The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Katherine Paterson -

Katherine (Womeldorf) Paterson has created many young adult novels which center on topics of sibling rivalry, death, accepting oneself and others, and several other pre-teen problems. Her characters find personal strength in the issues they confront. She uses different settings for the books, such as Japan, China, and the United States. Paterson also emphasizes the importance of environmental and cultural influences in each character's life.

Born in Tsing-Tsing, China in 1932, she lived there with her Southern Presbyterian missionary parents until the age of twelve. The daughter of a clergyman, she spent her childhood in China and the United States. Katherine attended King College and received her M.A. degree from Presbyterian School of Christian Education. Later she studied at Naganuma School of Japanese Language in Kobe, Japan and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She was a missionary from 1957 to 1962 and taught school in Lovettsville, Virginia, and Pennington, New Jersey. She married a Presbyterian minister in 1962, and began her writing career after the birth of her first son. The Patersons have four children and reside in Barre, Vermont.

Except for various religious works, her first three books are set in ancient Japan: Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973), Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), and The Master Puppeteer (1976). Katherine then turned to present-day setting (the United States) for her next books: Bridge to Terabithia (1977), The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978), and Jacob Have I Loved (1980). Paterson's talent continued in her essays for adults collected in The Gates of Excellence (1981), and The Spying Heart (1989).

Some of Paterson's other works include: Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom (1983), Come Sing Jimmy Jo (1985), The Tongue-Cut Sparrow (translator, 1987), Park's Quest (1988), The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks (1990), Lyddie (1991), The King's Equal (1992), The Big Book for the Planet (1993), and Flip-Flop Girl (1994). Using her missionary and teaching experiences, Paterson wrote several other religious books from the years of 1966 to 1986.

Katherine Paterson is one of the foremost contemporary writers of children's books. She has won numerous awards; which include two Newbery Medals, for Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, and two National Book Awards for The Great Gilly Hopkins and The Master Puppeteer. Paterson won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1978 for Bridge to Terabithia, and the Christopher Award for The Great Gilly Hopkins. Jacob Have I Loved was an American Book finalist, received the Kerlan Award in 1983, and won the University of Southern Mississippi de Grummond Collection Medallion in 1983.

Katherine Paterson has achieved great success in the field of young adult literature. Each of her award-winning books has been reviewed by several teachers, professors, and fellow writers. The following are reviews of three books: Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Jacob Have I Loved.



Jack Forman of the School Library Journal writes:

Not only is the story...unusual because it portrays a believable relationship between a boy and a girl at an age when same-sex friendships are the norm, but it also presents an unromantic, realistic, and moving reaction to personal tragedy. Jess and Leslie are so effectively developed as characters that young readers might well feel that they were their classmates. (Children's Literature Review, 1984, p. 233)

Writers of Literature and the Child, Bernice Cullinan, Mary Karrer, and Arlene Pillar have this to say:

The fact that children pass the book gently along to their best friends, and that its pages are dog-eared, testifies to the strong aesthetic response it elicits. Katherine Paterson enables readers to validate the depths of friendship, comparing her story with what they know... Paterson vividly contrasts the language of the Aarons family with that of the Burkes, and high- lights Jesse's growth with changes in his language... From the perspective of theme, the story centers on the importance of life continuing after tragedy. Rather than being destroyed by his friend's death, Jesse builds on the legacy Leslie leaves him and continues Terabithia... If looked at from an archetypal perspective, Jesse's journey toward maturity can be viewed as a variation of the quest. Leslie's death is analogous to the trials that must traditionally be endured before the goal, in this case maturity, is attained... Terabithia, in its metaphoric sense, stands for the world of possibilities sometimes reached through the painful process of maturation. There, Leslie helps Jesse to recognize his potential. (Children's Literature Review, 1984, p. 234-235)


Bryna Fireside of The New York Times Book Review had some mixed feelings about this book. She thinks that Katherine Paterson is able to create believable characters, but too many issues were attempted to be addressed in one book. She writes: It's not that The Great Gilly Hopkins isn't a good read, it's just that it would have been a better story 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. (Children's Literature Review, 1984, p. 236)

