Katherine Paterson and her husband live in Vermont and have four grown children. In addition to being a wife and mother, she has written many critically acclaimed books. Katherine has received a number of awards, including the Newbery Medal for Jacob Have I Loved and Bridge to Terabithia, as well as the National Book Award for The Master Puppeteer and The Great Gilly Hopkins. For more books by Katherine Paterson, click here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in China, my parents were missionaries with the Southern
Presbyterian Church, and I spent most of my first 8 years in China.
We were evacuated in '37 when the war between China and Japan began.
We went back but were evacuated again at the end of 1940; which probably
gives you my age! Then we lived mostly in the South-we didn't have
anyplace to go (like most refugees) when we first came back, so we moved
in with relatives in Lynchburg, Virginia. My father was called to
be a "missionary pastor" at the First Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem,
North Carolina. He gave that work up in '46 thinking we were going
to go back to China but then the communists came into power and we were
never able to go back. So I grew up mostly in the South; in Virginia,
North Carolina, West Virginia. I went to King College, a small Presbyterian
college, in Bristol, Tennessee. I taught school for a year in Lovettsville,
Virginia, and then went to the Presbyterian School of Christian Education
in Richmond, Virginia for two years before going out as a missionary to
You've had quite an interesting childhood!
Well, it was the only childhood I had, so it's hard to compare it with
anyone else's! It was a very rich childhood in many ways, but it
was a scary childhood too, because of the war. It was also a lonely
childhood when we came back to the States because I didn't really fit in
and wore clothes out of the missionary barrel. The fact that our
experiences were much broader and we were bilingual and all that stuff
doesn't cut much ice with the normal grade school gang!
Did those early experiences of living in a different culture influence
Oh yes, absolutely. I wouldn't be the kind of writer I am, and
of course none of us would be the writers we are, without our own personal
experiences; that's what turns us into who we are and the writers we become.
I've written novels set in Japan and China, I've translated Japanese stories,
but I don't think it's simply that-I think that you view life differently
if you've had a broader experience than most people. I think it helps
to be bilingual when you're young because your brain works differently
from people that only have one language. It's an enormous advantage
for a writer, but when you're a child, you don't know it's an advantage-you
think it's a handicap!
How did you get into writing Children's Literature?
I was asked by the Presbyterian Church to write a book for fifth and
sixth graders. I had been given a fellowship to study Christian Education
and I went to Union, New York, because that's where I was told the most
exciting thinking in Christian education was going on at the time.
I met my husband there, a young bachelor Presbyterian minister at the time,
so, instead of going back to Japan, I got married. When the church
asked me to write for them, I thought "Well, they gave me a scholarship,
I guess I owe it to them!" so I wrote Who Am I?. By the time the
book was published, we had three small children and we were working to
adopt our second daughter. I thought "I'm not going to go back to
teaching school anytime soon, so I'd love to write!" I didn't realize
that it wasn't quite that simple! Between the time Who Am I? and
my first novel was published, I received many rejections-I think
I had one short story published during those seven years, but that was
Have you ever thought of writing adult fiction?
I've written some short stories for adults. I think gifts are
limited, and I think my gift is to write for kids. I seem to be asking
the same questions that children ask and care about the things that children
care deeply about so I donít feel the need to validate myself by writing
for adults. Some writers think, "Well, nobody will ever take you
seriously unless you write for adults," and I think, "Children take me
seriously and they're people!" I'm happy to be a children's writer;
I've written essays for adults and books like Images of God and Consider
the Lilies (that my husband and I did together), which are really for all
ages-not specifically for children. But I think of myself as a children's
writer and I'm happy to be that.
You have been published by "secular" publishers, and many Christian
parents may not realize that you are a Christian. How has your faith
affected your writing?
C.S. Lewis said that the book can't be what the writer is not, and I
think you write out of who you are. In fiction, you don't start out
to teach a lesson (because that's propaganda, that's not fiction), you
start out to tell a story. What you believe deeply will come out
and the story will reveal you, whether you mean for it to or not!
