Meeting Katherine Paterson is a delight. She is unpretentious, vivacious, very funny and interested in almost everything.
Katherine Womeldorf Paterson was born on October 31, 1932 in Qing Jiang, China, the middle child of five children. Her parents were missionaries and she moved with them eighteen times before she was eighteen. Perhaps that's part of the reason for her inclusion of outsiders as main characters in many of her books. Her first college degree was in English from King College in Bristol, Tennessee. She taught sixth grade for a year in Lovettsville, Virginia and then she herself became a missionary in Japan. (She was unable to get back into China after the Communist take-over.) She returned to the United States to attend the Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1962. There, she met and married John Paterson.
The Patersons' have four children. Elizabeth Po Lin was born in Hong Kong and came to them at age two. Mary Katherine Nah-he-sa-pe-chi-a is an Apache-Kiowan child who was adopted by the Patersons when she was five months old. The other two children, John and David, were born to them. She wrote her first novel when she was a student in an adult education creative writing class.
Paterson's work is particularly successful in portraying strong characters who, as mentioned above, are often set apart or cast out from society, sometimes physically apart. Jip, for instance, as an infant was literally cast out of the careening wagon by his mother. Leslie, in Bridge to Terabithia, is a newcomer and viewed with suspicion by many of her classmates. Jimmy Jo is cast off by his parents until the agent finds him. Mason, in Flip Flop Girl, sets himself apart by his refusal to talk. Gilly takes pride in making herself undesirable and in making her host families so miserable they cast her out. Louise, in Jacob Have I Loved is spurned by her grandmother. Lyddie is deserted first by her father and then by her mother.
Each of these outcasts as well as many of Paterson's other characters are strong in spite of or because of their alienation and are often on a quest to discovery their own identities. Some are seeking a parent whom they have idealized only to find on confronting them, that he or she is far from ideal. Her characters, often female, finding their previous goals unreachable or undesirable, set other goals for themselves and, at the end of the novel, are setting off on these, often more reasonable aims. In short, as the watchword in Lyddie says, "We can still hop(e)."
Bridge to Terabithia. Illustrated by Donna Diamond. (HarperCollins, 1977 ISBN 0-690-01359-0. Hardcover)
This Newbery winner is a tale of friendship, of secrets and of grief. Leslie is a newcomer to the fifth grade and a threat to Jess's title as fastest runner in fifth grade. In spite of this a close friendship results which changes them both and together they create an imaginary land, that of Terabithia, in a secret place in the woods. This magic spot becomes a tragic one when Leslie, visiting it alone, falls to her death. The bridge that Jess builds, after Leslie's death, is symbolic and proof of the transformation that friendship created.
Come Sing, Jimmy Jo. (Dutton, 1985 ISBN 0-525-67167-6. Hardcover)
James's family sings country and, at the beginning of the book, he is living with his grandmother who has been retired from the group. He sings and plays guitar and comforts himself with his music but seldom plays for others. His parents and Uncle Earl are on the road. His flighty mother is ambitious and has hired a manager who insists that Jimmy Jo (then called James) join them as a star attraction although his stage fright is considerable but his talent outshines the rest. His mother is jealous of the acclaim he receives and is beginning to flirt with Uncle Earl and to do some recording with Earl, apart from the group. Jimmy Jo's role becomes a difficult one as the tensions in the group escalate.
Flip-Flop Girl. (Puffin, 1996 ISBN 0-14-037679-8. Paperback)
A child, so disturbed by his father's death and his feeling that something he said caused that death, becomes an elective mute and, within 120 pages, elects to speak. Such is Paterson's skill that we believe it could happen. In the throes of her own grief and guilt over her father's death, Vinnie shouted at her young brother Mason when he said he was glad his father was dead because he had smelled bad. After a futile attempt to get his father to wake up at the funeral, Mason has ceased to talk. His behavior at the new school is difficult to say the least and causes Vinnie much embarrassment. Fortunately for Vinnie, she has a wonderfully supportive teacher, Mr. Clayton, who runs a humane and child-centered classroom in which he is trying to build the concept of cooperation and individual worth. An intriguing and well-developed character in this classroom is Lupe, a Latino child, who is also befriended by Mr. Clayton although not by the others in the classroom. This is a well wrought novel of grief and guilt.
