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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Katherine Paterson

Raymie Nightingale

rn200pixDarling Daughter and I host/participate in an occasional parent-child bookgroup for middle-grade readers and their parents. We call it Books & Bagels and we meet at the bagel shop down the street from church and nosh on bagels while talking about books. I think we can safely say the bagel aspect of things increases participation—but all the kids who come are great readers and we love talking with them and their parents about books. We’ve read many of our favorites again with this group and they’ve introduced us to some we’ve missed in the last few years of publication. (Darling Daughter is, alas, outgrowing the middle-grade genre.)

We saved the reading of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale for Books & Bagels. I scheduled it not having read the book, in fact, which is not usually how I do things. But DiCamillo’s books lend themselves to good discussion, I’ve found, so I was sure it would work well for us.

And it did. We talked about the heartbreak and the hope, the crazy characters and their friendships and flaws, and the unlikely events that could absolutely happen. We talked about how it was similar to some of DiCamillo’s other books and how it was different, too. Good discussion all the way around.

I noticed as we talked, however, that one of our regulars—I’ll call him Sam—seemed a bit disgruntled about the book. Sam and I have been discussing books for a long time—he reads both wisely and widely and we have introduced each other to many books over the years. He has just turned ten and he’s honest about what he thinks, though always kind. He’s been taught to speak his mind, but never in a way that would hurt someone else’s feelings—including, say, the author of the book who is not even present.

“Sam,” I said, “it looks like you have something you want to say.”

“Yeah…well,” said Sam. “It was a great book and all…. Well-written, of course. And, I mean, the friendship of Raymie and those other girls was great, I guess. And the lousy adults were interesting…. But—” He paused and looked at his Mom out of the corner of his eye.

“Go ahead, Sam,” she said. “Tell us what you really think.”

“It’s just that…I mean it’s fine…but it’s just…it’s such a girlie book.” He looked both relieved and ashamed at having confessed this. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”

I asked gentle clarifying questions. I’m sort of fascinated and appalled by the idea of “girl books” and “boy books.” I want to vehemently argue that those categories don’t exist…or shouldn’t exist…or must not be allowed to exist…or something like that. But before me was a reader insisting that he understood this was a great book, but it just had way too much “girl stuff” in it to be interesting to guys like him.

“Like what kind of girl stuff?” one of the girl readers asked.

“Batons. Barrettes. Dresses.” Sam said. He shrugged apologetically.

Other kids perked up. Right, they said. Lots of girl stuff. No boy stuff whatsoever, in fact.

I was afraid to ask what “boy stuff” they thought was missing. Instead, we talked about whether various (traditionally understood) girl and boy trappings were limited or limiting. These kids know how to have good and honest conversations around perceptions and assumptions and stereotypes. We talked about whether the character of each of the girls was “girl-only.” No, everyone agreed—they knew boys who were painfully shy/anxious, or show-offy, or stubborn, just like each of the three amigos DiCamillo conjured up. They knew both boys and girls who carried heavy loads of expectation, or family distress, or who had trouble making friends. They knew themselves what it was to feel like everything, absolutely everything, depended on them. They could identify with the book—on many levels that had nothing to do with gender. And yet…this was a girlie book—on this they all agreed, as well.

It was a wonderful discussion, really. Honest. Respectful. I thanked Sam for being brave enough to say what he thought. He wondered if Kate DiCamillo made Raymie, Beverly, and Louisiana girls because she was a girl and that’s what she knew best. I said I didn’t know, but I knew that she’d also written books that featured male characters. I told him I’d share my copy of Tiger Rising with him.

As we cleaned up the bagel and cream cheese detritus I asked if anyone could suggest a book or two for our fall Books & Bagels bookgroup. Sam eagerly bounced up and down.

“I have two to suggest!” he said. “Bridge to Terabithia and The BFG.”

Two terrific books. Two terrific books that happen to have strong girl characters. I pointed this out and Sam said, “But not only girl characters. The giant is a boy!”


