Yes, that's actually me, sitting next to Katherine Paterson on her couch. And the connection to Banned Books Week is that two of KP's books, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, are on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most banned books (past and present) in this country. KP wears this distinction as a badge of honor. Full disclosure: I didn't earn the privilege of sitting next to this amazing woman on her couch; I bought it. I was the highest bidder this spring for the "Tea With Katherine Paterson" prize in an auction sponsored by the Vermont College of Fine Arts, of which she is a board member. But at least I won fair and square, and didn't have to lie, cheat or steal in order to spend three hours in the company of my writing hero.
The prize was tea (the meal, not just the beverage) for me and one other person, so I enlisted Michele, my trusty friend and fellow writer, to take a one-night road trip with me from her home on Cape Cod to Montpelier, Vermont, where KP lives. But KP has only lived in Montpelier (the state capital) for about two years. Before then she lived with her family in Barre, the next town over, for 29 years - by far the longest she's ever lived in any one place - and Barre is clearly where her heart lies. Her husband (recently deceased, hence KP's move to smaller living quarters in Montpelier) was a minister at the Barre Presbyterian Church. The children's room in the Barre Public Library is named after her.
Barre is a quirky place. It bills itself as the Granite Capital of the World, and a short walk along the main street will bring you to oddities like a giant granite zipper in the ground
and an outdoor granite chair for your comfort (and ours).
But Michele and I didn't take that little walking tour until the next day, after we spent the night at the wonderful Maplecroft B&B (if you're ever in Barre, make sure you check it out!) KP Day was the day before, September 18th. After our tea (which featured homemade scones) and chat, KP took us on a driving tour of Barre, as she had told us she'd like to do. She pointed out some of the highlights, like this statue of the poet Robert Burns
and this World War I memorial to fallen soldiers, known locally (as KP gleefully informed us, and for obvious reasons) as Naked Neil:
It was a lovely afternoon. We got to know KP's adorable companion Pixie
and to spend some time with the very gracious KP herself.
And yet it's taken me almost two weeks to put together a post about my pilgrimage. Here's the thing. I'm torn between feeling awed and grateful at having met KP (and still not quite believing that I really did), and feeling disappointed that the three of us didn't get to talk about her work. I guess I was expecting that the conversation would flow naturally in that direction, but it never did, and Michele and I discovered afterward that we shared the distinct impression that KP didn't want the conversation to flow the way Michele and I were hoping it would. That it would have been rude for us to ask questions about her books and her writing career. In fact, when at one point Michele was brave enough to ask whether KP was planning to write any more novels, I almost gasped. What if she's offended by the question? What if she throws us out after we drove all this way?
Of course, she didn't throw us out, and if she was offended, she was too polite to show it. Her answer was basically that she doesn't know whether she can do it without the support of her team. Her agent has retired; the only editor with whom she's ever worked, Virginia Buckley, has retired; and her husband and biggest supporter is no longer here to cheer her along.
But the rest of our questions remained unasked. As Michele later said, she and I were apparently both just too well brought up. We were taught to follow the host's lead, and that's what we did, especially because the host was one of the most revered and accomplished writers for young people in the world. But of course, that's also why we wished we could have asked her more questions.
So there you have it. I wish I had more news to share with you, but instead, all I have is these photos and the memory of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I can pass along KP's exhortation for this week: Celebrate banned books!!