Katherine Paterson Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine Paterson 1932–

American young adult novelist. Paterson writes both historical and contemporary young adult fiction. She has also written several books for children, and has assembled a multi-media workshop on religious study which was distributed to Sunday Schools across the United States. Born and raised in China during the Japanese occupation, she later studied and served as a missionary in Japan. Her knowledge of Japanese culture and history has provided the background for three of her novels, which are set in feudal Japan. Paterson's most recent books have been set in present-day America; Bridge to Terabithia is based in part on the experience of her younger son. Whether set in East or West, her novels are characterized by their concern with moral decisions and the process of self-realization. In 1977 she won the National Book Award for The Master Puppeteer and the Newbery Medal for Bridge to Terabithia. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 13.)

Suspended in delicate imagery and among the many layered feuds between the Samurai clans of the Genji and Heike is the subdued quest of the nameless orphan Muna [in The Sign of the Chrysanthemum], who flees the burial of his peasant mother to search for a warrior father identifiable only by a small chrysanthemum tattoo. This introspective adventure, in which Muna learns to find his fortune within himself, will attract those readers who can be sustained by the carefully evoked setting and a realistic, stoical resolution which leaves some questions, philosophic and factual, open-ended. (pp. 1272-73)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1973 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), November 15, 1973.

Twelfth-century Japan may seem a long way off but if you can accustom yourself to the fierce life of samurai you may enjoy [The Sign of the Chrysanthemum]…. The tale is simply told. There is plenty of action. It is a boy's book, and is at least a change from war stories of our own time. (pp. 335-36)

The Junior Bookshelf, October, 1975.

The deep bond between Jiro and the puppet-master's son Kinshi, both apparently unloved by their demanding fathers, forms [The Master Puppeteer's] stable core, but Paterson's ability to exploit the tension between violence in the street and dreamlike confrontations of masked puppet operators is what makes this more lively and immediate than her other, equally exacting, historical fictions. (p. 71)

Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1976 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), January 15, 1976.

Dora Jean Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Making economical use of detail to set scene and atmosphere [in The Master Puppeteer], the author has chosen a period of lawlessness when Japan's old samurai tradition was dying and set against the teamwork and discipline of the puppeteers. Many of the themes in the The Sign of the Chrysanthemum … and Of Nightingales That Weep … reappear in this novel which should be very popular for its combination of excellent writing and irresistible intrigue. (p. 117)

Dora Jean Young, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the March, 1976 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1976), March,...

(The entire section is 101 words.)

Jean Mercier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Osaka in the 1700s and the desperate plight of the impoverished Japanese are the chief elements in a brilliant novel by [Katherine Paterson]…. She offers not only a compelling drama but engrossing details on the art of puppetry…. ["The Master Puppeteer"] is swift and exciting…. (p. 85)

Jean Mercier, in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the April 19, 1976, issue of Publishers Weekly by permission of the critic, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1976 by Xerox Corporation), April 19, 1976.

(The entire section is 78 words.)

Zena Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like intricate embroidery, [The Master Puppeteer] has deftly woven threads of several patterns that combine to make a cohesive and dramatic whole. The setting, as in other of [Paterson's] books, is feudal Japan; the milieu is the closed and intricate world of the puppet theater; the contrapuntal plot thread is the mysterious bandit who operates as an Osakan Robin Hood…. The plot is skilfully constructed, the characters are strong, and the historical background is as interesting as the details of the puppet theater. Good style, good story. (p. 181)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of Chicago; all rights...

(The entire section is 107 words.)

Patricia Craig

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The exotic location and the distance in time make [the sentiments of Of Nightingales That Weep] palatable—just. It has something of the formality and simplicity of a retold folk tale. Its moral message is clear: that beauty is skin-deep.

The underlying theme is derived from the concept of loyalty and the ways in which it can be expressed. Takiko, daughter of a samurai, is lady-in-waiting to Princess Aoi when she becomes infatuated with a warrior from a rival clan. The subsequent story involved slaughter, mass suicide, death from plague and ultimate betrayal; but Takiko's own brand of courage enables her to face reality and come to terms with it. If there is an element of masochism in her...

(The entire section is 184 words.)

Margery Fisher

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Of Nightingales that weep] could satisfy adolescents and adults alike with its exotic flavor and mature handling of character…. The unfamiliar pattern of events and the alien concepts of love, loyalty and ceremony which guide the characters are made clear in a story based on scholarship and on knowledge of the country whose contours and vegetation are skilfully used as background to a deliberate, convoluted narrative. (p. 3066)

Margery Fisher, in her Growing Point, March, 1977.

I must admit to a distinct reluctance to read [Of Nightingales That Weep]. The clan wars of twelfth century Japan are, to put it no more...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Jack Forman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Not only is [Bridge to Terabithia] … 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. (p. 61)

Jack Forman, in School Library Journal (reprinted from the November, 1977 issue of School Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Co. A Xerox Corporation; copyright © 1978), November, 1977.

(The entire section is 88 words.)

Richard Peck

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Jesse and Leslie] create a wilderness hideaway kingdom, the "Terabithia" of the title … It lacks the elaboration of earlier childhood fantasy, perhaps to indicate they're already growing past the possibility of easy escape. The diction they adopt in their private principality may make some young readers uncomfortable….

The author is at the top of her form in creating the uninspiring round of home and school. Jess contemplates, like most of his readers, that he may have been adopted—and abducted from a far more cultivated home….

Like all the best books for the young, Bridge to Terabithia ends at a beginning. The young survivor offers love to a new and worthy...

