Monthly Archives: November 2017

An Interview with Katherine Paterson about My Brigadista Year

Katherine Paterson is one of America’s greatest literary treasures; her works include novels, picture books, chapter books, and nonfiction. Her honors are myriad, from Newberys (two golds and a silver), a National Book Award, and….well too many to name. Just go here, here, and here to see them all.  This remarkable woman, on her journey as a writer, is always exploring new vistas. Her latest, My Brigadista Year, centers around Lora, a thirteen year-old Cuban who joins Fidel Castro’s national literacy campaign in 1961. In the form of a diary, the novel is a fascinating exploration of a little-known aspect of recent Cuban history. When I was approached about interviewing Katherine about the book I jumped at the chance. Thank you so much, Candlewick for this opportunity and Katherine for the wonderful answers to my questions.

  1. It seems as if the remarkable emphasis on basic literacy during this time period in Cuba was what inspired you to write this book. Can you speak to the importance of this globally today?

Sources vary, but Cuba is still regarded as one of the most fully literate nations in the world at 99.8% literacy. After the campaign year of 1961, the UN observers declared Cuba a fully literate nation. This compares (and, again, sources differ) to an 86% literacy rate in our country with 21% of the population reading below a fifth-grade level. The Huffington Post says that 19% of high school graduates cannot read or write. Most of our large prison population is also illiterate. Globally, I’m most concerned with literacy and education for girls and women. If the women of a nation are educated, the whole nation benefits. But we have a lot of work to do here at home. So why am I writing books instead of teaching someone to read? 

  1. How did your own visits to Cuba inform your writing this book?

Through the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), I got to know Dr. Emilia Gallego, who, every two years, leads an IBBY Sectional conference on literacy and books for Latin America. It is held in Havana and she has invited me to speak there, first in 2001 and again in 2015. I had wondered for years about Emilia because, in a country where people have to be careful about what they say and do, she is an outspoken force of nature. I learned, just before my second trip to Cuba, that she had been a teenage volunteer in the 1961 literacy campaign. It seemed to explain a lot about my friend. All the women I had read about or listened to in the film Maestra said how being a part of the campaign had been a turning point in their lives. They had begun the year as sheltered girls and came out as strong women who knew they could make a difference in the world.

  1. Can you reflect on the idea of writing from the perspective of someone not of your culture? What are your thoughts on how you did it and when and how others should or shouldn’t?

I would never venture to tell anyone what she could or could not write. But believe me, I hesitated to write this book. I am not Cuban and have only visited Cuba twice. I do not speak Spanish. There is plenty of ammunition for anyone who would challenge my credentials. But the story of the young volunteers in the 1961 campaign is an amazing one that hardly any young person in this country has ever heard, and I wanted to share it. I hope readers will notice that I chose to tell the story from just one character’s point of view, in first person. Lora is thirteen years old, and she is limited in her experience and thus her point of view is also limited. In the epilogue, Lora is a grown woman, but she is still living in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. She loves her country, but she doesn’t think for a minute that it is perfect. She doesn’t plan to flee and she would rather not go to jail, so she is careful about what she says.

  1. Cuba is currently on our radar for a variety of reasons. Do you have any thoughts about the US’s relationship with the nation today and how your book can help young readers better understand it?

 We don’t like to hear good things about people we consider evil, but some good things happened in Cuba under Castro’s dictatorship. Everybody learned how to read and write. Education is free from pre-school through PhD programs. Excellent health care is available to every citizen. The US-imposed embargo has been an economic burden for over fifty years, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. My friends love Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont for his efforts through the years to improve US-Cuban relationships and were thrilled when President Obama came to Cuba and the ambassadorial relationships were restored. Of course, everyone asked when the embargo that has long crippled Cuba’s economy would be lifted. I had to say that was up to Congress, not the president. We took three steps forward and now we’ve gone two steps backward, but I have hope that we’ll be moving forward again before too much longer. And like Jella Lepman, who established IBBY, I believe that books can be bridges to peace, and I truly hope mine will be.

  1. You thank the “real-life Emilia and Isabel.” Anything you can tell us about them and your connection to them? Inquiring minds are curious!

I introduced Emilia above. Isabel is a professor of classics at the university and acts as Emilia’s and my translator. Emilia, for all her brilliance as an educator and writer, has very spotty English, and we won’t even talk about my Spanish. Naming the two little girls after these two wonderful women was a loving joke. To my great joy and relief, Emilia loves my book. Part of her letter responding to it is, with her permission, on the back of the jacket.

