National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Katherine Paterson, Winner of the 1977 CHILDREN'S LITERATURE AWARD

April 13, 1977

A woman asked me recently why I "wasted" my time writing exotic historical fiction for children. I was shaken because I believe that growing up and making responsible choices are universal rather than alien or exotic themes. And I never set out to write historical novels. I was born in China and I remember the Japanese as an occupying army. The Japanese soldiers came screaming up the beach and across our yard in Tsingtao practicing, they said, for the invasion of San Francisco. I went to live in Japan when I was twenty-four and I became a child again, for I was suddenly not only illiterate but unable to speak or understand. This time the Japanese taught me things the soldiers on the beach had not. The violence has always been there, but so has the beauty. After I returned to the States, I began writing about Japan because I missed being there, and I set the stories in the past because it is easier to see patterns there than in the present.

I am grateful to those of you who looked at my exotic historical novels and have seen something of value. To John, my husband, who made sure I had time to write even though seven years passed without a published word. To my friends at Thomas Y. Crowell, especially Ann Beneduce, who, when I had very nearly sunk in the slough of slush piles, yanked me out and proceeded to publish each volume with care and artistry. I feel sure no one has a more perceptive editor than I have in Virginia Buckley, nor a more gifted illustrator than Haru Wells. Thank you, Crowell, for gambling on exotic historical novels. I hope you are vindicated today. But even people who don’t mind my writing historical novels ask me why I write them for children. I don’t write for children, I say. I write for myself and then look in the catalog to see how old I am. But it's not true that I simply write for myself. I do write for children. For my own four children and for others who are faced with the question of whether they dare to become adults, responsible for their own lives and the lives of others. They remind me of the Biblical children of Israel, trembling on the bank of the Jordan. You'll remember that Moses sent spies ahead who came back to tell of the richness of the land. But ten of the spies advised the Israelites to turn back. The cities are fortified, they said, and the people are giants. It would be better to return to slavery in Egypt or to wander aimlessly in the desert.

I want to become a spy like Joshua and Caleb. I have crossed the river and tangled with a few giants, but I want to go back and say to those who are hesitating, Don't be afraid to cross over. The promised land is worth possessing and we are not alone. I want to be a spy for hope.