It's interesting how some people say, "I love your stories because they're
not Christian," and I'll have other people say, "I love your stories because
they are so deeply Christian!"
Do you think there's a difference between the "secular" and
I would write the same for any market, because I write from who I am.
I wouldn't change the way I write because I'm trying to tell as truthful
and as beautiful a story as I possibly can. Beauty in that sense
is not pretty, it's at what I would call beauty at the deepest level;
harmony and clarity and truth.
Where does your inspiration for stories come from?
From everywhere! In the case of Jacob Have I Loved (which was
different from almost anything else I've done), I was suddenly aware of
grown-ups, who were my friends and intelligent people, suddenly saying
things like "Well, if my mother hadn't loved him best my life would have
been different," or betraying a great hurt from some childhood jealousy.
I thought "Gee, do you want to spend the rest of your life crippled by
your childhood jealousies?" Because I'm very biblically oriented,
I started thinking about it and I noticed that the first crime is fratricide.
When you look at the Bible, you see not only Cain and Abel, but you also
see Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and his brothers. In
our modern day we think about the relationships between parent and child
as being the most important ones, but I think for many people, the relationships
between their siblings and themselves are the most formative and often
the most crippling. So I thought it would make a great story.
I had a lot of trouble writing it though. I think part of the reason
was because I started with an idea instead of a character. It wasn't
until I found out who Louise was and where she lived that I could really
begin to write the story.
What about settings? For instance, Jacob Have I Loved has such a
specific setting and way of life. Did you do lots of research?
Yes, it was like writing a novel set in Japan. I did an enormous
amount of research with that book. I lived within an hour of the
Chesapeake Bay, but I'd never lived on an island in the middle of it!
It was one of the most difficult books I've ever written. People
often ask me which book is my favorite (which would be very hard for me
to decide), but I think if you ask me which is the one I'm most proud of,
it would probably be Jacob. I realized I had set myself an impossible
task, and after three years and many rewrites, I looked at it and thought,
"I think I did what I meant to do!"
Your books have well-developed characters, and I always wonder when
authors say they have a mind and life of their own. Can you comment
When I was learning how to write, I would go hear a writer speak and
I would think "I am never going to talk hokey like those people talk!"
But you know, there is something somewhat mysterious about the process.
When you start talking about it, there is a great danger that you will
fall into hokieness, but I think about characters as people that you're
getting to know in the process of writing about them. That is one
reason why it takes me a while to write a book. I rewrite a lot because
every time I go through it, I've gotten to know the characters a little
better. I get to know what they would do or say in situations, and
when I go through the book again, I think, "they would never say that!
Why did I ever think this person would say that?" because I know them better.
I hear writers all the time talking about their characters taking over,
and I'm not sure I've ever had that experience. I've thought a character
was going to do one thing, and then realized it just didn't fit, or it
wasn't right for the character. I try to be true to what the character
would do or say, which often gets me in trouble because some people don't
approve of what my characters do and say! But I feel , as a writer,
your first duty is to your characters--to be true to them because that's
how you can truly speak to a reader. The reader's got to know you're
being honest. I think a lot of people (these are people I care about
deeply-I'm very much in the middle of the church and my faith means an
enormous amount to me) feel that somehow characters in books should set
an example for children, but it doesn't work. Even in the Bible,
the heroes of the faith do not set us a good example, but the writers of
the Bible are totally honest about these people so that they have power
for us. Therefore we can believe that God calls even us! So
I think it's very important for the writer to be honest about character.
Do you find you do get a lot of flack because of these characters?
Yes, I do. I understand it, because I have four children, and
I wanted to protect my children from things that I thought might be harmful
for them. But as a parent, I finally had to realize that you can't
protect your children; that you have to try to help them build an inner
life so that they're strong in the midst of the world that we live in.
Is there a certain age level that you feel you connect with best?
The publisher generally says that my novels are for ages 10 to 14.