  1. Is there anything else you wish to let us know about this book? 

I can’t tell a reader how to read my book, but I do have a wistful hope that some young Americans reading it will see the selfless idealism of those young Cubans and be inspired to give of themselves to the greater good of our country and our world.


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My Quick Visit to Berlin Where I Found Floor Rieder’s Gorgeous and Clever Alices

I spent Thanksgiving in Berlin, a place I’ve been to often due to my family background. (My first visit was a childhood one with my mother, originally from Berlin. In the spring of 1965 it was a memorable experience.) An American friend who had never been to Germany joined me as did a dear German family friend. We visited the Pergamon Museum, leisurely saw the complicated city’s sights via bus and boat, spent a day exploring Potsdam, wandered the area near the Neue Synagogue (seen in the photo above) and more. As for gastronomy, we enjoyed curry wurst and flammkuchen (sort like pizza) at the Ständige Vertretung, chili hot chocolate and waffles at Rausch Schokolade, and best of all, Königsberger Klopse (a favorite of my father’s) and Rote Grütze (almost as good as my mom’s) at Max und Moritz.

I didn’t do any shopping other than for chocolate and Haribo, but at KaDeWe I did take a quick gander at their toys (thank goodness I bought a bunch of Steiffs as a child as the prices are crazy now) and books. And there I found a totally gorgeous edition of Alice illustrated by the Dutch artist Floor Rieder.  I hope someone decides to publish it here in English as it is wonderful. Her method is a mix of scratch board, cut-out, and ink. You can learn a bit more about the book and see some of the illustrations here (click on the image to see a slide show of 14 of them) and here.

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Thoughts On Newbery: Books I Wish Could Be Contenders, But Can’t Be

Heavy Medal has a clever post, “The Glorious Ineligibles” featuring books the three moderators love, but aren’t eligible for one reason or another.  Invited to provide our own I wrote the following:

La Belle Sauvage. [The moderators already had given good reasons for this title so I didn’t add more.]

Both Hardinges. [That is, the titles out this year in the US which are mentioned in the post.]  I read A Face Like Glass years ago when it was published in the UK (as I wanted to read EVERYTHING of hers). At the time she seemed a bit under the radar here, but The Lie Tree changed that and now Abrams is bringing out older and newer works of hers. Yay!

Frank Cotrell Boyce’s Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth. Just finishing up reading it aloud to my class. This writer should NOT be so under the radar in this country. He does middle grade to perfection.

Jonathan Stroud’s The Empty Grave — probably wouldn’t go far as it is the finale of a series, but so good!

Noah Tervor’s Born a Crime. I know, I know…adult adult adult. But why this didn’t get an Alex I do not understand.

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In the Classroom: Teaching Hacks

I frequently see tweets, links, and more to articles or videos celebrating methods to make something easier. In the “100 Life Hacks That Make Life Easier” you can learn how to waterproof your shoes, use newspaper to absorb fruit juices and more. So I figured I’d offer three that I’ve found helpful in my 4th grade classroom. Love to learn of more in the comments!

  1. Lamps. I find low lighting in my classroom soothing, calming, and a great help to keep my students focused during work periods. Unfortunately, I have no way to dim the glaring overhead lights. And so, a few years back, I found these little portable lamps for kids to use (turning off the overhead ones). The price has gone down and so I’ve now managed to get enough to have for every child. They need batteries, but over three years I’ve not needed to replace them yet. I wish I could show them in my classroom, but can’t (due to privacy requirements). 
  2. Tiny notebooks for our BoB (Book of Books) periods. This is a weekly time when my students read (using those lamps), fill out their BoBs with what they’ve read in the past week, and confer with me. I started this a few years ago when I decided to drop kids having to log their nightly reading. (See this post for more information.) I found some blank ones here so kids could decorate covers as they wished. 
  3. “Offices.” I am not a fan of cardboard cubbies like the one below as I like to see my students at work. So instead I give them “offices,” These are spots they move their desks to so they are all away from each other, not facing one another (usually their desks are in groups of six), and able to focus on their writing. My room is small and in order to have a rug I have to put those groups of desks fairly close together around it. It isn’t practical to have them permanently in offices — messy, hard to get around, and I want them to work in groups too! — but it is great to use when needed. I’ve a post about this here


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A Book Chat with the One and Only Patrick McDonnell

Doing an ABC book was me trying to bring my childhood drawings back.

