Katherine Paterson on the Triumphs and Terrors of the Newbery | The Newbery at 100

Katherine Paterson, who won Newbery Medal for Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, speaks about the impact of the prestigious award on her writing process and what book makes her most proud. 

Katherine Paterson and her three Newbery titles


Katherine Paterson won her first Newbery Medal in 1978 for Bridge to Terabithia, followed by a Newbery Honor in 1979 for The Great Gilly Hopkins. Her second Newbery Medal was awarded in 1981 for Jacob Have I Loved (all Crowell). Over the course of her career, Paterson has been honored with many major award for children’s book authors. Today, as the book world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Newbery, she is one of only six writers to have received that prestigious medal twice.

Bridge to Terabithia was not your first major award. The Master Puppeteer won the National Book Award the same year that Bridge was published. Was the Newbery special in some way?
Yes, it was. When [my family] came from China to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I was a very weird eight-year-old and very unhappy. My sanctuary was the library at Calvin H. Wiley School. It was the only place I was comfortable. I was surrounded by books, and a wonderful librarian worked there.

That was also the first place I saw Newbery gold on a book. I didn’t know anything about the medal, but when I spotted that seal on other book covers, I realized I would be able to find stories that I would like.

I think the first Newbery Medal winner author I read was Robert Lawson, including his wonderful Ben and Me, about Benjamin Franklin and a mouse. And then there was [Rachel Field’s] Hitty. Her First Hundred Years. I remember those stories with such delight. I never dreamed I would have a Newbery seal on one of my novels. When it actually happened, it was like that childhood thrill of finding a book with the gold.

In Stories of My Life, you wrote that when you won the Newbery, you decided that you could now buy fresh milk for your family rather than mixing dried milk and that, when you won your second Newbery, you could call friends long-distance whenever you pleased. Can you say a bit more about the effect of these awards on your life?
The first Newbery medal sort of did me in. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t sleep. When I won the second one, I thought, "I’m not going to have any friends left. Why me, God?” It was like Job in reverse. I told myself, “It’s too much for one person.” When I got the call, I said to [former Cooperative Children's Book Center director] Ginny Moore Kruse, “You’ve got to be kidding.” She answered, “I wouldn’t kid about something like that.”

After the first Newbery, the first person I met who had also won the medal said to me, “You know what comes with the medal, don’t you? A divorce.” And I didn’t want a divorce. So when I won a second Newbery, I thought, “I really don’t want a divorce.”

In your Newbery acceptance speech for Bridge to Terabithia, you commented that Jess Aarons was more like you than any other character you had yet written. Can you say why you felt that way, and what was your connection with him?
He was a weird little kid, which I certainly was [growing up]. And he was afraid of death. As a child, I was terrified of death. I worried when I went to sleep at night that I would die [in my sleep]. I wrote Bridge to Terabithia the same year I was diagnosed with cancer. My children thought I was going to die; I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. That was in the spring, and that summer [my son] David’s friend was killed by lightning. So it was a year of death, and it all went into the book.

I’ve always been struck by the great act of generosity with which Bridge to Terabithia ends. Jess could easily have wanted to preserve the privacy, the secrecy, of Terabithia as a memorial to his friend Leslie, but instead he welcomes his little sister, May Belle. Can you say something about your decision to have your character do that?
I don’t remember when I made that decision, but I think it was in the original, terrible version of the book that I sent to my editor, Virginia Buckley.

There’s something about the gift of Terabithia that Leslie had given Jess that was not complete until he gave it away. I don’t think I even knew at the time why that was the ending. So much of writing is subconscious. You look back and you wonder where that came from. I can’t think of anything in my experience as a child or even as an adult that would be the seed of that scene.

You were already working on Jacob Have I loved when the Newbery for Bridge to Terabithia was announced. Did that announcement have an effect on your writing? Did it make it easier or harder to write?
I stopped writing. Jacob was the hardest book to write up to that point. It was just terrible—the first draft is always terrible. You have to recognize that. I thought, “[this book is] probably going to be published whether or not it’s terrible and the only way I can prevent that is to send it anonymously to Virginia.” I absolutely stopped writing after the second National Book Award [for The Great Gilly Hopkins]. How could this book stand up against three award winners in a row?

I think it was grief over my mother’s death…that made it possible for me to start writing again. I had to have something to alleviate that pain. I thought, “Even if [this book] is not good, I need it for myself. Even if it’s never published, that’s all right.” Virginia had never before asked me if I was working on anything. When she did, I said that I was but that I didn’t know if it was any good. “Just promise me that you won’t send it anonymously,” she responded, which was just what I had determined I was going to do!

People always ask me which book is my favorite, and they always want me to say Bridge to Terabithia. It’s very hard to choose. Whichever book I’m working on at the moment gets all my love and attention, and then it grows up and moves on. I can’t tell you which book is my favorite, but I can tell you the one I’m proudest of, and that’s Jacob Have I Loved. It was the most difficult to write and the most satisfying.

Rita Auerbach twice served on the Newbery Award Committee and has chaired ALA’s Caldecott and Legacy Award Committees. She is currently a member of the Ezra Jack Keats Award Committee.

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