The Master Puppeteer, Katherine Paterson’s third novel, was her first to gain widespread critical acclaim and attention. In 1977, it received the National Book Award for Children’s Literature and was a runner-up for the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1982, the book was also a finalist for an American Book Award. Like Paterson’s two earlier novels, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum (1973) and Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), The Master Puppeteer is a historical novel set in Japan, a country where Paterson studied and taught for several years and where she saw Bunraku theater firsthand. In writing the novel, she returned to Japan to do research, including interviewing a modern Japanese puppeteer.
The book also looks forward to Paterson’s later novels, such as the Newbery Medal winners Bridge to Terabithia (1977) and Jacob Have I Loved (1980), whose protagonists, like Jiro, overcome somewhat dysfunctional families and difficult social situations to find true friendship and discover their own special talents. Like a number of other young adult novels, including Elizabeth de Trevino’s I, Juan de Pareja (1966) and Patricia MacLachlan’s The Facts and Fictions of Mina Pratt (1988), The Master Puppeteer is a Künstlerroman in which its protagonist’s growth as an artist leads to self-understanding and maturation. Because of its unique combination of adventure, mystery, historical fiction, and psychological realism, the novel continues to be popular and is an important part of Paterson’s continued contribution to literature for young people.