ALAN v25n1 - THE PUBLISHER CONNECTION- Scott O'Dell Award Acceptance Speech

Volume 24, Number 3
Spring 1997


M. Jerry Weiss, Editor

Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey

Scott O'Dell Award Acceptance Speech

Katherine Paterson

As many of you may know, I do not talk about a book while I am working on it. Even my husband is left in the dark until I present him with the messy first draft. But finally I am done and know that I must begin talking about it. Now I find being a grown-up in these matters exceedingly difficult, so I have to practice answering politely when someone asks me about the new book.

"So what's you new book about?" a woman asked me late last spring. I shuddered, then pulled myself together. Okay, here goes, I thought, but the words didn't come out nearly as politely as I meant for them to. "I guess I have to start talking about it sooner or later," I said. Now, oh dear, what should I say that didn't make my beloved book sound totally stupid. "Okay," I said, finally. "I guess I can tell you where it came from." The questioner perked up with great interest, so I went on. "I had this image of a child tumbling off the back of a wagon and nobody comes back to look for him."

" Oh," she said brightly. "There's another book that starts just like that."

She searched around in her mind for the title, totally oblivious to the devastation she was wreaking to my fragile psyche. "Pecos Bill," she said finally. "Doesn't it begin just like that? The child falls off the back of the wagon, is rescued by the coyotes and raised by them."

I don't know what I said after that. At least there were no coyotes in my book. But I went home and snuck a look at Pecos Bill by my dear friend Steven Kellogg. Had my great original vision been cribbed after all from Steven's folktale retelling?

Well, if I've learned anything in 64 years it is that there are no original ideas -- just new treatments of the same old ideas. Still how could I have not remembered Pecos Bill? I guess the moral of that story is, if you crib an idea, either wittingly or unwittingly, do it from someone as nice as Steven Kellogg.

Besides, the question of where a book came from is not one that can be answered in a sentence or two or in a few lines on a publisher's inquiry form. One idea, as I often say to school classes, one idea doth not a novel make. Not even Jip . It started with the boy tumbling off the back of the wagon, but that led into an investigation of why such a thing should happen. When I began working on Jip , I had the hope of writing an adventure story. It seemed to me, when I had my critical, rather than my writer's, hat on, that there was a dearth of really good adventure stories around these days.

I went back to re-read some of the classics -- books the like of which we haven't seen for a long time. I started with Huckleberry Finn and went on to Great Expectations , Treasure Island , and finally to Kidnapped . It was Kidnapped that simply drove me back to my own book. What a story! Stevenson really knew how to do it. And for days I floated about, inflated with Stevenson's language, pacing, characterization, wild highland setting. I was little more than a Stevenson wanna-be.

But then I came thudding down to earth. I was not Robert Louis Stevenson. I could not write like him, nor, in truth, did I want to. As much as I admired Kidnapped, I did not want to rewrite it. I wanted to write a book that only I could write. I wanted to set my book in the hill country of Vermont, not the Scottish Highlands. I wanted to bring to life that child who rolled off the wagon -- the child no one had come back to look for. Who was he? Why had he been abandoned? And why did he seem so precious to me? As I wrote I learned more of him -- his almost mystical way with animals and people in need, his common sense, his hardworking nature.

And then, searching among the old books in the library of the Vermont Historical Society for a better sense of setting and atmosphere, I met another person so compelling that I knew his story and Jip's were meant to entwine.

I was reading a town history of Hartford, Vermont, when, in a section telling about the town poor farm, I came across a paragraph about a resident of Hartford's poor farm, a man named Putnam Proctor Wilson. Wilson was one of two lunatics for whom the town had built wooden cages. "These men," the writer says, "were raving crazy most of the time, and there caged up like wild beasts in narrow filthy cells, [I] often saw them and their pitiable condition, was impressed with the conviction that the inhuman treatment to which they were subjected, was sufficient of itself to make lunatics of all men. Poor old Putnam had some rational moments and was always pleased to see children to whom he would sing the old song, 'Friendship to every willing mind,' etc., as often as requested."

So I took poor Putnam Wilson, named him Put Nelson and gave him a favorite shape note hymn to sing and my already beloved boy Jip. I knew Jip would give Put not just pity but genuine love and friendship.

At some point, and I'm not sure just when it was, characters from my other Vermont novel quietly began to congregate. I was glad to see them again, of course, but since I don't write sequels, I felt the need to tell them that it wasn't their story, and there probably wasn't a place for them in it. They were very pleasant about it all, just hung around the edges and watched.

For a long time I worked, doing more research rather than actual writing, still unable to figure out where Jip had come from and, thus, what must happen to him for the mystery of his beginnings to be solved. One day I woke up and I knew. At last, I had a plot. You'd think I'd rejoice. But no. My first reaction was surprised irritation -- almost anger. How could that be the explanation? That would not be the rollicking adventure story I'd hope to write. The solution my subconscious presented was suspiciously close kin to the kind of tale I seem always to end up writing. I struggled against the revelation for a while and finally gave up.

People think writers have infinite choices to make when constructing a book. In truth, we have very little. Usually, the choice is whether to complete this story or not. I chose to write it. I was too much in love with Jip and Put to let them go. It was at this point that Luke Stevens and Lyddie Worthen stepped out of the wings, saying, in effect, "There, there, don't take on so. We're here. We'll help. And don't think of it as a sequel. This is Jip's story, not ours."

I had a great deal of help with this book. My husband, John Paterson, tracked down all kinds of books and facts for me, although for more than a year I could give him only the haziest notion of what I was writing. My friend, Nancy Graff, read the manuscript for historical accuracy; Virginia Buckley edited it with the kind of loving care I've grown to trust but never to take for granted over the twenty-six years of our working together. Lodestar/Dutton/Penguin published it beautifully, and Mimi Kayden made sure people knew it had been born. My friend, Grace Greene, pronounced it a good book. I thank them all.

I didn't need anything else, but I can't tell you how thrilled I am for Jip to win the Scott O'Dell Award. Scott O'Dell was a writer that my children loved and made me read when I was still a writer struggling towards publication of my first novel. He set a standard for me in historical fiction that I will spend my life striving for. Last week I got a letter from a previous winner of this wonderful award. Lyll Becera de Jenkins. Lyll, as some of you know, is close to death after a long battle with cancer. In her letter she spoke of how much it meant to her that both of us had won the Scott O'Dell Award.

And then, in reply to my earlier note, she said:

"My body is a mess, but my soul is joyful. I feel the Good Lord near me, and I repeat to him my thanks for so many benefits He has given me through my husband, my children and my friends. I feel in God's loving hands, yes, dear friend, and I know we'll meet again."

And as I burst into tears, I could hear Put Nelson's voice lifted in the chorus of his beloved hymn:

If this be death, I soon shall be

From ev'ry pain and sorrow free,

I shall the King of glory see,

All is well, all is well.

I am grateful that my children's children, who will never have the privilege of meeting Scott O'Dell or Lyll Jenkins, will be able to know them through the wonderful books they have written. And I am more honored than you'll ever know to be numbered in their company.

Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Paterson, Katherine. (1997) Scott O'Dell Award acceptance speech. The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 3, 51-52.

Katherine Paterson is the 1997 recipient of the Scott O'Dell Award, given for an outstanding work of historical fiction for her novel, Jip: His Story, published by Lodestar/Dutton. She made this address on April 24 at the Lotos Club in New York City.

Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Paterson, Katherine. (1997). Scott O'Dell Award acceptance speech. The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 3, 51-52.