Bridge to Terabithia | Study Guide

Katherine Paterson

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Katherine Paterson | Biography

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Early Life

Katherine Womeldorf Paterson is the award-winning author of more than 30 books, most of them for children and young adults. She was born on October 31, 1932, in China where her parents were missionaries. When she was five years old, Japan invaded China in the buildup to World War II. "Those years were very scary years," said Paterson, who nonetheless loved life in China and hoped to be a missionary there herself someday. As the war escalated, Paterson and her family returned to the United States, where they spent time in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia. In fact Paterson moved 18 times before she turned 18. This traveling lifestyle influenced her later writing, with many of her books featuring characters who are outsiders or newcomers. In Bridge to Terabithia Leslie Burke plays this role as the new student at a rural Virginia school and a true "fish out of water."

Education and Family Life

Paterson attended Kings College in Bristol, Tennessee, where she studied English and American literature and graduated summa cum laude. She then spent a year in rural Lovettsville, Virginia, as a sixth-grade teacher. "Almost all my children were like Jesse Aarons," she has noted, referring to the main character of Bridge to Terabithia. From this experience Paterson drew inspiration for the setting and characters of that novel.

After college Paterson earned a master's degree in Bible and Christian education in Richmond, Virginia, at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Although she still dreamed of being a missionary, Americans were unable to travel to China at the time. Instead a friend persuaded her to pursue her missionary work in Japan. "I remembered the Japanese as the enemy," Paterson said. "They were the ones who dropped the bombs and then occupied the towns where I had lived as a child." Paterson was able to overcome these feelings, however, and grew to love the people of Japan, still aware of the sense of being an outsider. She remained there for four years before moving to New York for further schooling at Union Theological Seminary. While in New York, Paterson met her future husband, John Paterson, a Presbyterian pastor. They were married in 1962 and started a family that quickly grew to four children, two adopted and two biological.

Writing Career

It wasn't until 1964 that Paterson began her writing career in earnest. "The Presbyterian Church asked me to write some curriculum materials for fifth and sixth graders," she recalled. After taking two writing courses through a county adult education program, she began to write novels. Her first novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, published in 1973, was set in medieval Japan.

Soon afterward, an incident involving Paterson's children prompted her to write Bridge to Terabithia. When her son David was in second grade, his best friend, Lisa, was struck by lightning in an unexpected and freakish accident and died. Writing the novel helped Paterson come to terms with her grief over the young girl's death, and importantly for her, allowed her to help David do the same. It also allowed her to come to terms with her own mortality, as she had cancer at the time. She created parallels between her life and those of her characters. Like Jess, the protagonist, she was the middle child of five. Like Leslie, Jess's friend, she had experienced being the "new kid" at school who must find ways to fit in.

Published in 1977, Bridge to Terabithia quickly became a best seller and went on to earn numerous awards, including the American Library Association's prestigious Newbery Medal in 1978. Since then, however, the novel has regularly appeared on lists of banned books for various reasons. Some critics have objected to its use of swear words, to which Paterson has responded that her responsibility as a writer is "to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior." Other critics have objected to the heavy topics of the story, such as death and religion, finding them too adult or controversial for children. Nonetheless, the story has endured in popularity and remains widely read. It has been adapted for both television (1985) and film, with the screenplay of Disney's 2007 production cowritten by David Paterson.

In addition to novels, Paterson has written numerous other works, including fairy tales, Christmas stories, picture books, essays, speeches, and book reviews. Several of Paterson's stories, other than Bridge to Terabithia, have been adapted for television or film. She received a second Newbery Medal in 1981 for her young adult novel Jacob Have I Loved, two National Book Awards (1977 and 1979), the Hans Christian Andersen Medal (1998), and many other prestigious literary awards. In 2000 Paterson was named a "Living Legend" by the Library of Congress. Paterson resides in Vermont, where she continues to write and promote children's literacy.

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