National Humanities Medal Winner James Patterson on Literacy, Libraries

The White House recently honored the bestselling author for his work supporting citizens’ engagement with literature. Patterson has committed extensive philanthropic support to literacy, public libraries, teachers, and bookstores. He has also developed programming nationwide to improve literacy and education among Americans, and to support all citizens’ love of reading. LJ asked Patterson about the books he loves, how he feels about winning, and what libraries can do collectively to support literacy and create stronger readers.

James PattersonThe White House recently honored the bestselling author for his work supporting citizens’ engagement with literature. Patterson has committed extensive philanthropic support to literacy, public libraries, teachers, and bookstores. He has also developed programming nationwide to improve literacy and education among Americans, and to support all citizens’ love of reading. LJ asked Patterson about the books he loves, how he feels about winning, and what libraries can do collectively to support literacy and create stronger readers.

LJ : Tell us about your literacy work.

James Patterson: We’re really not teaching kids to read and to love books. We have a situation in which half the kids in the country are not reading at grade level, which is hideous, and it’s correctable.

How are you helping in your home state of Florida?

In Florida, the percentage of kids reading at grade level is 43 percent. They’re spending 800 million or so, on underperforming schools and reading initiatives, but it’s not working. Pretty much all teachers from pre-school to fourth grade teach reading, but a lot of them could get better at it. This isn’t “let’s look over teacher’s shoulders” as much as “let’s help them to be better at what they’re doing.”

Can you talk about your Classroom Library initiative?

With Scholastic, we’ll supply a couple million dollars. They supply a bonus book program. We reach out and say, “If you’re paying for your own classroom library”—as my mother did, she was a teacher—“we want to help.” This year we had 120,000 teachers say “please help.” We helped 4,500.

What are you doing to support kids’ futures?

We have a lot of scholarships for kids who want to be teachers. It’s about 250 now, at 30-some universities and colleges. Scholarships range from $7,000 to $10,000 per year.

A librarian in Nashville said adult literacy students often read your Bookshots series. What do you think of this?

It’s cool and hopefully it’ll take place in more places. I think novellas are a terrific form. They would have been a big shot in the arm for the book business but they weren’t ready for it. What we’re doing now is bundling them: two to three novellas in a paperback.

Why do people find them so compelling?

They’re comparable to watching a movie. You can read them in two to three hours. Movies are plot-driven too, and an awful lot of classic books are pretty plot-driven and I think that’s a good thing. One reason we’re not reaching kids is because we force them to read too many things where they say, “It’s not relevant and not interesting to me.” What sense does it make to turn kids off by giving them books they don’t respond to? It’s a piece of the puzzle [but] it’s not black and white. Right now we’re failing. If our objective is to make kids become readers, we’re terrible at it.

Is it better to give kids books they care about?

I don’t think it’s even a case of what the kid cares about. People respond to good stories. Kids will respond to a good story even if it’s not their experience. Clearly when they go to Marvel movies, it’s not their experience, so there’s a lot of ways to reach them without literally being their experience. If we taught movies in school and we start[ed] with Ingmar Bergman movies, everyone would go, “I don’t like movies”—and that’s what we do! We give kids stuff and they say, “I don’t get this.” If people fall in love with movies, eventually they may start being involved with movies that are a little headier, but I don’t think it goes the other way.

How do you approach your books for adults versus your Jimmy line of books?

Our mission at Jimmy Books [JB] is when a kid finishes a JB, they’ll say, “Please give me another book.” Our ideal book would be The Book Thief, where it’s beautiful writing and a fabulous story. That’s what we try to do and how we buy other people’s books.

How did you experience libraries as kid?

My mother was a teacher and she also worked at the Newburgh Free Library [NY]. I’d be in the library every Saturday. But I was not a big reader. My family moved to Lexington, MA, right after my senior year in high school, and I worked at McLean [psychiatric] Hospital, a lot of nightshifts, and started reading like a mad person. I’d go into Cambridge two to three times a week and buy books for a quarter or 15 cents, you know, paperbacks. All serious stuff; I was a literary snob. Somewhere along the way, I did read The Day of the Jackal and Exorcist, and I decided as a writer that I did not have 100 Years of Solitude in me, and I didn’t want to write a pretty good literary novel, but thought I might be able to write something like a The Day of the Jackal, and that got me writing mysteries.

What nonfiction are you writing?

I have a really fast-paced book about the Kennedys coming out next year, and a book about what it’s really like to be a soldier.

How did that come about?

A friend of mine goes over to Afghanistan and shoots these movies, and PBS would run them. This past year, he brought another friend of ours, Matt Eversmann, the actual sergeant in Black Hawk Down. Then Matt ran an army ranger training program for seven years. His interviews were great. I went to Matt and said, “Let’s interview a couple hundred soldiers and I’ll turn them into really tight stories that communicate kind of why they were there.” A lot of people think it’s a bunch of kids [who] want to go over and shoot people. Even if it starts that way, by the time they get through basic training and write their death letter, their thought process is: I think I’m going to die, I don’t want to die, I don’t want the people around me to die, and I’m beginning to see a bigger picture. I may agree with the big picture or may hate the big picture, but it’s bigger than what I thought it was.

These are oral histories about Afghanistan?

Not just Afghanistan. But yeah, except they almost read like a novel because the stories are so tight. Sometimes it’s after they get back that’s the really fascinating part. When they go over there, it’s life or death, and they’re used to giving 100 percent. All of a sudden, they go back to jobs—and jobs want like 40 percent of them. Also, the camaraderie they have when [they’re] over there is very difficult to duplicate.

What else is in the works?

I have a new book in the works in partnership with Muhammad Ali’s estate and with the poet Kwame Alexander.

What are you reading and what are your favorite books?

Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants. Michael Connelly’s The Night Fire. Marquez is probably my favorite.Tin Drum is another favorite. Thomas McGuane’s books. Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming. I’m big on Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. It’s about a family in Kansas City back in the fifties, middle-class, the same story—one told by the wife, one told by the husband. It’s witty and ironic.

How do you feel about winning the National Humanities Medal?

I think it’s useful that the White House is nodding that way. On a personal level, to be even mentioned in same breath as some of the other winners—Updike, Didion, Roth—is kind of neat. It’s always subjective. Subjectively, I believe Updike and Roth are much more important novelists than I am, but on the other hand, I think my children’s books are better than theirs because they didn’t write any.

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