Whether she is writing about the Japan of centuries ago, sisters in World War II or two best friends in the late 70’s, Paterson’s fiction has remained timeless because her beloved characters and treasured books all have one thing in common: shared rites of passage, common experiences of growing up and shared emotions. Yes her characters may be different nationalities and live at a different periods of history, but no matter what kind of backdrop Paterson gives us she always keeps the focus on the protagonist and the journey of self-discovery he or she is making. Whether we are reading about a character with a deep internal struggle, family issues or provocative subject matter, Paterson has her finger on the pulse of what is relevant and she keeps us readily engaged. This is why her books are still relevant to young readers now and will continue to be in the future.
Katherine Paterson was born in China and grew up there as well as in Virginia and North Carolina. As a young woman, she spent a few years in Japan and studied both Chinese and Japanese culture. Her first novel was The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, a Japanese fairy tale based on her studies while abroad. Another novel with this same theme of Japanese culture was The Master Puppeteer, published a few years later and the first of her books to win a National Book Award. In the story, a man named Saburo is a kind of Japanese Robin Hood, robbing the wealthy and helping the poor of Osaka. Meanwhile, a young apprentice named Jiro is learning how to be a puppeteer and encounters a variety of characters along the way. Another of her novels that includes these themes of Japanese culture during a certain historical period is Of Nightingales that Weep.
Within Paterson’s works there is a recurring theme of troubled parent-child relationships. We see this in Terabithia with Jess and his father, in Jacob Have I Loved with Sara Louise and her parents, and in the absent mothers found in both Gilly Hopkins and The Same Stuff as Stars. In this book, we meet a girl named Angel Morgan whose father is in jail and whose mother essentially abandons them at a Vermont farmhouse with a grandmother they hardly know. Many of the characters in Paterson’s novels have their coming-of-age experiences not just through profound and tragic things happening to them but also through the strained and sometimes nonexistent relationships they have with their parents. This is reflected most strongly in the character of Sara Louise (“Wheeze” as everyone calls her), who feels that her parents have unjustly ignored her in favor of her younger sister Caroline. Paterson has even chosen the name with care: the name Caroline literally means happiness and joy, while the meaning of Louise means a warrior (no one in the novel seems to acknowledge Sara Louise’s first name, only calling her by the nickname or Louise, except for Captain Wallace). Sara Louise feels that not only has her sister stolen every opportunity away from her, but she honestly believes that her parents do not love her or need her as much as Caroline. In Terabithia, Jess’s mother basically ignores him while his father’s attitude toward him ranges from indifference to irritation. He wants Jess to be just like him, a working-class man on a farm with a spouse and 4 or 5 kids, but Jess wants more than this. He is more talented and intelligent than this, and Jess’s father know this and is in a way jealous of his abilities.
In Gilly Hopkins and Stars, both protagonists are young girls of about 11 or 12 who are essentially abandoned by their mothers. While Sara Louise feels emotionally abandoned, both Gilly and Angel (of Stars) are quite literally left to their own devices. Both girls are smart and wise beyond their years, although in terms of personality, Angel is much more even-tempered and responsible while Gilly is thoughtless, angry and often immature. Angel hopes for something better while it’s hard for Gilly to see past planning to make a trip to reunite with her mother. When Gilly finds out the mother was paid to come to see her, she gets a rude awakening and realizes how much she loves her foster parent, while Angel has already had this rude awakening. While the nature of life dictates that kids always break away from their parents (usually at 18 when going off to college), these characters feel this separation at a very young age. These experiences make them strong or bitter or sometimes both (as in the case of Sara Louise).
Another interesting characteristic of Katherine Paterson’s work is her use of illustrations to enhance her books. Paterson herself does not illustrate her own books but has worked with such illustrators as Haru Wells (most notably on The Master Puppeteer, which won the 1977 National Book Award), Donna Diamond (Bridge to Terabithia) and John Rocco (The Flint Heart). Something to note is that her earlier books have black and white illustrations while The Flint Heart illustrations are in full color and much more detailed. The simple yet compelling illustrations found in Bridge to Terabithia really strike an emotional chord for the reader.
In the image on the left, we can see Jess and Leslie standing in the woods, Leslie with her arms extended reflecting the carefree, open attitude she held toward life, Jess with his arms crossed, not yet ready to embrace all that life has to offer but willing to let Leslie show him what true wonderment and joy means. As the reader you see the darkness of the trees and their silhouettes, and from the simple lines and the way the characters are standing you can tell they are sharing a simple moment, one that will be remembered forever. The illustration on the right is especially poignant because it is after Leslie has just died and you can clearly see Jess’s father holding him up as he sobs out his anguish. In this way the reader can see that father and son are reconnecting emotionally but also sharing a physical closeness they haven’t shared in years. The illustrations in this book serve to draw you further into the story and into the emotional lives of the characters.
In The Flint Heart, the colorful, detailed illustrations serve a different purpose: to create a sense of enchantment and to add a sense of magic to the story. The Flint Heart is a departure from other Katherine Paterson works because instead of being a reflection of real life, it is completely immersed in a world of fairies, talking animals and other surreal elements.
In addition to being a wonderful writer, Katherine Paterson has always embraced controversial subjects. In her book The Great Gilly Hopkins, a precocious, brash 11-year-old named Galadriel (“Gilly”) is a child used to being shuttered from one foster home to another. Gilly’s mother, Courtney, is a former hippie who hardly ever interacts with Gilly except to send her an occasional postcard. Gilly is highly intelligent but also angry and bitter because of constantly going from one family to the next. Instead of focusing on the fact that her mother basically abandoned her, she tends to idealize her and schemes to scrape together enough money for a bus ticket so that she can join her in San Francisco.