I think that maybe something like Flip-Flop Girl might be for a little
bit of a younger reader, although it's a tough story too. I seem
to write tough stories! One of the problems is that there are some
children who are very good readers, but that doesn't mean that they're
emotionally ready for every book. I think teachers and parents can
be wise about that. I never told my children they couldn't read a
book, but sometimes I would say "You know, I think you would enjoy that
book a lot more if you would just wait a couple of years."
Why did you write the book Bridge to Terebithia?
My youngest son's best friend was a little girl named Lisa Hill and
she was struck and killed by lightning. It happened a few months
after I had been diagnosed with cancer, so the kids were already very,
very upset. It was such an awful way for her to die because we all
have this image of lightning coming down from heaven as the judgment of
God. David said to me one night when he was saying his prayers "I
know now why Lisa had to die" and I said "What do you mean," and he said
"Well, it's not because Lisa was bad, because Lisa wasn't bad, it's because
I'm bad, and now God's going to kill Mary, (his little sister) and He's
gonna kill you, and then He's gonna kill daddy, and He's gonna kill Lin
and John," and he went down the list of everybody he loved. I promise
you, that's not the God we have taught our children about! But it
was such a traumatic, horrible thing that he was just trying to find some
meaning and come to some understanding of how it could have happened.
I wrote the story because I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I wanted
to bring back Lisa from the dead, or at least I wanted to comfort my child.
I couldn't do either of those, and so I wrote the story to try to make
meaning out of a tragedy that didn't seem to have meaning for him.
You have some wonderfully beautiful picture books. How does
the collaboration process work with an artist?
The reason I did The Angel and the Donkey and my husband and I did Images
of God was because Alexander Koshkin, a Russian illustrator, went to Nina
Ignatiwicz (who was the Russian speaking editor that I had worked with
on The King's Equal), and said "I grew up in the Soviet Union, and I was
never allowed to illustrate scenes from Scripture. Pease find me
somebody who will do something from the Bible that I can illustrate."
So Nina called me and I said "I don't know, Nina." I have always
resisted retelling Bible stories because I think the Bible does it better.
She said "I think he loves to do angels, wouldn't you like to do it?"
I said that I didn't know but I thought it might be fun to retell the story
of Balaam's ass. I think he did a super job with the illustrations.
He wanted to do more, and so I thought that maybe it could be something
John (my husband) and I would like to do together. When we proposed
Images of God to Mr. Koshkin, he said "That's my book! That's my dream
book!" It's lovely to be doing something that somebody's been wanting
to do for a long long time.
Did you ever think, when you wrote your first book, that you would
win 2 Newbery Medals and many other awards?
No. I didn't think it'd ever get published! I was very much
in the "I'm going to write, but no one will ever publish me" stage for
many years. In fact, when I started winning prizes, I just thought
"Why me?" sort of like Job in reverse; I couldn't figure it out!
Do you feel that success has changed you?
Well, you really should ask people who have known me before and after,
but I don't think I've changed basically. I think Newbery medals
mean that life is easier for you because you have more money. We
were able to send our kids to college without the kind of agony that it
would have been otherwise, so in that sense, it makes a difference.
It's changed my life in that it's given me more opportunities. I
just got back from Cuba and if I weren't known in the world of children's
books, I wouldn't be invited to Cuba or Venezuela or Colombia, or Indonesia.
All of those opportunities have come along with the success and mean a
great deal to me because I've met people that I would have never have had
the opportunity to meet, and who have had a profound affect on my life.
But, you know, I'm still as sassy as I ever was!
Is there anything else you wanted to say?
I really am aware that God has given me a gift and I'm very grateful
for it, but I don't think that I'm unique in that. I am very eager
for people to know that God expects all of us to be co-creators and to
open our lives to be in partnership for the good work He wants done in
the world. I'm very grateful to have found my particular work fairly
early on. I think that it's for each of us to see what particular
thing God has for us, and I don't think that, in the economy of God, my
gift is better than anyone else's. I think it's really worldly to
think that one person's gift is better than somebody else's.