(The entire section is 142 words.)

Barbara Elleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Bridge to Terabithia] is not a message book, however, Paterson subtly handles [its] complex subject in an eloquent way that makes evident the expansion of her writing ability. The vivid and sensitive character portrayals and changing relationships … are superb. (p. 554)

Barbara Elleman, in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1977 by the American Library Association), November 15, 1977.

(The entire section is 59 words.)

Penelope Curtis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What seems at first the main fault of [Bridge to Terabithia]—its light loosely woven structure—becomes its most important quality. The fabric of loosely woven thoughts is an integral part of the story. The short, sharp American dialogue is rather off-putting, as is the opening theme, but these are overcome by the developing charm and simplicity. This book grows on you, and you may not realise how much you have enjoyed it until the end. (pp. 23-4)

Penelope Curtis, in Book Window (© 1978 S.C.B.A. and contributors), Winter, 1978.

(The entire section is 90 words.)

Mrs. Hildagarde Gray

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Love stories, good love stories, are rare today. [Bridge to Terabithia] is a beautiful one, encompassing all the tones and nuances of deep feeling, all the entanglement lovers feel with each other's sensitivities and interpretations of life….

This is not a love story of physical encounter but a fusion of souls and minds. To shy Jess, Leslie's philosophy opens new doors. Her sudden death threatens to crush him before he has learned to live her teachings. Her strength, however, continues to move within him, permitting him to move toward maturity and carry the land of Terabithia in his heart. There is a truth, a realism to the childlike expressions of fear, love, and friendship...

(The entire section is 154 words.)

Ann A. Flowers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jess and his family are magnificently characterized; [Bridge to Terabithia] abounds in descriptive vignettes, humorous sidelights on the clash of cultures, and realistic depictions of rural school life. The symbolism of falling and of building bridges forms a theme throughout the story, which is one of remarkable richness and depth, beautifully written. (pp. 49-50)

Ann A. Flowers, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1978 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), February, 1978.

(The entire section is 70 words.)

Jean F. Mercier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"God help the children of the flower children" is the theme of Paterson's ["The Great Gilly Hopkins"], a potentially rich story but disappointing in some ways. At 11, Gilly (who was abandoned by her hippie mother at birth) has been given up by a series of tired foster parents. In her new home, the guardian is obese, sloppy, semi-literate Maime Trotter whose other charge is a timid little boy…. Scheming to escape, Gilly gains the confidence of … her new family by pretending to care for them. To her surprise she finds that she does and that "deliverance," when it comes unexpectedly, causes her wrenching sadness. [Katherine Paterson] writes expertly…. Still it's hard to accept the exaggeration of Trotter's virtues,...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Jack Forman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eleven-year-old Gilly Hopkins is a foster child seemingly modeled on the Tatum O'Neal character from Paper Moon and Bad News Bears. She is endowed with an above-average intelligence, a stubborn aggressiveness, and uncanny abilities to lie, steal, and see through hypocrisy…. Young readers might—as Gilly does—find Trotter's moralizing at the end a bit overdone, but they will appreciate the crisp, realistic dialogue, believable and humorous writing, and broad array of unorthodox characters. In Gilly and Mrs. Trotter, Paterson … has created two of the most memorable and oddly appealing protagonists in contemporary juvenile novels. (p. 87)

Jack Forman, in...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Zena Sutherland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paterson's development of the change in Gilly is brilliant and touching, as she depicts a child whose tough protective shield dissolves as she learns to accept love and to give it [in The Great Gilly Hopkins]. A well-structured story has vitality of writing style, natural dialogue, deep insight in characterization, and a keen sense of the fluid dynamics in human relationships. (p. 147)

Zena Sutherland, in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1978 by University of Chicago; all rights reserved), May, 1978.

(The entire section is 80 words.)

Natalie Babbitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Great Gilly Hopkins] is a book which, having a choice to make between a happy ending and a hard one—both being reasonable—chooses the latter, thereby finally declaring itself as something rather different from what it has led the readers to expect. For the story line has healthy antecedents in literature from Oliver Twist onward: an abandoned child, stranded in a bizarre place among bizarre people, learns how to value herself and others. (p. 1)

Katherine Paterson develops her characters thoroughly, avoiding the common pitfalls of stories of this type. While she eschews Dickensian sentimentality, she is strong on humor, and her writing is clear, inventive, and—except for a...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Ethel L. Heins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gilly—short for Tolkien's Galadriel—is not only a foster child but also, deliberately and blatantly, an enfant terrible…. In its similarity of theme and in its combination of poignancy and humor, [The Great Gilly Hopkins] may be compared with Betsy Byars's The Pinballs…. Yet despite the racy dialogue and the memorably eccentric characters, the author's second novel with a contemporary setting does not measure up to Bridge to Terabithia in subtlety, structural beauty, and emotional power. (p. 279)

Ethel L. Heins, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1978 by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), June, 1978.

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Virginia Buckley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Katherine's knack for telling anecdotes is part of her gift as a writer. As you get to know her, you realize that the quick wit and strong loyalties with which she endows her characters are qualities that she herself possesses and extends to her family, friends, and the people she works with—even chance strangers…. (p. 368)

Every time I reread one of Katherine's novels, I find something new of value. Most recently I became aware of her abiding sympathy for the underdog, the lowly of this earth. Now that I think of it, that sympathy might be the ripening of this mature, engaged, and engaging women with the ready laugh, who can still recall that when she was a child in Shanghai, she and her friends...

(The entire section is 164 words.)