Monday, May 16, 2011

Gates of Excellence

Months and months ago—I forget just when—I was perusing my local used book store. The Book Lady. Oh, how I love that crowded little store with books crammed into mis-matched shelves, and stacked in corners and on tables of every size and shape. I’ll never buy another new cookbook when The Book Lady has so many wonderful editions scattered like powdered sugar on and around an old red and white enamel Hoosier.
But I am wandering up and down the stacks. Back to my point.
I picked up a little book because I recognized the author’s name (and who wouldn’t in our world of children’s literature?) Katherine Paterson.  At home I squeezed it onto the top shelf near my computer and forgot about it.
I’m so sorry that I did.
A day or two ago a blog I was reading mentioned the title and, ding! a bell sounded in my little head. I scrounged through my book shelves until I found that title hiding sheepishly behind bigger, bolder, newer books.
Katherine Paterson’s Gates of Excellence on Reading and Writing Books for Children looks so unimposing on the outside. But don’t judge this book by its cover. These 125 pages are dripping with just exactly what I needed to read and remember.
Rubies and all sorts of jewels for those of us who write for children.  These gems of truth are set in the glittering phrases and sentences and paragraphs of Terabithia’s creator.

Dear writing friends, if you need a little inspiration you’ll find it tucked in these leaves.
If you need to be reminded of why you write for children, or read to children, or teach children look no further. Gates of Excellence will transport you back to that moment when, for the first time, you knew—you really KNEW—that you were meant to help children.
You were meant to share God’s truth, or God’s love, or God’s acceptance or forgiveness through the stories you mine from your imagination, or the information and lessons you draw from the complex beauty of God’s created world.
If you fell in love with the seemingly effortless beauty and grace of The Bridge to Terabithia you will cling to every word of this book, too. Here’s one wee bit of it from pages 113-114:
…it occurs to me that I have spent a good part of my life trying to construct bridges. Usually my bridges have turned out looking much more like the bridge of Terabithia, a few planks over a nearly dry gully, than like that elegant span across the Narrows. There were so many chasms I saw that needed bridging—chasms of time and culture and disparate human nature—that I began sawing and hammering at the rough wood planks for my children and for any other children who might read what I had written.
But of course I could not make a bridge for them any more than I could conjure one up that night on Long Island. I discovered gradually and not without a little pain that you don’t put together a bridge for a child. You become one—you lay yourself across the chasm.
It is there in the Simon and Garfunkel song—
                Like a bridge over troubled water
                I will lay me down…
The waters to be crossed are not always troubled. The land on the other side of the river may be flowing with joy, not to mention milk and honey. But still the bridge that the child trusts or delights in—and, in my case, the book that will take children from where they are to where they might be—needs to be made not from synthetic or inanimate objects, but from the stuff of life. And a writer has no life to give but her own.

May I add my humble opinion here?
As Christians who write for children we do not have to dot our manuscripts with churchy words, or Bible verses or references to Jesus for them to reveal the TRUTH to our readers. What we need to reveal to our readers are the eternal truths that we know about God, about the universe He created, about His love and forgiveness, about his power and beauty as it is reflected in His revelations of Himself in nature, in God’s Word, in Jesus’ earthly life, in our lives as His Holy Spirit lives and breathes through us.
We don’t have to tack on a good little Bible lesson to our stories to point children to the Author of all Truth. We just have to be faithful to let that TRUTH reveal Himself through our words.
A writer has no life to give but her own.  Give to whom? It’s noble to give our lives to or for someone else. But it is most noble to give our lives to Christ Jesus. Then, whether we write or illustrate, sing or dance, teach or manage, build or demolish the products of our lives will reveal that Eternal TRUTH to our readers.

Don't forget -- Write2Ignite! Conference 2012 – March 16-17, 2012 at North Greenville University


  1. Great job! Thanks for sharing this book. I've not read it, but it sure looks like I need to! :-)

  2. One of my all-time favorite books on writing for children. Paterson's "The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children" published by Dutton Children’s Books, New York, 2001 is another good one. It's a collection of her speeches and essays, so you can sample sections of it (like selecting cookies off a buffet tray). If ever I need a motivational writing boost, I Katherine Paterson is the go-to writer. Thanks for sharing this title.