MY BRIGADISTA YEAR

Katherine Paterson

In an engrossing historical novel, the Newbery Medal-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia 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.

When thirteen-year-old Nora 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,

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In an engrossing historical novel, the Newbery Medal-winning author of Bridge to Terabithia 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.

When thirteen-year-old Nora 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.

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  • Candlewick Press
  • Hardcover
  • October 2017
  • 208 Pages
  • 9780763695088

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About Katherine Paterson

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.

Author Website

Praise

“Paterson offers a glimpse of the daily life of a brigadista, redressing the cursory associations many have about Castro’s Cuba. Hers is a positive study of an amazing moment in history that nonetheless acknowledges the darker political machinations at play…the themes of literacy, freedom, and community stay strong. Educational and inspiring.”Kirkus Reviews

“Through Lora’s naïve but openhearted perspective, Paterson weaves in details about Cuban history and the events that led to the overthrow of the Batista regime and the rise of Communism…Paterson’s story is without political agenda, focusing instead on an improbable (and successful) literacy campaign and how it dramatically expands the world of one sheltered but determined girl.”Publishers Weekly

“Motivational and clearly written with purpose and historical interest, Paterson’s tale about the need for societal change and the positive impacts volunteering has for young people is important and intriguing.”Creators blog

Interviews

What inspired your interest in this period of Cuba’s history?

When my friend Mary Leahy heard that I was planning a second trip to Cuba, she told me how envious she was. Her brother Senator Patrick Leahy had been there several times, seeking to mend relationships between our two countries, but she had never been. Early in her experience as the director of Central Vermont Adult Basic Education, Mary had learned of the amazingly successful literacy campaign that, in one year, turned Cuba into an illiteracyfree country. She tried to incorporate ideas from the Cuban model into her work in Vermont, especially the idea of enlisting volunteer teachers who would be humble enough to learn from their students as well as teach them. I’d never heard about the campaign before, and this conversation with Mary sent me on a quest to find out about it.

Have you had the opportunity to meet or interview any of the real-life brigadistas that were recruited for this effort?

To my surprise, my closest Cuban friend, Dr. Emilia Gallego, who was responsible for both my visits to Cuba, was a brigadista as a teenager. It explains a lot to me about her courage and creativity as an educator and writer.

What made Castro’s goal of 100 percent literacy in Cuba so audacious and unlikely, given the events and sociological challenges at that time?

Fidel Castro and his small guerrilla band defeated the dictator Batista’s army in 1959. There was widespread poverty and unemployment. Castro’s victory was opposed by the United States and the Organization of American States, who imposed an embargo on imports and exports, which made the country poorer still. Nevertheless, Castro believed that in addition to health care and jobs, Cuba needed a literate population if they were to endure as a strong and independent country.

Slightly more than half of the literacy volunteers were female. How did girls’ and women’s experiences differ from those of male volunteers?

Before the revolution, women and girls were definitely second-class citizens. The prevailing thought was that girls should be protected and groomed to be wives and mothers. Boys had much more freedom and could expect better education and a choice of careers. The campaign gave girls both freedom and self-confidence. It gave Cuba a whole class of strong, capable women, all of whom point to their brigadista year as the formative experience of their lives.

What were some of the challenges the volunteers faced during the literacy campaign? Why did the campaign make such great fodder for a novel?

These city children were suddenly in the countryside—no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilet facilities, no beds, even. They also had to learn to work alongside the hardworking peasants. They’d never had to do strenuous manual labor in their lives. After an exhausting work day, they had to become teachers . . . a task for which they had less than two weeks of training. And they had to live with the knowledge that there were armed insurgents somewhere out there who would be quite willing, if not eager, to kill them.

Why did you decide to tell this story in a novel form rather than give it a more straightforward nonfiction approach? Was that daunting, and how do you feel about the story you have created now that the book is complete?

I didn’t know originally what the best way would be to tell this story, so I did a very clever thing: I asked Karen Lotz, the president and publisher of Candlewick Press. My first idea was a nonfiction picture book with lots of pictures, but Karen said “novel,” so novel it became. And the more I wrote, the happier I was about that decision. I fell in love with these characters.

Do you think it is possible for contemporary educators or literacy institutions to take anything away from this historical event in terms of its success?

What was accomplished in such a short period of time? I think, at the very least, they might see how young people love to rise to a real challenge. Young people in this country haven’t been challenged like this since the early days of the Peace Corps. I also think any educator needs to remember that learning is a two-way process, with teacher and student respecting each other and learning from each other.