Children's Author/Illustrator Biographies
October 31, 1932 -
1995 Ludington Award Winner
"Katherine (Womeldorf) Paterson." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007.
Photograph provided by HarperCollins.
Two-time Newbery Medal winner Katherine Paterson writes of children in crisis, at the crossroads of major decisions in their lives. Her youthful protagonists turn "tragedy to triumph by bravely choosing a way that is not selfishly determined," according to M. Sarah Smedman in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "They embody the theme of redemption through sacrifice of oneself and one's ambitions," Smedman noted, "a theme that resounds convincingly, never cliched, never preached, always with the force of fresh discovery." Paterson's delicate touch with emotionally heavy topics such as death and familial jealousy sets her apart from other problem book authors. "The distinctive quality of Paterson's art," commented Smedman, "is her colorful concision. Whether she is narrating or describing, her mode is understatement, her style pithy. She dramatizes, never exhorts. . . . (She is) a major artist, skilled, discerning, and compassionate."
Smedman might also have added humorous. Paterson's wry understatement saves her work from sentimentality. In books such as Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, she tackles serious themes head on, but always with compassion and strong storytelling skills. In others, such as The Great Gilly Hopkins, her humor and wit are showcased. Paterson establishes a powerful identification with the reader because she so strongly believes what she writes. "Why do I keep writing stories about children and young people who are orphaned or otherwise isolated or estranged?" Paterson asked in Theory into Practice. "It's because I have within myself a lonely, frightened child who keeps demanding my comfort. I have a rejected child, a jealous and jilted adolescent inside who demands, if not revenge, a certain degree of satisfaction. I am sure it is she, or should I say they, who keep demanding that I write for them."
Paterson often writes about children who are orphaned or estranged from their parents, teens who isolate themselves or who associate only with one or two close friends. These recurring situations reflect the instability of the author's childhood. "If I tell you that I was born in China of Southern Presbyterian missionary parents, I have already given away three chief clues to my tribal memory," Paterson once wrote in Horn Book. The third of five children, Paterson spent her early years in China, repatriating to the United States by the onset of World War II. Chinese being her first language, Paterson learned English with a distinct British accent, and dressed in missionary hand-me-downs--a sure recipe for ridicule from her classmates in North Carolina where the family resettled. Paterson, bereft of friends, found consolation in the school library and in books. Perennially the new kid in school--the family moved fifteen times in thirteen years--Paterson learned survival skills on the playground and delved even further into her private world of books and began writing her own stories. She was a self-confessed outsider and "weird" kid. "I'm sure there are plenty of fine writers who have overcome the disadvantage of a normal childhood and gone on to do great things," Paterson wrote in Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children. "It's just that we weird little kids do seem to have a head start."
After high school, Paterson attended King College in Bristol, Tennessee, majoring in English literature. A year of teaching in a rural Virginia school followed, then a master's degree in education, and finally missionary work in Japan. Until that time her only contact with the Japanese had been with conquering soldiers when she was a child in war-torn China. But the four years she spent in Japan were a revelation for her, and she grew to love the country and its people. Paterson's experiences in Japan figured prominently in her first books, written several years later. In 1961 she returned to the United States, married, and began raising a family of four children, two of whom were adopted. Slowly she turned to writing as a private solace at the end of long and hectic days. Her literary career officially began with works for church school curricula. When finished with the project, she turned her hand to fiction, her first love. Seven years later, she had what she considered publishable material.