Skinny Dip with Eileen Beha

Mad MenWhat TV show can’t you turn off?

I watch very little TV; I will almost always choose to read a good book instead. However, I do admit that I’ve not missed a single episode of Mad Men since the series premiered in 2007 or Downton Abbey, which will end after its sixth season this winter. Lately, I’ve gotten into this strange habit of watching old episodes of Murder, She Wrote on Netflix. Mind candy. I’m inspired by the main character, a retired-teacher-turned-mystery author named Jessica Fletcher, peering through her oversized, horn-rimmed glasses, typing her manuscripts on an old Royal typewriter. (A few months ago, I bought a new pair of eyeglasses that are strikingly similar to hers, I just now realized.)

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

I would like to win a gold medal as a member of the U. S. Olympic women’s soccer team. All of our children—one son and three daughters—played soccer, so I have attended innumerable soccer games in my life. I really do love the sport and wish that I could have played in a league when I was growing up. Watching a soccer game is very much like the process of plotting a story, where every action on the field—pass, kick, shot, or header—is significant and contributes to the final outcome.

What 3 children’s book authors or illustrators or editors would you like to invite to dinner?

White Paterson CurtisI would invite children’s book authors E. B. White, Katherine Paterson, and Christopher Paul Curtis to my fantasy dinner. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little; Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins and Jacob I Have Loved; and Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham and Bud, Not Buddy are books I use as models of quality, substance, voice, and style when I write books for young readers. We would meet at Gramercy Tavern, my favorite restaurant in New York City, or in front of the fireplace in my living room in Minneapolis during a winter snowstorm. I’d serve homemade split pea soup, freshly-baked whole wheat bread, and pumpkin pie with whipped cream, made from scratch. I wouldn’t say much, I’d just sit back and listen.

What animal are you most like?

Since my husband, Ralph, knows me better than anyone else in the world, I asked him, “What animal am I most like? Say the first thing that comes into your mind.” He answered, “A black bear.” Of course, I pressed for his reasons. Apparently I’m affable but not Hello-Kitty-cute and remind him of Eva Bear, one of his favorite stuffed toys. My image of that particular mammal is one of a mother bear raising a den-full of rambunctious cubs, which I’ve experienced as a mother, stepmother, teacher, and school administrator.

What is your proudest career moment?

National Blue Ribbon School of ExcellenceMy proudest career moment happened in the mid-1990’s when St. Anthony Middle School, where I served as building principal, was selected as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. I had the honor and privilege, along with representative members of my outstanding staff, of attending a reception at the White House, hosted by President Bill Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, and U. S. Department of Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

What is your favorite line from a book?

My favorite line from a book is: “Life is difficult.” This three-word sentence is the first line of The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. For the past couple of years, a confidante has been teaching me the grace and peace that comes with “radical acceptance” of this not-so-simple truth. 



The Power of Fiction to Help Kids Grow

by Elizabeth Fixmer

bk_SaintTrainingThe years I spent in private practice as a psychotherapist specializing in work with children propelled me to become a children’s writer. My use of books as a therapy adjunct evolved over time, as did my respect and eventual awe for the power of fiction as a change agent. My young clients introduced me to middle-grade and young-adult novels. But it was a few years into my practice before I started to appreciate what stories had to offer these kids.

It started when a nine-year-old excitedly brought me a middle-grade novel and begged me to read it because, “It says exactly how I feel.” She, like most kids, had been struggling to find words to express her feelings. She was relieved to find the words right there on the page, and to recognize that her feelings were shared by other children. When kids have words to express themselves they can better communicate their own. And when stories show a way for them to appropriately express those feelings, they begin to develop tools for their own expression. But this was only the beginning of what stories could offer.

bk_down_mountain_160At first I tried using self-help books that matched the child’s main issue—divorcing parents, bullies, and behavioral problems, to name a few. The child’s eyes would glaze over and her attention would drift. Similarly, when I tried to discuss the issue directly, my young clients would say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

But when I tried using stories, made up, or through published fiction, kids started to make progress. Kids were riveted and they started to make progress. They laughed and cried with the characters. They offered advice to the characters or asked what I would do to help in this, all without revealing how and why they related to the protagonist.

