Thank You, Katherine Paterson.by Kirsten LeClerc
Like so many other Nerdy Book Club members, some of my fondest memories of growing up were those spent with books. I enjoyed spending countless hours reading the works of Judy Blume, Ann M. Martin, Francine Pascal, Cynthia Voigt, and Lois Lowry. My favorite author from that time in my life, though, is Katherine Paterson. Her books continue to be just as meaningful to me now as they were when I was a child.
The first book of hers I read was Bridge To Terabithia, which is perhaps my favorite book of all time. As a young girl growing up in Appalachia I connected with the setting and characters of the story. I knew, like Jesse, how it felt to grow up in a house with a lot of siblings and not much money. I empathized with Leslie when she told the other kids at school that she didn’t have a television. (My family did have a TV, but only one channel came in clearly.) I knew someone who could have been Janice Avery’s twin. I cried real tears when Leslie died, feeling the senselessness of her death. I didn’t know firsthand what it was like to lose a friend like that, but I would find out in just a few years.
When I was in ninth grade a good friend of mine passed away. It was sudden and unexpected, and I will never forget the shock of finding out about his death. I found comfort in talking with other friends who were feeling the same loss. I also pulled my tattered copy of Bridge To Terabithia off the shelf. I read about Jesse and Leslie again, at age 15, and found solace in their story.
Eight years later, the summer after I finished graduate school, I moved to Vermont. I quickly fell in love with the Green Mountains, but occasionally felt homesick for the familiarity of my childhood. I was pleasantly surprised one day in September to read in the newspaper about a book festival happening in a nearby city that same weekend. The festival was dedicated to Katherine Paterson, and she was going to be speaking! She too was a southern girl who’d moved to Vermont.
I have to admit that I acted a bit like a swooning teenage girl at a Justin Bieber concert at the event. I listened with tears of admiration as she spoke about her career as a writer and her work as an ambassador of literacy. Getting to see her in person was, by far, the highlight of that fall.
The next year I began my first teaching job in the northern Vermont town of Winooski, where I taught middle and high school reading. I was delighted to find a whole shelf full of Katherine Paterson’s books in my classroom. I found the perfect home for an extra copy of The Same Stuff As Stars, with a student who lived with her grandmother and shouldered responsibility for her younger siblings just like the main character Angel. I re-read The Great Gilly Hopkins as I worked with a challenging student who had been in and out of foster care. Paterson’s book reminded me how unstable the early years of his life must have been, and I tried to become more patient and understanding. I found Lyddie and Bread and Roses, Too to be useful in the classroom as our school focused on the town’s rich mill history.
Then, in 2009, Paterson published a book that I love almost as much as Bridge To Terabithia.The Day Of The Pelican tells the story of Meli Lleshi and her family. The Lleshis are Albanians living in Kosovo during the Serbian oppression that took place in the ’90s. They are driven from their homes to a refugee camp and then eventually resettle in Vermont. Nothing about their story is easy. They face many hardships, even once they get to America. Her book was based on a real family’s story, a family I’ve never met, but it could have been about one of the students I taught. About 40% of the students in my school at that time were English Language Learners, most of whom came from refugee backgrounds. I had one student who, like Meli, was ethnically Albanian and from Kosovo. She had survived the war; her father was not so lucky. I also had students from Sudan, Somalia, Bosnia, the Congo, Burundi, and Burma. Each of their stories were unique, but there were also chilling similarities involving civil war and genocide. Like Meli, these students showed resilience in coming to a new country, adapting to a new culture, and learning a new language. With Day of the Pelican, Katherine Paterson has done an amazing job telling a story that deserves to be heard.
I’ve been away from Vermont for almost a year now. I moved south again to be closer to extended family, so my daughter can spend more time with her grandparents. I enjoy the milder weather here, the familiar Appalachian culture of my childhood, and being close to people I love, but sometimes I grow wistful for the Green Mountains. I miss the friends I left behind, the small community schools I worked in and the rich, vibrant mix of cultures represented there. I also miss that slight possibility of running into my favorite author while shopping or dining out. (Vermont is a small state. It could have happened!)
I recently checked Katherine Paterson’s website and found out that she will be making an appearance at a book festival in a neighboring state this fall. I already have it marked on the calendar. If I ever get to meet her, I hope to thank her for writing such wonderful books. Her stories have meant a great deal to me and countless others, and I look forward to sharing them with my own daughter when she gets older.