Paterson's first three books are historical fiction, set in Japan. The twelfth century and its civil wars are the setting for The Sign of the Chrysanthemum and Of Nightingales That Weep, while her third novel, The Master Puppeteer, is a mystery set in eighteenth-century Osaka during a great famine. All three books deal with teenagers who are either orphaned or have lost one parent and who must make it on their own in exceptionally difficult times. In The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, young Muna experiences the loss of his mother and tries without success to find his samurai father, whom he would know by the tattoo of a chrysanthemum on his shoulder. Although he does not find his father, in searching for him Muna travels a road of self-discovery that is not without its own rewards. Reviewing this first novel in Horn Book, Virginia Haviland noted that "the storytelling holds the reader by the quick pace of the lively episodes, the colorful detail, and the superb development of three important characters." Graham Hammond, writing in Times Literary Supplement, commented that "the book is about pain, wisdom, choosing, and growing up, but it is far from didactic." Of Nightingales That Weep, Paterson's second novel, deals with the fortunes of a young girl during the same period in Japan, and could, according to Margery Fisher of Growing Point, "satisfy adolescents and adults alike with its exotic flavour and mature handling of characters." Marcus Crouch, writing in Junior Bookshelf, noted his own initial reluctance to read a book dealing with twelfth-century Japan, but concluded that once started, the book was "hypnotically dominating."
Paterson's third novel, The Master Puppeteer, was her break-out book for which she won a National Book Award in 1977. Using the world of traditional Japanese puppet drama as a backdrop, Paterson wove a mystery around young Jiro and his best friend Kinshi, the son of a puppet master. Both boys are alienated from their fathers and find stability in their relationship with one another. Diana L. Spirt in her Introducing More Books: A Guide for the Middle Grades, described the book as "engrossing," and noted that "the author has blended a literate mix of adventure and Japanese history with a subtle knowledge of young people." Zena Sutherland, reviewing the novel in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, compared The Master Puppeteer to "intricate embroidery," and concluded with a terse, telling description: "good style, good story." The interplay of technique and content was also noted by Dora Jean Young in School Library Journal. "This novel . . . should be very popular for its combination of excellent writing and irresistible intrigue," Young declared.
Paterson turned to a contemporary rural American setting for her fourth novel, inspired by the death of her son David's favorite friend, who was struck by lightning. In Bridge to Terabithia, Jess and Leslie are fifth-graders whose loneliness brings them together as fast friends. They build a secret hideout and call it the magical kingdom of Terabithia. Heavy rains make it impossible to go there for a time, but after returning from a trip, Jess learns that Leslie has drowned trying to get to their hideout. Thereafter, he builds his own monument to the young girl. A Newbery Award winning novel, Bridge to Terabithia is "an unromantic, realistic, and moving reaction to personal tragedy," according to Jack Forman in School Library Journal. Jill Paton Walsh, reviewing the work in the Christian Science Monitor, commends it as "tender and poetic without ever being sentimental, written in simple language which never fails to carry the emotional charge." A novel with a lighter touch is The Great Gilly Hopkins, a somewhat comic view of a spunky foster child and the foster mother who ultimately wins the girl's affection. The novel was the result of Paterson's own experiences as a foster mother for two months. "This is quite a book!" proclaimed Ellen M. Davidson in Children's Book Review Service. "It confronts racism, sexism, ageism, I.Q.ism and just about all the other prejudices of our society." However, Bryna J. Fireside in New York Times Book Review took Paterson to task for this very plenitude of issues. Fireside commented that the novel would have been better "without mixing up race relations, learning disabilities, the important relationships between young and old, and a terrific young girl who gamely comes to terms with her status as a foster child." Yet most reviewers--and awards committees--responded more favorably. Natalie Babbitt, reviewing the book in Washington Post Book World, concluded that The Great Gilly Hopkins "is a finely written story. Its characters linger long in the reader's thoughts after it is finished."
Smedman, writing in Dictionary of Literary Biography, described Paterson's next novel, Jacob Have I Loved, as the author's "most complex." A second Newbery Award winner, this novel examines the feelings of a twin for her tremendously talented sibling. Set on a Chesapeake island at the outset of World War II, the story is about Sara Louise--known as Wheeze--and her delicate and musically talented sister Caroline, as related from the adult Wheeze's retrospective point of view. Paul Heins, writing in Horn Book, commented that Paterson had again "written a story that courageously sounds emotional depths." Christian Science Monitor contributor Betty Levin dubbed the book "a breathtaking novel for older children and adults" that is "full of humor and compassion and sharpness."