In the meantime, Gilly is sent to live with Mrs. Trotter and her seven-year-old son. In this foster home she also meets the blind black neighbor, Mr. Randolph, who has an impressive library where Gilly finds a hidden stash of money (which she promptly steals). Trotter seems to have endless patience with Gilly in spite of her antics. According to the American Library Association’s website, this book is #21 on the list of Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000 (Bridge to Terabithia also resides on this list at #9). What makes the book particularly striking is Gilly’s attitude toward black people, whom she refers to as “colored.” She is even taken aback when she discovers that her teacher at school, Miss Harris, is black and tries to get under her skin by giving her a racially derogatory card. What is interesting is that Gilly’s prejudice seems not to come from a genuine hatred of those different from her in terms of race but from her own ignorance of other cultures. Paterson has also explored other controversial subjects in her fiction including childhood death (Bridge to Terabithia) and sexual awakening (Jacob Have I Loved). As journalist Motoko Rich wrote in a recent New York Times article: “Ms. Paterson does not shy from dark themes that some have considered inappropriate for young readers. And she has a finely tuned sense of the whirling, complex and not-always-sunny emotions of children.”
Katherine Paterson is one of the most successful children’s authors of the past 40 years. She has written such beautiful novels as Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, both of which won the Newbery Medal. Paterson’s books are of particular importance to the world of children’s literature because they tend to deal with characters who are intelligent and wise beyond their years, facing some personal or spiritual crisis, set against the backdrop of a certain point in history, from World War II to the social tumult of the late 70’s.
Jacob Have I Loved is especially poignant in its tale of twin sisters, one dark, moody and introspective, the other blonde, bubbly and full of joy. Sara Louise Bradshaw hates her golden sister Caroline because she sees her as representative of everything Sara herself isn’t, and she feels that as the firstborn she has had everything taken away from her. The story reflects that of Jacob and Esau in the Bible, as everyone’s attention and love is devoted to Caroline while Louise tends to get ignored and drowns herself in work and inner sorrow in order to deal with the pain. The story is set in a tiny island off the Maryland Coast during World War II, and as the world grows and changes so does Sara and Caroline, as well as their family and friends.
The story takes place over a period of about five years. Sara struggles with puberty and a grandmother who relentlessly teases and belittles her. She also works alongside island men to make money for her family, hoping to save enough so that someday she can make her great escape off of the island. Call Purnell, Sara’s best friend, goes to fight in WWII and when he returns, she is attracted to his sudden maturity. They converse and she begins to consider the possibilities…only to discover that he has proposed to Caroline. Sara is also resentful of the fact that Caroline seems to monopolize the attentions of Captain Wallace, a native islander who has returned after not being on the island for decades. She continues to express her hatred, bitterness and resentment toward Caroline throughout the novel, but it is only at the end of the book when Caroline and Call marry and Sara attends the University of Maryland, beginning her own life away from her family and out in the larger world, that she can begin to have a sense of peace. She becomes a midwife, marries and helps to deliver a set of twins, and so she has come full circle mentally and emotionally.
These hippies gave birth to Gen X’ers, who were the first generation to feel like they could talk to their parents and have a better relationship than parent-child dynamics of 20 years earlier. During a scene near the beginning of the book, Jess and Leslie (the aforementioned boy and girl) are singing together in music class, and Jess ponders why he was so scared to talk to the free-spirited, imaginative Leslie. (Direct quote from the book: “The Vietnam War was over and it was supposed to be okay to like peace again.”) Jess has a crush on Miss Edmunds, the music teacher, that others condemn for being a “hippie” and a “peacenik.” Leslie has a unique relationship with her parents, quite different from the relationship Jess has with his. Leslie calls her parents by their first names and relates to her young father as more of a peer than a parent. Her parents don’t own a television, discuss French politics easily and don’t embrace religion. Jess’s father, on the other hand, is more traditional and conservative, and wants his son to be more masculine instead of focusing on drawing and his art. Leslie and Miss Edmunds, as well as Leslie’s parents, help to bring out his creative side and show him that there is a better side of life than dealing with his parents and his obnoxious sisters. When tragedy strikes, Jess must find the strength to carry on and to take what he has learned to grow and change. These are his first steps toward true maturity.
In spite of the obvious cultural overtones of the late 70′s and outdated historical references, Bridge to Terabithia remains a timeless book in its story of love, loss and death. The main theme of the story is overcoming obstacles and finding happiness within one’s own creativity and imagination. In its own subtle way, it also embraces the tension between the free thinkers of the Baby Boomer and Gen X eras versus more patriarchal, traditional views. Interestingly, the female characters in the book are the most important: Miss Edmunds, who encourages him to express himself; Leslie, who shows him the true meaning of friendship; and his little sister, May Belle, who indirectly teaches him to be protective and to take care of others. This is fitting as this particular period in history was also known for its feminism.
To read Paterson’s words is to know her characters, to know their hearts and inner motivations. Again we see an internal struggle as Jess tries to both please his father and do what he really wants to do, which is explore his art and rise above his circumstances. Jess is much like Sara Louise in Jacob Have I Loved in this way, in that he is searching for understanding but also for the encouragement he needs to pursue his dreams and the courage to work hard so that he doesn’t toil in a meager lifestyle for the rest of his days.
In 2007, an updated movie version of Bridge to Terabithia was released (with Josh Hutcherson of The Hunger Games fame as Jess and Zooey Deschanel as Miss Edmunds, a perfect casting choice).
Katherine Paterson discusses her inspiration for Bridge to Terabithia as well as her love for reading: