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Katherine Paterson: The Risks of Great Literature

October 2, 2012

The celebrated and banned children’s book author speaks with us about the fears of censors, the deaths of children, and what we need to risk for literature.

Image courtesy of Katherine Paterson

Throughout her nearly fifty-year career, Katherine Paterson has been recognized internationally for her contribution to the canon of children’s literature; she has won two Newbery medals, two National Book Awards, the Hans Christian Andersen Award (widely regarded as children’s literature’s Nobel Prize), and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Katherine’s novels, which include Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved, have been formative reading experiences for children and teens for decades, confronting the existential trials of human life—jealousy, mortality, isolation—with honesty and sensitivity. It is the presentation of these emotional challenges, which all children will face and which reading can prepare them for, that has frequently led to the banning and challenging of her books.

I worked with Katherine during her two-year tenure as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a dual appointment by the Children’s Book Council and the Library of Congress to bring greater attention to young people’s literature “as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.”

Recently I spoke with her about the banning and challenging of her titles, which began with the publication of Bridge to Terabithia in 1977 and continues today.

Nicole Deming for Guernica

Guernica: What do you think lies at the heart of people’s banning and challenging of books?  

Katherine Paterson: I think it is probably fear. Parents who want to ban books usually fear that something in a particular book might harm their child, and even if their child doesn’t read it, if it is available and his/her classmates read it, that might have a corrosive effect. Dictators and persons in authority are afraid that reading might cause people to think and then act in a way that would threaten their power. It has certainly done this historically.

I suggest that parents read these challenging (and challenged) books and use them for opportunities to talk about difficult subjects with their child. We need to remind ourselves that any book that has power also has the power to offend.

Guernica: Both of your Newbery winners, Bridge to Terabithia (won in 1978) and Jacob Have I Loved (won in 1981), and your Newbery honoree The Great Gilly Hopkins (honored in 1979), have appeared on banned/challenged lists across the country since their publications. According to the American Library AssociationBridge to Terabithia ranked in the Top 10 Banned Books of the decade, 2000-2009, being cited for offensive language, possible promotion of secular humanism, occultism/Satanism, blending fantasy with reality, and presenting the “inappropriate” theme of mortality to children. Did you ever feel that the real reasons for these bans and challenges were different from the stated ones?

Katherine Paterson: It’s terrifying to think of children we love dying. I think that’s probably the most likely reason Bridge is challenged. And, sadly, children do die, even those we cherish and seek to protect, so it may be “inappropriate,” but it happens, and it is better for us to have the rehearsal of reading about it before it happens in reality.

Guernica: When The Great Gilly Hopkins, your novel about a brilliant and unmanageable young girl who’s been shuttled from foster home to foster home, was banned by the Albemarle, VA County School Board for containing curse words and taking “God’s name in vain,” you wrote them an open letter, saying, “Though Gilly’s mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said `fiddlesticks’ when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her and love would give them no hope.” Can you tell us more about your personal experience with having books banned and challenged and how you’ve responded?

Katherine Paterson: I don’t respond unless someone on the spot asks me to, and when I do respond I try to be respectful of those advocating the ban and explain why I have written what I have written. If a person, usually a teacher, caught in the middle calls me, I immediately put her in touch with someone in NCTE or ALA or another group that has expert help for persons who are feeling alone and attacked in a situation. I ask what the person would like me to do. Sometimes they ask me to write a letter, which I am always happy to do.

Guernica: What do you see as the particular problems of challenging and banning books meant for children?

Katherine Paterson: Our children are bombarded with messages of hate, pornography, crass commercialism, etc., etc., and there is no way we can protect them from the society emitting such. But a reader can close a book that is too difficult or upsetting, and children often have a built in censor. If the book becomes a forbidden object, it becomes all the more enticing. I suggest that parents read these challenging (and challenged) books and use them for opportunities to talk about difficult subjects with their child. We need to remind ourselves that any book that has power also has the power to offend. Those of us who want children to experience the power of great literature to nourish and inspire need to take that risk. 

Certain folks need an enemy. When the Soviet Union fell, I said half-jokingly to my husband: “I’m happy that the Soviet people may be getting their freedom, but now they’ll come after me.”

Guernica: Banned Books Week has been recognized for 30 years now, beginning two years after the publication of Jacob Have I Loved (1980). How have you seen the nature of banning/challenging books in this country change in that time?

Katherine Paterson: It seems to me that I have seen a couple of things over the years. The first is that certain folks need an enemy. When the Soviet Union fell, I said half-jokingly to my husband: “I’m happy that the Soviet people may be getting their freedom, but now they’ll come after me.” I was not entirely wrong. There seemed to be an upsurge in book banning after the lessening of the Communist threat. Harry Potter was a great help, as each new volume came out, my books got shoved further down the list until they all but disappeared. The second observation is that the books that are most likely to be banned are the extremely popular (like Harry Potter) or books that make their way into the curricula, so that students are required to read them and parents see them when they are brought home. It’s easier to attack a classroom teacher than Hollywood or Madison Avenue and one might hope to see the results of the crusade.

Nicole Deming is the communications manager at the Children’s Book Council, the national non-profit trade association for children’s book publishers, and Every Child a Reader, a 501(c)(3) literacy organization dedicated to instilling a lifelong love of reading in children. She tweets children’s and young adult literature and literacy news @CBCBook. Nicole has also edited art for Explosion-Proof Magazine.

Check out all the pieces in our Banned Books Week series:


Sherman Alexie interviewed by Ed Winstead

Alice Walker interviewed by Megan Labrise


James M. Decker on Henry Miller

Lucy McKeon on Toni Morrison

Nathaniel Rich on Mikhail Bulgakov

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One comment for Katherine Paterson: The Risks of Great Literature

  1. Comment by elizs on October 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    One of my favorite authors as a kid. I’m so glad you are doing this series of interviews.

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