Paterson returned to Far Eastern settings for Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, set in nineteenth-century China. The story of a young peasant boy, Wang Lee, kidnapped by bandits, and his friendship with and growing love for Mei Lin, who helps to rescue him, the book is "on the epic scale" and is "skillfully crafted," according to Publishers Weekly. Mary Hobbs, writing in Junior Bookshelf, noted that the story "is beautifully told," and painlessly teaches the reader about details of "the traditional Chinese ways of life and thought."
Biblical and universal themes are at the heart of Paterson's books. Never preachy in tone, her stories nonetheless teach lessons--of humility, responsibility, and hope. As the author once wrote in Horn Book, "I have learned, for all my failings and limitations, that when I am willing to give myself away in a book, readers will respond by giving themselves away as well, and the book I labored over so long becomes in our mutual giving something far richer and more powerful than I could have ever imagined." Paterson elaborated on her artistic philosophy in an article for Writer, where she explains: "I keep learning that if I am willing to go deep into my own heart, I am able miraculously to touch other people at the core. But that is because I do have a reader I must try to satisfy--that is the reader I am and the reader I was as a child. I know this reader in a way that I can never know a generic target out there somewhere. This reader demands honesty and emotional depth. She yearns for clear, rhythmically pleasing language. . . . And above all she wants characters who will make her laugh and cry and bind her to themselves in a fierce friendship."
Come Sing, Jimmy Jo and Park's Quest are two of Paterson's works that have been praised for the honesty, emotional depth, and character recognition that the author seeks to impart. The former relates the story of eleven-year-old James Johnson, a small, timid child taken from his grandmother and their quiet Appalachian mountain home to join his musician family on stage and on television. The family's agent, who has recognized the child's gifted voice, changes James's name to Jimmy Jo and propels him toward stardom--while James must learn to deal with all that fame offers, including difficulties among jealous family members and with schoolmates. "Paterson captures the subtleties of childhood friendships in James's relationships with his classmates and records family interaction with a sensitive ear," noted School Library Journal contributor Cathryn A. Camper. A Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer similarly maintained that "Paterson creates strong characters and convincing dialogue, so that her story is effective even to those to whom the heavy emphasis on country music strikes no sympathetic chord." Denise M. Wilms of Booklist concluded that Come Sing, Jimmy Jo is "a rich, sensitive portrayal of growing up." Park's Quest is Paterson's tale of a boy's efforts to learn more about his father, who was killed in the Vietnam War. "In a multilayered novel filled with themes of reconciliation and renewal," wrote a Kirkus Reviews commentator, "(Paterson) draws parallels between a boy's quest for the family of his father, killed in Vietnam, and the Arthurian legends. . . . Park's quest is a fine journey of discovery, and the characters he meets are uniquely memorable." Many critics commented favorably on the author's skillful interweaving of Park's favorite reading matter--tales of Arthur and his knights--with the boy's own determination to solve the "mystery" of his father's life. The story is "a quest," according to Ethel L. Heins of Horn Book, "that will ultimately be fraught with emotional peril and stunning revelations." Heins added that Park's Quest "realistically presents a heroic response to a contemporary condition."
In addition to her longer juvenile and young adult novels, Paterson has written short stories for Christmas, gathered in Angels and Other Strangers and A Midnight Clear, and picture books, including the award winning Tale of the Mandarin Ducks along with The Smallest Cow in the World, The King's Equal, and The Angel and the Donkey. Two companion novels written in the 1990s are Lyddie and Jip: His Story, both set in New England in the mid- to late nineteenth century. In the first of the novels, thirteen-year-old Lyddie is hired out as a servant after the failure of the family farm. She soon flees this situation for the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, only to discover an even more grueling life in this new labor. She finds refuge in books and determines to get a college degree and pull herself out of her degrading existence. Voice of Youth Advocates contributor Mary L. Adams commented: "While the setting is interesting and authentic, the story and characterizations are Paterson at her best. Readers will carry the image of Lyddie with them for many years." Zena Sutherland, writing in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that Paterson maintained her "usual fine job" in blending narrative with history in this book of "industrial oppression, workers' and women's rights, and prejudice." Elizabeth S. Watson of Horn Book concluded that this was "a superb story of grit, determination, and personal growth." Lyddie makes another appearance in Jip: His Story, when as a teacher she helps young Jip, the son of a runaway slave, to escape his impoverished life and the miserable conditions of a poor farm for a new start in Canada. School Library Journal contributor Ellen Fader noted that readers of Jip would be rewarded "with memorable characters and a gripping plot," adding that "Paterson's story resonates with respect for the Vermont landscape and its mid-19th-century residents, with the drama of life during a dark period in our nation's history, and with the human quest for freedom." Mary M. Burns of Horn Book praised Paterson's work as "an intense, third-person novel that maintains its riveting pace from the opening chapter to the final moment when the protagonist triumphs over adversity."