The Great Gilly Hopkins. (HarperCollins, 1978 ISBN 0-690-03837-2. Library Binding)
In this Newbery Award winner, we meet Gilly, a foster child who has successfully manipulated the system for years. All that changes, however, when she is placed in the home of Mamie Trotter, an eccentric soul whose household consists of herself and W. E. (William Ernest) another foster child who, unlike Gilly, is fearful and easily intimidated. Next door neighbor Mr. Randolph, a blind African American and elderly gentleman, is a frequent visitor whom Gilly treats with contempt. Gilly's racial prejudice overflows when she learns that her new teacher is also African American. Gilly knows that she will get true understanding only from her birth mother, Courtney, and plots to be reunited with her. However, she has not reckoned with the wisdom of both her teacher and Mamie Trotter.
Jacob Have I Loved. (Avon, 1981 ISBN 0-690-04078-4. Hardcover)
Feeling deprived all her life of proper schooling, friends, mother, even her name (they call her Wheeze), and by her beautiful, talented, popular twin sister, Caroline, Louise finally begins to find her identity and the courage to pursue it rather than to dwell on her jealousy. This engrossing novel offers a picture of life on a tiny isolated island in the Chesapeake Bay. Louise feels that Caroline has robbed her of friends, her mother and her dreams. The grandmother's sharp tongue has intensified these feelings of incompetence. Louise starts to learn the ways of the island, taking on a job traditionally reserved for males, but soon realizes that she cannot work without finding her own identity.
Jip, His Story. (Dutton, 1996 0-525-67543-4. Hardcover)
Jip lives at the poor farm. When he was three, he fell off a wagon which careened down the road and no one ever claimed him. Because of his dark skin and hair he was assumed to be a gypsy and so was named Jip. When the "lunatic" is brought to the poor farm, bound and chained, to live in a cage there, it is Jip who befriends and cares for him. Put, short for Putnam, turns out to be a fine, gentle and learned gentleman when the violent spells are not on him and he and Jip become the best of friends. A mysterious stranger who turns out to be a slave catcher turns up in town and seems to have an interest in Jip who is just now being allowed to attend school sporadically, where he is loved by Teacher, a woman of sensitivity and great resolve. Soon the mystery of Jip's birth and desertion becomes clear. His father does appear as Jip has often imagined he would, but not as the benevolent parent he had hoped. Jip must run and he refuses to do so without Put who pays the ultimate price.
Lyddie. (Dutton, 1992 ISBN 0-525-67338-5. Hardcover)
Lyddie Worthen, an impoverished Vermont farm girl, is determined to gain her independence. Three years ago, her father left to earn money and has not been heard from since. Her mother, crazed by her obsession with an End-of-the-World religion, rents the farm and hires out Charlie(10) and Lyddie(13) into a kind of bondage while she goes to live with her sister with the youngest child, Agnes, who dies there. Later, the mother is institutionalized in Brattleboro. Charlie, accepted into the family he was hired out to, does well. Lyddie, hired out to Cutler's Tavern, is befriended by the cook, Triphena. It is here, after observing the apparently successful life of a young woman factory worker who stopped at the tavern, that Lyddie decides to go to the factories at Lowell, Massachusetts. The workers are exploited by the owners and bosses and those who agitate are dealt with harshly. Lyddie becomes friends with Diana Goss, Betsy and Brigid and adjusts to life in the mill. Eventually, Lyddie is dismissed because of her association with radical Diana and determines to make her own way to college.
The Master Puppeteer. (Avon, 1981 ISBN 0-064-40281-9. Paperback)
In this National Book Award winner set in eighteenth century Japan, we learn of Jiro, a thirteen year old boy who is hungry enough to become an apprentice in a theater owned by a master puppeteer, Yoshida, because he has seen food there. He is the sole surviving child in the family of Isako, and feels his mother resents his existence. Jiro excels and begins to finds hints of Saburo, a Japanese Robin Hood who commandeers rice and money from the wealthy to share with the starving masses.
