Katherine Paterson on Ideas

“The writer of an article about Dr. Seuss reported that at the end of an interview Theodore Geisel congratulated him for not asking the one question that people invariably ask. When the writer asked him what that one question might be, Dr. Seuss replied, “Where do you get your ideas?” “Well, all right,” said the reporter. “Where do you get your ideas?” “I’m glad you asked that,” Dr. Seuss said, and pulled out a printed card. On the card was spelled out the secret that the world pants for. It seems that on the stroke of midnight at the full moon of the summer solstice, Dr. Seuss makes an annual pilgrimage into the desert, where an ancient Native American hermit and wise man has his abode. That old Indian, Dr. Seuss declared, is the source of all of his ideas. But where the old Indian gets his ideas, he has no notion.

“Where do you get your ideas? I suppose the people who ask this question are expecting a rational, one-sentence reply. What they get from me is a rather stupid stare.”

~ Katherine Paterson, “Ideas,” October 1983


Katherine Paterson. The Invisible Child. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2001.


Image via Pixabay.

from Katherine Paterson’s “The Child in the Attic”

“This past fall I spent an afternoon talking with a group of persons who work with children at risk. The question I had asked them to help me answer was this: Why do our children turn to violence? It was a question many of us have struggled with this past year.

“These professionals were very concerned about the Internet. Today, they said, when a child behaves aggressively at school, the routine solution is expulsion. At the very time when a child is most vulnerable, most reachable, he is further isolated. Often he goes home to an empty house and spends time with violent video games or on the Internet, desperately seeking out connections, and whom does he make connections with? All too often with other desperate, isolated, self-hating individuals who confirm his belief that all his hatreds are justified and that violence is the only way to relieve his mortal pain.

“Access to the Internet is not the answer for these attic children. They need much more than that. They need much more even than access to good books. Fortunately, what they need is precisely what you can give them–and that is yourself. ‘Every child,’ said the director of the program, ‘needs a connection with a caring adult.'”

“Last month I was asked to speak to a group of teachers who would be taking their classes to see a production of the play version of Bridge to Terabithia. I spent more than an hour telling them about how the book came to be written and rewritten and then how Stephanie Tolan and I adapted it into the play their classes would see. There was the usual time of questions, at the end of which a young male teacher thanked me for my time and what I had told them that morning. ‘But I want to take something special back to my class. Can you give me some word to take back to them?’

“I was momentarily silenced. After all, I had been talking continuously for over an hour; surely he could pick out from that outpouring a word or two to take back to his students. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut long enough to realize what I ought to say–it is what I want to say to all of you.

“‘I’m very biblically oriented,’ I said, ‘and so for me the most important thing is for the word to become flesh. I can write stories for children, and in that sense I can offer them words, but you are the word become flesh in your classroom. Society has taught our children that they are nobodies unless their faces appear on television. But by your  caring, by your showing them how important each one of them is, you become the word that I would like to share with each of them. You are that word become flesh.'”

“What I want to say to that isolated, angry, fearful child in he attic is this: You are not alone, you are not despised, you are unique and of infinite value in the human family. I can try to say this through the words of a story, but it is up to each of you to embody that hope–you are those words become flesh.”

~ Katherine Paterson, “The Child in the Attic,”
Ohio State University Children’s Literature Festival, February 2000


Paterson, Katherine. The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. New York: Dutton’s Children’s Books, 2001.


Image of boy by Pexels, via Pixabay


But what will he do for clothes?

Our weekly movie on DVD was about John, a young editor sent to Italy to persuade Robert, a famous writer, to end a twenty-year hiatus and start writing again. It’s a sweet story with all the necessary ingredients, including John’s falling in love with Robert’s daughter, Maria, and Robert’s encouraging John to leave publishing and concentrate on his own writing.

There was also the requisite hitch in the romance:  Maria told John that, although she loved him, she couldn’t go to London with him because she didn’t belong there.  And she didn’t show up at the railroad station to tell John goodbye.

That’s when I perked up. It appeared there might be a realistic ending. John wasn’t yet a published writer, and he wasn’t a risk-taker. That kind of person doesn’t throw away a stable career for a beautiful girl and a typewriter.

But when it comes to romance, movie makers don’t like risk either. Boy-meets-girl rarely turns into girl-tells-boy-she-won’t-go-with-him-and-boy-leaves-anyway. Writers share the characteristic. Even Charles Dickens couldn’t end Great Expectations as he wanted. Advised that the public wouldn’t be pleased to see Pip and Estella go their separate ways, he revised asap. Nobody wants the audience to go away mad.

Understanding caution, I doubted the chance of a realistic conclusion. John was still at the station. There was plenty of time for Maria to show up with her suitcase.  There was also the possibility that when John boarded the train, he’d find Maria waiting for him.

I watched. John got on the train, put his suitcase on the overhead rack, and sat down. An old woman carrying a birdcage sat down across from him. No Maria. The train pulled out of the station.

They’ve done it, I thought.

Then John spoke to the old lady, and the old lady spoke to John, and a light appeared in John’s eyes. He looked out the window and saw Maria on horseback, loping alongside the train. She held the reins of a second horse, its saddle empty. John pulled the emergency cord, jumped off the train, mounted the riderless horse, and loped back to the village with the beautiful girl to resume typing.

It was lovely.

And I spoiled it by shouting, “Don’t forget your suitcase!”

That exclamation exemplifies the difference between me and the scriptwriter. I worry about suitcases. I worry about paychecks. I worry about horses. My father didn’t let me run a horse on unfamiliar terrain. He said the horse might step in a hole and break a leg, or throw me off. He didn’t think much of horses in parades either, because they might slip on the pavement, especially if they were shod. When I see a mounted sheriff’s posse in the Tournament of Roses Parade, I cringe.

Lest anyone blame my father for my nitpicking, I offer another example to show I didn’t need instruction: Every time I thought about running away from home (which I considered once a week the year I was four), I got hung up on one detail: I didn’t know how to work a can opener.

Anyway, when it comes to stories, I have a handicap. I see the holes, the lapses, the flimsy, the far-fetched. I never believed Carson Drew really let Nancy leave home by herself. After the time she went detecting and ended up locked in the back of that truck, she was either grounded or sent to a convent. And when I see a man run away from his suitcase, my suspended disbelief goes plop.

That’s a shame. I like happy endings. If John hadn’t stayed in Italy with Maria, I’d have been sad. I wanted ET to stay with Elliot, and Rhett to stay with Scarlett, and Gilly Hopkins to go home to Trotter, and all the terrorists and the hostages in Bel Canto to live in harmony forever.

But life doesn’t work like that. Nor do all writers. Some of them understand about suitcases.

Still, if the writer who conceived the story of John and Maria wasn’t thinking about me, he was thinking about the rest of his audience. He wrote for people who want romance, and he gave them the appropriate ending: boy got girl, girl got boy, horses cantered off into the sunset. Everyone was happy.

Including me.

Because, as David pointed out, John could always buy another toothbrush.