A tale with a more contemporary setting, Flip-Flop Girl is Paterson's story of distraught nine-year-old Vinnie, grieving for the death of her father. Forced to move to her grandmother's house, Vinnie is an outsider at school, her only friend the mysterious "Flip-Flop Girl" Lupe, whose own father is in jail for having killed her mother. The positive attention of Vinnie's male teacher helps matters for a time, though his simultaneous concern for Lupe and his later engagement to be married both come as a betrayal to Vinnie. A Publishers Weekly commentator noted that Paterson is "a master of rendering the intensity of childhood emotions," adding that in Flip-Flop Girl she explores "the impact of grief and the slow process of healing." Similarly, Junior Bookshelf reviewer Marcus Crouch maintained that "Paterson is always particularly good at exploring relationships and probing the minds of troubled children," noting that Flip-Flop Girl "is a beautifully planned and developed narrative which treats the minor pains and embarrassments of childhood with due seriousness." Ellen Fader, in Horn Book, concluded that "all children will discover parts of themselves in Vinnie, and, like Vinnie, will know more about themselves when they get to the conclusion of this powerful story."
Preacher's Boy, set in New England in the 1800s, stars Robbie, the son of a preacher. She wrote it because, as she told Ilene Cooper in Booklist, "I was interested in seeing whether I could write a book about a good family that was believable." Cooper noted that the story is filled "with a refreshingly subtle wit" which echoes that of Mark Twain.
In The Invisible Child: On Reading and Writing Books for Children, Paterson discusses what Hazel Rochman in Booklist called "the big issues in stories for young people." The volume includes many of her acceptance speeches for major awards in children's literature.
For all the prizes and critical acclaim she has received, Paterson remains typically understated about her achievements. As she once commented in Theory into Practice, her aim, "like that of most writers of fiction, is to tell a story. My gift seems to be that I am one of those fortunate people who can, if she works hard at it, uncover a story that children will enjoy."
March 15, 2006: Paterson won the 2006 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for Literature. Source: The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, www.alma.se, March 15, 2006.
Born October 31, 1932, in Qing Jiang, China; daughter of George Raymond (a clergyman) and Mary (Goetchius) Womeldorf; married John Barstow Paterson (a clergyman), July 14, 1962; children: Elizabeth Po Lin, John Barstow, Jr., David Lord, Mary Katherine. Avocation: Reading, swimming, tennis, sailing. Education: King College, A.B. (summa cum laude), 1954; Presbyterian School of Christian, M.A., 1957; postgraduate study at Kobe School of Japanese Language, 1957-60; Union Theological Seminary, New York City, M.R.E., 1962. Politics: Democrat. Religion: "Presbyterian Church in the United States." Memberships: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN, Children's Book Guild of Washington. Addresses: Home--Barre, VT. Office--c/o E. P. Dutton, 2 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016.
Writer, 1966--. Public school teacher in Lovettsville, VA, 1954-55; Presbyterian Church in the United States, Board of World Missions, Nashville, TN, missionary in Japan, 1957-62; Pennington School for Boys, Pennington, NJ, Master of Sacred Studies and English, 1963-65.