Of Nightingales That Weep. (HarperCollins, 1989 ISBN 0-06-440282-7. Paperback)
In this novel, set in Feudal Japan, a famous samurai warrior's daughter, Takiko, is taken into the court of the boy emperor, Antoku, when her mother remarries and becomes his musician and personal servant. War rages around them as Takiko learns to accept her grotesque step-father, the luxury of the court and the love of a young man.
Park's Quest. (Puffin, 1989 ISBN 0-14-034262-1. Paperback)
The quest is both symbolic and actual. Indeed there are allusions to the Arthurian quests in this novel in which Park's mother refuses to talk about his father who was killed in the Vietnam War. This makes Park feel doubly bereaved and he undertakes a quest to know his father and his father's family. He first reads his father's books. Then, after finding his father's name on the Vietnam Memorial, Park arranges to visit his father's family in Virginia. There he learns that his father and mother were divorced, that his father had a child by a Vietnamese woman and that the child, Thanh, is the young girl who taunts him and is his uncle's step-daughter. He also discovers that the strong feelings people have about that war have only partly healed.
Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom. (Dutton, 1983 ISBN 0-525-66911-6. Hardcover)
Wang Lee becomes part of a group of rebels after his own rescue from kidnappers. They are dedicated to the overthrow of the emperor of China. Caught up in their march, their war and their philosophy, Wang Lee, a peasant boy, must find his own truths and, in the process, finds his own love.
Sign of the Chrysanthemum. (HarperCollins, 1991 ISBN 0-690-04913-7. Paperback)
Like Park's Quest, this is a novel of a search for one's father but it is set in Feudal Japan. Muna (his name means "no name") attempts to discover his father's identity and, in so doing, he discovers his own. The story is rich in details of 6th century feudal Japan, its culture, its harsh realities and its customs. This is a saga of personal struggle on both physical and psychological levels.
Angels and Other Strangers: Family Christmas Stories. (HarperCollins, 1979 ISBN 0-064-40283-5. Paperback)
Nine short stories revolve around the Christmas season. Each character gains a blessing for him or herself while benefitting others. Each of the stories has been used as a read-aloud by the author's husband as part of the Christmas service.
A Midnight Clear: Twelve Family Stories for the Christmas Season. (Dutton, 1995 ISBN 0-525-67529-9. Hardcover)
Many of these stories concern outcasts and the many meanings of Christmas. As in the previous collection, each of these tales has been used by the author's husband as part of the Christmas service in their church.
Angel & the Donkey. Illustrated by Alexander Koshkin. (Houghton, 1996 ISBN 0-395-68969-4. School & Library Binding)
Paterson's rendition of the Biblical tale of Balaam and his donkey is told gracefully. Koshkin uses a variety of media to illustrate the tale with equal grace.
The Crane Wife. Illustrated by Suekichi Akaba. Translated from the work of Sumiko Yagawa. (Morrow, 1979 ISBN 0-152-01407-1. Hardcover)
In a story with strong parallels to Molly Bang's Dawn, we get the Japanese tale of a poor young man who rescues a hurt crane which transforms itself into a lovely young woman. Her weaving brings them great good fortune until his curiosity ruins it all.
The King's Equal. Illustrated by Vladimir Vagin. (HarperCollins, 1992 ISBN 0-06-022496-7. Hardcover)
In this tale with echoes of folk tale, a king cannot assume the throne until he finds a woman equal to himself. The cruel and selfish man lays waste to his kingdom and spurns the women proffered by his counselors but Rosamund, the goatherd, befriends and is befriended by a wolf who transforms her into the bride the king wants. Unfortunately for him, Rosamund won't have him.
The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. (Puffin, 1995 ISBN 0-14-055739-3. Paperback)
In a tale with strong parallels to Andersen's The Nightingale, a greedy lord has captured and caged a magnificent mandarin duck. Yasuko, the kitchen maid releases the bird to find its mate and finds herself sentenced to death for the crime.
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