The Children’s Book Review | December 20, 2017
My Brigadista Year is the latest middle-grade book from the Newbery Medal-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson. It’s a historical novel that follows a young Cuban teenager as she volunteers for Fidel Castro’s national literacy campaign and travels into the impoverished countryside to teach others how to read.
The Children’s Book Review: My Brigadista Year is a historical-fiction novel that shines a light on a little-known moment in history. The story includes details of Cuban history and the events that led to the overthrow of the Batista regime and the rise of Communism. Can you tell us why you were compelled to focus on this particular time in Cuba?
Katherine Paterson: I wrote about the 1961 Literacy Campaign because I was thrilled that 12- to 18-year-olds (especially girls who up to then had lived very sheltered lives) would dare go into the mountains and countryside to teach people, mostly adults, how to read and write. That same January, John F. Kennedy said: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Young Americans were inspired to join the Peace Corps. Fidel Castro challenged young Cubans to teach their illiterate fellow citizens. It is tragic that these two men became, out of fear, mortal enemies. They both loved their countries and asked young citizens to work selflessly for the greater good of their nation. If only they had led their countries to seek peace rather than enmity, this would be a different world today.
The story traces a young teen’s coming-of-age journey from a sheltered life to a singular mission: teaching fellow Cubans of all ages to read and write while helping with the work of their daily lives and sharing the dangers posed by counterrevolutionaries hiding in the hills nearby. Can you share a little bit about your character development process for creating 13-year-old Lora?
I’m always hard pressed to explain character development. I feel as though my characters are already living people and my job is to get to know them. That takes multiple revisions, as with each go-through I am getting to know them better. I swore years ago that if I ever became a real writer I would not talk hokey. Well, I talk hokey. The imagination is, after all, a mysterious region, and as hard as I work, there is still that quality of mystic gift that I can’t explain.
If you could insert yourself into any part of the book, which page would you like to experience firsthand alongside the characters?
I cry every time I read the part where Lora says goodbye to the Santanas and Acostas.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading My Brigadista Year?
Of course I hope they will love reading the story since I truly loved writing it. I can’t, and wouldn’t want to if I could, tell readers how to read my book. But I must admit that I hope some of them will be inspired by these young Cubans to do selfless acts for the common good of our country and our world. We are in terrible need of such young people.
Before we go, do you have anything else that you would like to share with us about My Brigadista Year?
Remember: This is Lora’s story, told in the first person by a 13-year-old girl who doesn’t know everything happening in Cuba. She is limited to her own experience, and she certainly can’t foretell the future. Even in the epilogue, the grown-up Lora will be limited in what she says about history and about the present in her country. She is aware of censorship. She knows persons who are too outspoken endanger themselves and their families. She has no desire to flee, nor does she wish to be jailed. I hope readers don’t judge her on what she doesn’t say that they believe ought to be said about the Castro regime.
Written by Katherine Paterson
Publisher’s Synopsis: In an engrossing historical novel, the Newbery Medal-winning author of Bridge to Terabithiafollows a young Cuban teenager as she volunteers for Fidel Castro’s national literacy campaign and travels into the impoverished countryside to teach others how to read.
When thirteen-year-old Lora tells her parents that she wants to join Premier Castro’s army of young literacy teachers, her mother screeches to high heaven, and her father roars like a lion. Nora has barely been outside of Havana — why would she throw away her life in a remote shack with no electricity, sleeping on a hammock in somebody’s kitchen? But Nora is stubborn: didn’t her parents teach her to share what she has with someone in need? Surprisingly, Nora’s abuela takes her side, even as she makes Nora promise to come home if things get too hard. But how will Nora know for sure when that time has come? Shining light on a little-known moment in history, Katherine Paterson traces a young teen’s coming-of-age journey from a sheltered life to a singular mission: teaching fellow Cubans of all ages to read and write, while helping with the work of their daily lives and sharing the dangers posed by counterrevolutionaries hiding in the hills nearby. Inspired by true accounts, the novel includes an author’s note and a timeline of Cuban history.
Ages 10-14 | Publisher: Candlewick | 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-0763695088
About the Author
Katherine Paterson is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Her international fame rests not only on her widely acclaimed novels but also on her efforts to promote literacy in the United States and abroad. A two-time winner of the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, she has also received numerous other accolades, including the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, as well as the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.With her late husband, John Paterson, she co-authored The Flint Heart, a wryly retold fantasy illustrated by John Rocco and published by Candlewick Press. In 2000, Katherine Paterson was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. She lives in Barre, Vermont.
This interview was conducted by Bianca Schulze. Discover more books like My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson, by checking out our reviews and articles tagged with Author Interview, Books About Cuba, Historical Fiction, and Katherine Paterson.