Katherine Paterson

The power of art

Any writer will understand how miraculous it is when something you have written deeply affects another person. And we are all acutely aware of how much depends on the heart and mind of the reader. That being said, this story begins with a letter I received in the fall of 2004 that had been mailed the previous August. It had no stamp and the return address was an Army Post Office number. Now, I am a peace-loving children’s writer, so most of my mail comes from children, not soldiers. But as I read this letter, I was overwhelmed with awe and gratitude, as any writer would be. 

Dear Ms. Paterson,

I apologize for not typing this letter, but I send you greetings from Farah City, Afghanistan where I am deployed with my Army National Guard unit in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I am, consequently, without access to printers.

Yesterday, we were blessed with the very rare occasion of receiving mail at our remote desert outpost. With my letters was a copy of Bridge to Terabithia. I was unfamiliar with this book but the title sounded interesting and it had clearly won the Newbery, so I gave it a try. And on one of those very rare occasions where I have time between missions and guard duty, I read the entire novel.

I was mesmerized. You wrote an absolutely beautiful novel and I, like Jessie Aarons, fell in love with Leslie Burke. Maybe it was because you made it so easy to see things from Jessie’s perspective. Maybe it was because Leslie reminded me of a girl I once knew. Maybe it was because she was a spark of beauty in a land and a war where beauty is of so little importance.

That night, after finishing Bridge to Terabithia, my squad left our compound for a mission. Yet, even while I drove through a strange foreign city with body armor and a fully loaded M-16 assault rifle, all I could think about was the beauty and richness of your novel.

Before the army yanked me out of the real world for this war, I was a high school English teacher. Before that, I studied English at the University of Iowa. I have, therefore, read many novels. But of all those novels I have awarded only five books with my own personal five-star rating system. Bridge to Terabithia is unquestionably a five-star novel. It amazed me with its beauty.

Thank you, Ms. Paterson, for bringing such joy to this lonely teacher-made-soldier in this long tour in this bleak desert country. I have sent instructions home to my wife, asking her to secure a hardcover copy, and my future students will be highly encouraged to read your brilliant novel.

Once again, thank you for the joy you brought me. Thank you for Leslie Burke.

Sincerely,
Corporal Trent D. Reedy
United States Army

After a couple of years of correspondence, I was able to meet Trent Reedy. He told me that Bridge to Terabithia saved his life. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said how important it was to him to be able to cling to something beautiful when the world about him was so ugly and terrifying. Since that time, many of his fellow soldiers have come back from the war so scarred that they haven’t been able to adjust to civilian life. But he had come to realise how vital art was. He believed that art literally saved his life. Since that time, Trent has become a writer himself. His powerful first book, Words in the Dust, tells in fiction the story of a young Afghan girl he met during his time there. It has been well received and was featured on the national TV programme, The Today Show. More importantly, the book has helped thousands of young Americans to understand the humanity of the Afghan people.

What have the award meant for you?

After the first shock upon hearing the news, I began to think of what it would mean to be the recipient of such a large prize and I realized that it was a wonderful opportunity. US law demands that prizes be taxed, and I knew that this prize would be taxed at 30–40 percent of its value. I couldn’t face the idea that money from the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award would go to fund the wars my country was engaged in. So I determined to set up a charitable foundation to receive the funds. My large family, all of whom came to Stockholm to help celebrate the award, enthusiastically approved this plan. Family and friends have also contributed to the Paterson Family Foundation so that, to date, the foundation has been able to give $492,239 to 13 different causes in countries around the world supporting education, books and literacy. Despite the current economic situation, at the close of our fiscal year in September we still had a balance of $668,296, which will enable us to keep going for several more years. It has been a wonderful experience for our family. One of my sons took his son to Haiti to actually see some of the work the foundation supports there. We’re so happy that the award has been able to help thousands of children and young people and their teachers and teachers and leaders. I am very, very grateful.

What are you working with at present?

I try not to talk about current projects as I’m never sure they’ll work out. I did get two new books out this year: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a reimagining of St. Francis of Assisi’s hymn and, with my husband John, a free abridgment of Eden Phillpott’s 1910 fantasy, The Flint Heart. Both books are beautifully illustrated.