Medal. I would be invited somewhere to speak and there would be a lovely dinner at which I was the honored guest. The people on either side of me at the table would say something gracious and congratulatory and then they would turn to the person on the other side and never speak to me again for the whole meal. There were a few times when the person in charge made it clear that she’d hired me for the weekend and expected to get her money’s worth, by gum.
I’d come home and whine to my long-suffering husband. “I’m a human being,” I’d say, “why can’t they just treat me like a human being.”
And then I remembered Anita. When I was in Chandler Junior High in Richmond, Virginia, all of us new kids were put in the same homeroom. It was a wonderful thing because we could make friends with each other, so we didn’t have to try to cope with already cemented cliques that populated the rest of the school. I made several good friends that year, but there was one new girl that we were all shy around. Anita was the youngest member of the Carter sisters. Her mother, Maybelle, had been part of the legendary country music group the Carter Family. Her older sister, June, went on to marry Johnny Cash. At the time her mother, two older sisters, and Anita sang regularly on the radio, and in concerts all over the South. We didn’t make friends with her because we didn’t know what to say to someone we considered famous.
Because she had moved around the country a lot, Anita needed catching up in a couple of subjects and for some reason I was asked to tutor her. To my amazement she was so shy that even one on one, she barely spoke above a whisper. Yet that summer I went to a concert at the stadium, and on stage, Anita was transformed. The huge crowd loved her and she obviously loved performing for them.
“If it is hard for me at forty-five to deal with the little bit of fame that I have, how must it have been for Anita?” I wondered. So I wrote Come Sing, Jimmy Jo about James, a shy boy, who becomes a star. If you want to know what Katherine Paterson is really like, you should read that book. Like James, and perhaps, Anita, I’m a shy show-off—a very private person who loves to perform.
Sometimes I can’t believe my own life. I find myself standing on a stage or sitting at a table with writers I have known and admired for many years—really famous people—and think: “This is me here with these amazing people.” I want to give myself the proverbial pinch to make sure I’m awake.
But that doesn’t mean I feel famous. Famous is not an emotion like love or hate or jealousy or fear—feelings with which I am well acquainted. You can’t feel it, but you can learn over the years to sit back and enjoy the perks.
When The Master Puppeteer won the National Book Award in 1977, all my friends in the Washington area rejoiced with me. The following year, Bridge to Terabithia won the Newbery Medal and they threw another big party. Fortunately, I moved in 1979 and they didn’t have to give me yet another party when The Great Gilly Hopkins won the National Book Award and was the Newbery Honor book. By this time I was afraid I wouldn’t have a single writer friend left. I was Biblical Job in reverse: “Why me, God? Why me?” And the answer seemed to be: Now people will listen to what you say, so you’d better say something worth listening to. When Jacob Have I Loved won a second Newbery two years later, I tried to remember that. I also learned that my friends were among the most gracious people in the world.
Since real friends like mine are more precious than awards, I know I am truly blessed, and gratitude, unlike fame, is something you can actually feel.
Copyright (c) Katherine Paterson, 2014
Excerpted courtesy of Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a Penguin Random House Company