- Virginia Johnson
Best known for her Newbery Award-winning books, Jacob Have I Loved, as well as Newbery Honor winner, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson's very personal style of storytelling strikes nerves with her readers, who are able feel her characters' emotions, giving them practice for dealing with life's sorrows. What keeps her books from being simple studies in misery is her ability to find the humor and grace in any situation.
Books of the Far East
Katherine Paterson was born Katherine Womeldorf, a Presbyterian missionary's child in China on October 31, 1932. She grew to have a strong love of both China and later Japan despite the civil war and world war that forced her family to return to the United States. Her books, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, Of Nightingales That Weep, Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, The Master Puppeteer and the picture book, The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, all take place in the Far East and show her love for this area's histories and cultures.
The Outcast Child
When the Womeldorf family returned to America, Katherine had a hard time of it. She spoke with a British accent, dressed in clothes donated to the missionaries, and was teased mercilessly by her classmates. As she wrote in Gates of Excellence, "on the hills and playgrounds of Wiley School were spent some of the most miserable hours of my life." When writing The Great Gilly Hopkins, she remembered those horrible feelings. Gilly (short for Galadriel), however, is NOT a preacher's child.
She is a foster child who desperately tries to believe that her mother still wants her. She acts up, talks back, steals from a blind man, and tells the most terrible lies, all because she somehow thinks this will get her back to her mother. Although at its heart it is a deeply spiritual and uplifting book, Gilly has often been banned for its heroine's sometimes ugly language. However, kids who come from similar situations and may not like to read often latch on to Gilly because Catherine Paterson has written her as a funny, angry, loyal, and true character. She drew on her own less than perfect experiences as a foster mother to imagine what it would be like to be an expendable child who knew only temporary homes.
Gilly Hopkins won the Newbery Honor, an award for outstanding children's literature in America. Interestingly, Jacob Have I Loved, her other work about an angry and not all together sympathetic character, went on to win the Newbery Medal.
In Jacob Have I Loved, Louise Bradshaw was born minutes before her twin on an island by the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Louise was healthy, squalling, and immediately put to one side so that everyone could concentrate on her frail twin, the adorable Caroline. As the years go by, Caroline grows from adorable to beautiful, and her amazing voice draws everyone's admiration. Somehow her struggling family makes the sacrifices so she can have professional music lessons. Louise feels this unfairness down to her bones, and it makes her bitter. The title, Jacob Have I Loved, comes from the Bible, when the Lord declares of another set of twins, "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated." Esau, like Louise, was the eldest twin and was seemingly doomed to a lesser existence.
Making Sense of the Bad Times
Even when things are going pretty darned well, for no apparent reason the most wrenching tragedy can strike a young person. In The Bridge to Terabithia, an outsider named Jess has finally found a best friend in Leslie, the new girl in town. She doesn't care that he's smaller than the rest of the boys in school. She thinks it's great that he likes to draw. Together they imagine a world in the nearby woods, just across a stream, that they call Terabithia. When tragedy hits, Jess must come to terms with his loss and decide whether or not Terabithia can ever exist for him again.
Katherine Paterson wrote Terabithia during an extremely trying period in her life. Her young son's best friend had been killed instantly by a lightning strike, and she was facing a diagnosis of cancer. As in many of her books, Paterson channeled those deep emotions into a work that has left an indelible mark on the hearts of many young people. Terabithia is sometimes the focus of book banning for its fantasy elements as well as its realistic depiction of pain and suffering.
The Same Stuff as Stars, a 2002 Publishers' Weekly Best Book of the Year, finds eleven-year-old Angel Morgan abandoned, with her sometimes tiresome baby brother, on a farm in Vermont in the custody of her crusty grandmother. Angel's always been the one to look after Bernie. Now, she's got Bernie and Grandma to take care of, which she is willing to do, but her grandmother's frailty and bad temper make it all the more difficult. But she adjusts, spending some happy times with the mysterious Star Man, until the day her loony mother secretly returns, but only for Bernie.
Katherine Paterson is a great reader. When she was younger, her mother read classic children's stories to her, and Katherine taught herself to read before she attended school. The school library was her favorite hang out during the difficult years. She is especially drawn to Bible stories and mythologies. She rewrote Parzival, a favorite tale of King Arthur's times, for modern audiences, and she used it as her basis for the book, Park's Quest, a story about a boy and his newly found half-sister trying to discover the truth about their father who died in Vietnam. After reading his father's books, Park realizes that this search is very much like a quest of one of King Arthur's knights, and he daydreams his search as it would have been in medieval times.
Katherine Paterson on Writing for Children
She's never written an autobiography and never intends to as it would make all the important people in her life seem so much less significant than they are. She has, however, gifted us with several books that have insight into her thoughts. Gates of Excellence (now out of print), The Spying Heart, and The Invisible Child contain a wealth of information for children's writers and those who appreciate them. Her style in these books is wonderfully friendly and approachable. She discusses many of the significant passages of her books, lessons she has learned from her family, and what she feels is important when writing for children, as well as other authors who have influenced her. The Invisible Child is mostly composed of speeches and articles that have appeared elsewhere, and their corresponding conciseness and directness make them quite valuable.
Stories of Faith
It would be remiss to discuss Katherine Paterson's works without mentioning her deep-held Christian beliefs. As noted previously, she was a minister's daughter who in time taught at a religious school and married a minister. Her first book, written when she was a new mother, was Who Am I?, a gentle religious guide for young people.
Some of her most poignant works are the short stories she wrote for her husband to use at his Christmas services to audiences of all ages. They are not your typical sermonettes, as shown here in the opening from "Maggie' s Gift" in Angels & Other Strangers:
"It all started because Mr. McGee didn't want to spend Christmas under a palm tree with a hula girl."
She compiled another book of these tales, A Midnight Clear: Stories For the Christmas Season. With her husband, John Paterson, she has co-authored several books, both religious and not: Images of God, short retellings of Bible stories with glowing illustrations, and Blueberries For the Queen, a family story from her husband's childhood, told in picture book format.
Click here for a list of all of Katherine Paterson's works that are owned by the Central Rappannock Regional Library.
Articles on Katherine Paterson's life and criticism of her works appear in the databases Biography Resource Center, Literature Resource Center, and Infotrac Student Edition. Have your CRRL library card ready to use these databases for free.
Author Studies Homepage from Scholastic
A biography and link to a transcript of an interview she gave.
Creative Quotations from Katherine Paterson
"To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another," and other inspiring quotes. Includes sources.
Terabithia.com: The Official Site of Author Katherine Paterson
Has plot summaries for many of her books, a short autobiography of the author with photos, an online interview, a list of her many awards, and a list of her upcoming appearances.