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Katherine Paterson is a popular author of children’s fiction whose work has won international popular and critical acclaim. Collectively, her books have swept every conceivable award for children’s literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood of Continual Change
Katherine Paterson was born of American missionary parents, George Raymond and Mary Goetchius Womeldorf, in Tsing-Tsiang Pu, China, on October 31, 1932, the third of five children. As a child, Paterson dreamed of becoming a famous movie star or growing up to be a missionary like her parents, never imagining herself as a writer. The Japanese invasion and occupation of China, beginning in 1937, forced the family to return twice to the United States, the second time permanently. Moving about between China and various locations in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia, the young Paterson experienced a variety of cultures and almost continual change. Before she graduated summa cum laude from King College in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1954, she had attended thirteen schools and moved at least eighteen times.
Preparation for Missionary Work
As part of her preparation to become a missionary, Paterson spent one year teaching sixth grade at a school in rural northern Virginia. This experience later inspired the setting for one of her more famous books, Bridge to Terabithia (1977), winner of the 1978 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and the Newberry Medal. Since its publication, Paterson has learned that some of her students know about the book and have read it. She writes, ”I hope they can tell by reading it how much they meant to me.”
In 1957 Paterson received an M.A. in English Bible from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. At this point, she was still pursuing her childhood dream to return to China as a missionary. However, at that time China, which had undergone a communist revolution in 1949, was closed to Americans, forcing Paterson to look elsewhere for missionary work.
Move to Japan
As a child living in China under Japanese assault, Paterson had hated and feared the Japanese. She remembered Japan as the enemy who had dropped bombs and occupied the cities where Paterson lived during childhood. However, as an adult she shifted her perspective; she recalls in a brief autobiographical sketch that a Japanese friend urged her to ”put aside those childish feelings and give myself a chance to view the Japanese in a new way.” Later in 1957, Paterson enrolled at the Naganuma School of Japanese Language in the Japanese city of Kobe. She then served as a Christian education assistant for eleven pastors in rural areas of Shikoku Island. During the four years she spent in Japan, she came to love the country and its people.
These years in Japan inspired at least three of her books. In The Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973) and Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), the twelfth-century civil wars between the rival Heike and Genji clans provide a finely detailed background and create the circumstances which incite the protagonists’ quests. Paterson later returned to Japan to conduct research for The Master Puppeteer (1975), winner of the National Book Award. A mystery novel, The Master Puppeteer is set in eighteenth-century Osaka, when the famine of 1783-1787 had reduced the populace to bestial scavengers who plunder and burn their city. The two young heroes of The Master Puppeteer—Jiro, the initiate, and Kinshi, the scapegoat— represent hope. The story suggests that hope for redemption of debased worlds, like eighteenth-century Osaka, may well lie in people like Kinshi, self-possessed and altruistic, who will give of themselves until it hurts.
Return to New York: Starting a Family
Paterson returned to New York City where, on a fellowship to the Union Theological Seminary, she earned a Master’s in Religious Education in 1962, and met and married John Barstow Paterson, a Presbyterian minister. Within a few years, Paterson had become the mother of four, two natural sons, John and David, and two adopted daughters, one Chinese, Elizabeth Polin, and one Apache Kiowa, Mary Katherine. Her insecurities as a new foster mother later inspired The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978), winner of the Christopher Award, the National Book Award, and the Newberry Honors Book award. In Gates of Excellence (1981) Paterson calls the novel ”a confession of sin,” the sin of not dealing with problems.
Writing Career Begins
According to Paterson, her career as a writer began in 1964 while she was living in Maryland. As a gesture of gratitude to the Presbyterian Church that had given her an academic scholarship, she agreed to write curriculum materials for fifth and sixth grade students. The experience cultivated within her a desire to write and she quickly shifted her focus to fiction, her favorite genre. However, as a busy mother juggling the needs of four small children, Paterson struggled and did not publish any of her work. A friend suggested that she take an adult education course in writing and she agreed. The novel she wrote during the course became her first publication in fiction and launched her career as a writer.
Throughout her career, Paterson has built upon work she originally created for her community. The nine short stories in Angels & Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories (1979) were originally written at the suggestion of John Paterson for reading aloud in lieu of a sermon at Christmas Eve services in his Takoma Park Church. Because of the hearty response of the congregation, she published the collection. More explicitly Christian than her novels, the stories reflect the author’s concern for the modern world’s lost and lonely.
Paterson won her second Newberry Medal for Jacob Have I Loved (1980), a provocative story of an adolescent’s submergence by, and victory over, her bitter jealousy of her twin sister, which blinds her to her own worth and to others’ appreciation of it. With Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom (1983), Paterson turns again to historical fiction, this time to China in the mid-nineteenth century, during the 1850-1853 revolt of the Taiping Tienkuo (the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace) against the corrupt Manchu rulers. This starkly realistic adventure-romance tells the stories of Wang Lee and Mei Lin, two young people caught in the devastation wrought by fanatic warlords whose religious ideals are shot through with political ambitions. Neither her most provocative nor most profound novel, Come Sing, Jimmy Jo (1985) is the story of a shy, gifted mountain boy, James Johnson, who, within six months, becomes a country-music star. This novel recapitulates several themes from Paterson’s earlier books.