I’m quite the Patrick McDonnell fan so was delighted when invited to highlight the book chat video he did for Little Brown Books for Young Readers. Below he speaks with Victoria Stapleton about his latest, the charming and witty The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way). Patrick talks about the challenge off telling a story with minimal text, the pleasure of indicating movement in just a few images, and way more. Enjoy!


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Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride


As I’ve written here before, I’m extremely wary of books that are described as heartbreaking, poignant, tender, et al. Too often I feel that I’m being manipulated into tears as regularly happens in the movies with music. Happily, there are books thus described that DO work for me. Such a one is Paul Mosier’s Train I Ride. The structure is that of a girl with a very sad past traveling on Amtrak to a new life. Over several days on the train she meets people, builds relationships. has a romance, and slowly reveals her complicated history. What makes this book work so well for me firstly is the lovely character development. There is, of course, Ryder, but — as the book moves back and forth in time — also her recently departed grandmother, Amtrak employee Dorothea who is looking out for her on the train, Neal at the train cafe, a caring school counselor, some scouts, and a kind crossword puzzler fellow-rider. I’d read that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl featured in the story and was very skeptical, but it works beautifully and in a way that is necessary. Best of all is the sentence level writing which is a delight. Here’s a taste: “It was comfortably dreadful.”  Glad to see this getting some Newbery buzz and hope this little post helps.


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La Belle Sauvage Swag

One fun aspect of being a so-called “Big Mouth” in this teeny tiny world of children’s books is the occasional swag that comes my way. Yesterday I received a small package that was meant to have arrived a few weeks ago, but got a bit lost. Here’s what was inside. You will need to read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage to appreciate it. So go do so — the book is propulsive, gorgeous, and unique.



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Lyra in America

“Pan, where are they all going?” The canyon-like streets of Nieuwe York were filled with determined and dashing people, their daemons flitting and scampering along with them. Now a hawk, Pantalaimon swooped above Lyra as she attempted to evade the flood of adults swarming by. Agile as the girl was, the density of the crowd was such that she was unable to avoid collisions earning her glares, snaps of irritation, and even in one case a frustrated slap. Finally, the exhausted and bewildered child, Pan now a mouse on her shoulder, leaned against a wall and looked up at the massive building in front of her — all glittering gold glass — puzzling at the huge TRIUMPH sign at the top.

Apologies to Philip Pullman for the above teeny bit of fan fiction, but I couldn’t resist. It is just that I’ve been mulling over the response on this side of the pond to his fabulous return to Lyra’s universe in La Belle Sauvage. (Here’s my ecstatic review.) I wasn’t surprised to read Bookseller Kenny Brechner’s observations in “Dust in My Eyes” as, while there are Pullman fans galore here, he has never had the same exalted stature in America as in the UK and elsewhere.

One reason, I’m starting to consider, is due to religion. For recently, I was startled when a librarian, to whom I was waxing excitedly about the new book, spoke of her discomfort with the earlier series due to religious reasons. Way back when those conservative Catholics fussed about the movie, I had scoffed, but I have to now wonder if they left a more damaging impression than was evident then in our still religiously conservative land.

Another is that fantasy does not get the attention it deserves here. Those obsessed viewers of HBO’s Game of Thrones series are less and less likely to have read any of the books. Looking at the responses to the Nerdy Book Club’s request for people’s favorites of 2017 and I see almost no fantasy titles. No mentions of La Belle Sauvage (other than mine:),  Laini Taylor’s superb Strange the Dreamer, or the clever and witty works of Rick Riordan, two of which are out this year.

Finally, I think that time is a factor. Those American children who adored His Dark Materials as it came out are adults now, say Rebecca Munro who describes her experiences with this series in her review:

I want to start this review by saying that this is easily one of the most emotional pieces I have ever written. I first discovered Philip Pullman’s work when I was only 10-years-old and I raced through the entire His Dark Materials series in a single summer. The books were with me in the pool, in the car and in bed, and I have reread them every winter since. In other words, I have literally been waiting 17 years for THE BOOK OF DUST and now that it is here, I am practically speechless.

For young people today, in America, the books seem not particularly to be on their radar. Partly, no doubt, because the gatekeepers —as seems indicated by the Nerdy Book Club omission — don’t recommend it. While many, many British kids probably still read it with pleasure, I don’t think that as many American children do. It isn’t as much a part of their bookish world as is that other British series of the same time period, Harry Potter.

I should say this is all quite speculative — I haven’t firm data at all and I’d love to be proved wrong. What do you all think?




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