Another reviewer, Dennis Hamely, from The School Librarian, has a different opinion of the book: A tough, funny book with a tough, funny heroine. Recognizably from the Byars-Hamilton-Zindel School, the novel has a wry humor all its own. Gilly, Maime, William Ernest, and Mr. Randolph are all memorable and the central character's search for a moral basis has a poignancy which never becomes soft-centered. (Children's Literature Review, 1984, p.237)


Paul Heins from The Horn Book Magazine considers this book to be an emotional story, much like Bridge to Terabithia. He has this opinion:

Acknowledging her [Katherine Paterson] great interest in life in Chesapeake Bay, she describes the activities of the watermen living on a sparsely inhabited island during World War II and shows how the ethos of its isolated, strict Methodist community affected the thoughts and feelings of a rugged but sensitive and intelligent girl...The everyday realism, the frequent touches of humor, and the implications of the narrative speak for themselves; the Biblical allusions add immeasurably to the meaning of the story and illuminate the prolonged--often overwhelming--crisis in the protagonist's life. (Children's Literature Review, 1984, p. 240)

Patricia Liddie, a writer for The ALAN Review, thinks this book can appeal to a fourteen year old, a teacher, or even a forty year old person. Katherine Paterson's portrayal of Sara Louise's personal journey is very vivid and real. Liddie writes:

Jacob Have I Loved, like so many of Katherine Paterson's works, confirms the importance of the individual as set against the backdrop of all humanity. To her youthful audience, the author declares her belief in the one and in the whole and, in so doing, reminds them of their role in the larger scheme of things. This novel is indeed a classic, and the beauty of it is that it's so readable for and appropriate to the older junior-high student. At a time when vision of self is all-important, ninth graders are relieved to discover that most of us take years to find self and to accept the self we find, that acceptance is not an easy passage, and that, very often, the self we find is not the one we expected. (The ALAN Review, 1994, p. 51-52)

Most of the reviews of Katherine Paterson's books were favorable and helped give an insight into the mind of the author. There were many differences of opinions on themes, unifying elements, and reasoning behind some of the issues addressed in the books. As the award list shows, Katherine Paterson's books contain emotion, realism, purpose, and most of all, life.


Jacob Have I Loved is an outstanding book that deals with the difficulties of growing up. The story gets its title from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau -- Esau is tricked and gives up his birthright because he is hungry for the food his brother offers. Esau becomes jealous, bitter, angry, and feels so victimized, that he is believed capable of murdering his brother. The grandmother in the story often quotes from the Bible, Romans 9:13, "Jacob have I loved, and Esau have I hated." Jacob leaves and years later returns, makes peace with his brother, and Esau realizes he never really lost anything. Jacob Have I Loved is paralleled to the Jacob and Esau story. Sara Louise Bradshaw feels like Esau because her twin sister, Caroline, is weak, has been near death, and receives most of their parents' attention. It seems as if Caroline all she wants, or the best of everything, and Sara Louise (Wheeze) gets what is left. Caroline is set off the island to a college to study music, while Wheeze must remain on the island. She takes over her father's fishing boat, but when World War II ends, and Call (Wheeze's best friend from high school) returns, it is Caroline that he marries, not Wheeze. Sara Louise finally decides to leave the island and enter medical school to become a doctor. When she not accepted into medical school, she becomes a nurse-midwife in the mountains, marries a widower with three children, and has another son of her own. She at last comes to terms with her sibling rivalry when she delivers twins, one fragile and weak as Caroline had been.