The Healing Power of Writing
Wrestling with literary problems has helped Paterson through wrenching situations in her personal life. For example, when her son David was eight years old, his best friend was killed by a lightning strike. Trying to make sense of the event, Pater-son wrote Bridge to Terabithia, a story of friendship and loss that became her best-known work. Likewise, Paterson fell back on writing while undergoing surgery for and recovering from cancer, and after the death of her mother.
After thirteen years in Takoma Park, Maryland, the family moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where John Paterson served as pastor of Lafayette Presbyterian Church until August 1986. Paterson and her husband, now retired, live in Vermont where she continues to write. She has received many awards for her work, including numerous lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees. Bridge to Terabithia, first adapted to film in 1985, was filmed again by Disney/Walden Media in 2007. Another movie based on her book The Great Gilly Hopkins, is expected to be released in 2009. Since 2007, Paterson has been serving as Vice President of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a non-profit organization. Paterson published Bread and Roses, Too, her fifteenth novel, in 2006.
Works in Literary Context
Paterson’s fiction is influenced by the continual change of her childhood, her work as a teacher, and her family life. She credits her husband with providing the most influential support, and as to the question of whether her own children have influenced her writing, Paterson, in Gates of Excellence (1981) answers in the affirmative: ”the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.”
Redemption for the Lost and Lonely
Paterson writes of Japanese and American youngsters, who, despite their cultural differences, are in many ways alike. Entangled in chaotic childhoods, her sensitive but tough young protagonists, each a social or a spiritual outsider, set out to achieve self-determined goals. During the course of each story, the child, caught in potentially tragic circumstances, must come to grips with the limitations with which reality circumscribes one’s dreams. In each Paterson story, the protagonist turns tragedy to triumph by bravely choosing an unselfish path. In relinquishing vainglorious dreams and opening themselves to tenacious love, Pater-son’s protagonists gain dignity and happiness. They embody the theme of redemption through the sacrifice of oneself and one’s ambitions.
Paterson’s contribution to children’s literature has been recognized with numerous awards, for her individual works and for her lifetime achievement, including the 1998 Hans Christian Anderson Medal for Writing, the 2000 Library of Congress Living Legend recognition, and the 2006 Astrid Lindgren Memorial award, along with her two National Book Awards and pair of Newberry Medals.
Works in Critical Context
In addition to the many accolades Katherine Paterson has won for her writing, her works have been translated into over fifteen languages, selling millions of copies worldwide. Critic and translator Anthea Bell approvingly notes the subtlety with which Paterson is able ”to make her own Christian convictions evident while not letting them become obtrusive.”
Bridge to Terabithia
In his book Katherine Paterson (1994), scholar Gary D. Schmidt calls Bridge to Terabithia ”perhaps the most moving and painful of her books.” Writing in a similar vein, critics Linda Bachelder, Patricia Kelly, Donald Kenney, and Robert Small in their article
”Young Adult Literature: Looking Backward” (1980), note that ”Paterson’s treatment of the death of Leslie, who died in a freak accident while swinging over a flooded creek to the magical kingdom of Terabithia, is sensitively portrayed.” Judging Paterson to be among the best writers of children’s fiction, Norma Bagnall admires Paterson’s craft in her article ”Bait/Rebait: Literature Isn’t Supposed to be Realistic” (1981): ”The best writers understand how literature works. … It is why Katherine Paterson, in Bridge to Terabithia, uses foreshadowing to set the stage for the death.”
- McGinty, Alice B. Katherine Paterson. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2002.
- Schmidt, Gary D. Katherine Paterson. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.
- Smedman, Sarah M. and Joel Chaston. Bridges for the Young: The Fiction of Katherine Paterson. Lanham, Md.: Children’s Literature Association and the Scarecrow Press, 2003.
- Bell, Anthea. ”A Case of Commitment.” Signal 35 (May 1982): 73-81.
- Buckley, Virginia. ”Katherine Paterson.” Horn Book 54 (August 1978): 368-371.
- Goforth, Caroline. ”The Role of the Island in Jacob Have I Loved.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 9 (Winter 1984-1985): 176-178.
- Gough, John. ”Bridge to Terabithia: The Subtlety of Plain Language.” Idiom 18 (Summer 1983): 19-22.
- Haskell, Ann. ”Talk with a Winner.” New York Times Book Review 26 (April 1981): 52, 67-68.
- Huse, Nancy. ”Katherine Paterson’s Ultimate Realism.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 9 (Fall 1984): 99-101.
- Jones, Linda T. ”Profile Katherine Paterson.” Language Arts 58 (February 1981): 189-196.
- McGavran, Jr., James H. ”Bathrobes and Bibles, Waves and Words in Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved.” Children’s Literature in Education 17 (Spring 1986): 3-15.
- Powers, Douglas. ”OfTime, Place, and Person: The Great Gilly Hopkins and Problems of Story for Adopted Children.” Children’s Literature in Education 15 (Winter 1984): 211-219.
- Rees, David. ”Medals and Awards.” Painted Desert, Green Shade. (Boston: Horn Book, 1984): 89-101.
- Smedman, M. Sarah. ”’A Good Oyster’: Story and Meaning in Jacob Have I Loved.” Children’s Literature in Education 14 (Autumn 1983): 180-187.
- Paterson, Katherine. The Official Website of Author Katherine Paterson. Retrieved November 13, 2008 from http://www.terabithia.com/.
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