Stories also offer distance between the character’s and child’s struggles. The child lives vicariously through the protagonists’ adventures and struggles, feeling what the character is feeling and, if the story is compelling enough, changing right along with the protagonist. This made perfect sense because, as a therapist I knew that change would not occur through intellect alone. Emotional growth requires engaging the emotions. And I saw that what the fictional child concludes about his or her problem—and how he or she moves forward, can become a road map for the real child.

bk_GillyA great example of this is Katherine Patterson’s novel, The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly starts out as an oppositional child who refuses to believe that her mother doesn’t want her and bucks the foster care system with incorrigible behavior. Through the firm hand and loving kindness of her new foster mother, Gilly’s behavior changes and when she finally has a chance to spend time with her birth mother, she comes to understand and accept her mother’s limitations. I would ask my client to do role plays in which we’d act out possible conversations between Gilly and her foster mom, Mrs. Trotter so that my client could express her anger about moving from foster home to foster home giving my young client the opportunity to express her feelings about having so many foster placements. Then we’d role play Gilly conversing with her biological mother. My client would play both roles and when I played the mother I’d make sure “Gilly” was granted permission to go on with life and be happy.

Another story that I found particularly helpful with adoption issues was The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis. Adopted children who have lived with their biological parents and/or have had multiple placements will often reject their new parents even though the parents’ have an abundance of love to offer. The Last Battle offered me the opportunity to help kids see that no one could make them, or help them, take in what was offered.

bk_LastBattleI would share the scene in which Lucy had died and found herself back in Narnia—a perfect Narnia. Everyone was happy except for a little group of gnomes who seemed to be suffering terribly. Lucy begs Aslan (a representation of Christ) to forgive their offenses and let them enjoy this heaven. Aslan takes Lucy to them. He offers them beautiful trays of fruits and nuts and various meats. They reject it, seeing it as dog dung and they continue to starve. They complain of the cold so he offers them furs, but they perceive the furs as porcupine needles. The offers and rejections continue until Aslan turns sadly to Lucy and reminds her that we all have free will and no one can make us take the good we are offered. Time and again, my young clients would, themselves link this to how they were rejecting their adoptive parents. They would sob. They knew that deep inside they longed for the love and discipline their adoptive parents offered. These sessions with Lewis’s book proved to be a turning point for several kids.

I no longer practice psychotherapy. Instead I write. My clinical experience convinced me that what I wanted to do was create of stories with the power to change lives. My two published books include Saint Training and Down from the Mountain. These two, and a third in progress, are about issues of social justice, and the young lives affected by these issues. They help to develop a social conscience.

Because of my professional background, I’ve also been given the opportunity to create and write social/emotional guides for teachers, parents and counselors to use with specific books – picture books through YA—that will foster discussion, identify and label feelings, and will promote pro-social values and cross-cultural appreciation. This is exciting for me because it’s another avenue to help kids grow through fiction.

I’m forever grateful to the young clients who introduced me to the novels they loved and in doing so, placed in my hands powerful and personal agents of change.


Gifted: Giving Thanks

Giving Thanks: Poems, Prayers, and Praise Songs for Thanksgiving edited and with reflections by Katherine Paterson illustrations by Pamela Dalton Handprint Books / Chronicle Books, 2013 ISBN: 978-1-4521-1339-5 The season when we focus on giving thanks will quickly be here. If you are looking for a gift to take to your hosts, to give to […]


When I Was Your Age

When I was a small child, I spent a lot of time around adults. Having no brothers or sisters, no cousins living nearby, and spending summers and vacations with my grandparents, I went where they visited. Many of those people were their age. So I heard this phrase often: “When I was your age …” […]