In this month's Inspirations from the Bookshelf, Colleen Jones of SCBWI Ireland has a tricky time selecting which writer to plump for . . .

When Philippa asked me to choose whose work inspired my own writing, it was tough to decide between Madeleine L’Engle, Anne McCaffrey, and Katherine Paterson. The Arm of the Starfish was one of the first books I read by Madeleine L’Engle, even before A Wrinkle in Time. The White Dragon, Dragonsinger, and Dragonsong are my favourites in the otherwise adult Pern series by Anne McCaffrey.

However, there is one book I have read and re-read more than any other: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. At one point, I had three different copies on my bookshelf. I loved that book so much that I kept buying it.

Terabithia has always stayed with me. It’s the story of the friendship that develops between Jess and Leslie, how Leslie broadens Jess’s world by sharing hers with him, and how his life is shattered by a tragedy. When I read Terabithia for the first time, I had been devastated by the death of my grandpa. I cried unreservedly as I read this book. I still keep coming back to it when I need to touch that grief and the joy of that friendship and shared world again.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is about a young girl who dreams of being reunited with her mother and getting out of the foster-care system. She’s not very likeable at the start of the story, but that is what drew me in. I wanted to know more. I spent two years in foster care when I was very young, so I could really relate to Gilly’s anger and her longing for her absent parent.

Not all of Katherine’s books are contemporary, and she does enough research that you are immediately transported into the world of her characters. I didn’t know how interesting History could be until I read these stories. Not dry texts, these stories pull you into the past. Jip: His Story is about an orphaned boy making the best of his life until trouble comes to the poor farm.

Jacob Have I Loved is about Louise, the older of twin sisters, who has to fight for everything she wants in life, and overcome her own jealousy and bitterness. Lyddie, set in the cotton mills of the 1840s, is the shocking story of a young girl trying to survive poverty and debt and help her family by working in the worst conditions.

Come Sing, Jimmy Jo is about a shy boy from the mountains who sings and plays guitar. I can’t remember the details, but it has the subtle humour that is woven into many of Katherine’s books. As always, the main character, James, is faced with a dilemma and has to be brave enough to deal with it. No matter how dramatic the story, in the end, it’s always about the emotional journey that each character travels.

It’s kind of strange that of my favourite writers, I picked one who doesn’t write fantasy, science fiction, or mystery! Katherine has a way of making her characters feel like real people—kids who, just like me when I was young, are dealing with some sort of trouble in their life. While I love the escapism of other worlds and adventures, the emotional honesty of Katherine Paterson’s books are what draw me back to her work time and again.

How has Katherine’s work influenced my own writing?

I discovered that my current middle-grade story contains a humour that wasn’t present in my earlier writing. While my work-in-progress does feature a singing dragon, it’s really about the ups and downs of the friendship between two very different characters, and it’s also about wanting to stand out while also wanting to belong. In fact, when I look at a number of my story ideas, the themes of friendship and belonging are like coloured threads running through them all. Finding the emotional heart of characters in a dilemma and reflecting it back to young readers, the way that Katherine does with her books, that is what I aspire to.


Colleen Jones is a writer and the volunteer Regional Advisor for SCBWI Ireland. She also writes book reviews for the Children's Books Ireland Inis magazine and is a creative writing tutor with Fighting Words in Cork.

Header image: portrait of Katherine Paterson from her own website

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