Bridge to Terabithia is a realistic novel concerning friendship and death. Jesse has no one to share his interests--drawing and music until Leslie Burke moves into the neighborhood. When Jesse first meets her, he is practicing sprints in the cow pasture. He introduces himself, and tries to figure out if she is a boy or a girl because she is wearing jeans, sneakers, and has very short hair. They become friends very quickly and when school starts, she decides to join the races held on the playground, because Jesse takes part in them. She races the boys and wins, thus ending the races for the boys. They no longer want to race if a girl can beat them. Their friendship grows stronger and they decide to create a place where they can retreat, to get away from everything. They create a kingdom called Terabithia in the woods across the creek. To enter the kingdom, one must swing across the creek on a rope. At Terabithia, they defend the castle against enemies and even dragons. Leslie teaches Jesse to use his imagination and express his thoughts and feelings. Jesse and Leslie become closer and learn to love and depend on each other, as friends. For Christmas, Leslie gives Jesse a set of paints and a tablet of paper. Jesse gives Leslie a puppy which she names Prince Terrain or PT for short. PT becomes the guard and jester for the kingdom. One day while Jesse is out of town, Leslie decides to go to Terabithia by herself. She swings on the rope and it breaks. Leslie drowns in the creek. When Jesse returns, his mother and father tell him about Leslie. At first he finds it very hard to accept. He is angry, hurt that Leslie would leave him, and wonders how he will keep living. Leslie's parents move away, and, after May Belle follows him on a fallen log that crosses the ditch, gets stuck, and nearly falls, Jesse builds a bridge to Terabithia. He prepares to share his secret place with his sister, May Belle.

The Great Gilly Hopkins is novel about courage and maturity. Gilly (Galadriel) Hopkins, 11, is determined to dominate her new foster home, as she had done with all the others. Miss Ellis, her social worker, has placed her with Maime Trotter, an African-American woman with one other foster child, William Ernest. Gilly soon finds herself becoming attached to Mrs. Trotter, W. E. and Mr. Randolph ( a blind African-American man who eats dinner with them every night). Gilly does, however, still have this dream that one day her real mother will come back and take her home to live. She even writes a letter to her mother and tries, unsuccessfully, to run away to find her. Gilly is amazed when, out of nowhere, this woman arrives at Mrs. Trotter's and claims to be Gilly's grandmother from Virginia. She did not know about Gilly until Gilly's mother, Courtney, finally tells her. Although resisting, Gilly must go with her grandmother. Gilly finally sees her mother again, and her disillusion is complete when Courtney proves not to be the beautiful queen of Gilly's dreams, but is a resentful ex-hippy. Gilly calls Maime Trotter who gives her the courage to face the truth and continue life with her grandmother. Although the theme of the importance of love, rather than blood ties, in making a family is obvious, it is not belabored and the characters, although represent extreme types, are made to seem real and believable.


Katherine Paterson exhibits several common themes throughout her books, the main ones being family, love, reaching or trying to reach maturity, and friendship. Nearly all of her books contain humor in some form or another, whether it be open and broad, or subtle and less pronounced. Paterson's books also center around young adults and the issues that they face, how they try to cope with them, and the attempts to find solutions, or a way to accept and continue life.

Paterson keeps the theme of family running in the majority of her books, as well. The families may be broken ones, unexpected, or its members at odds with each other, but through it all, there is still love that binds the family together. Paterson also is sure to resolve the conflicts in her books. It may not always be the resolution the reader would expect or even like, but the reader is never left in limbo as to the outcome of the story.

The books written by Katherine Paterson are relevant to the age group she is writing for, and often times her books would interest an older age group, too. The plots are such that pre-teens can understand the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and many times, may have personally experienced a similar situation. Children of all ages can learn from her writings, enjoy them, and take something from them into their own lives.


1) Create a "Terabithia" of your own in the backyard, a closet, etc.
2) Families could trade children so the kids could experience foster care.
3) Students could draw pictures of what they think Terabithia looked like.
4) Write how you would feel if you lost your best friend.
5) Research difficulties of women getting into the medical field as doctors.
6) Describe the similarities and differences between Jesse and Leslie.
7) Compare/contrast Sara Louise and Caroline with Jacob and Esau.
8) Describe what makes a family and what the members do for each other.
9) Of the three books, describe which character you relate with the deepest.
10) Compare/contrast Caroline and Sara Louise.

Page compiled in part by: Brenda Otto

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