The memorable main characters in Katherine Paterson’s books are kids who feel left out, isolated, rootless. The author has been there. As the daughter of missionaries, Paterson moved 18 times before she was 18 years old. She was born in China 59 years ago, and spent much of her childhood in Virginia, North Carolina, and West Virginia. During those years, Paterson remembers herself as ”shy, with everybody thinking I was stupid. Only one school did I go to for any length of time. And by the time I finished that school, I was considered intelligent and reasonably popular. But then I moved again and had to start all over.”
Writing about outsiders proved a natural path for Paterson, whose first book, 1973’s The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, was about a boy’s search for his samurai father. ”There’s not much point in writing about a person who fits in beautifully and has a wonderful family life,” she says. ”You have to have problems to have a plot at all.”
Paterson’s well-plotted books have had success beyond the page. The Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved were made into WonderWorks productions for public TV. The Great Gilly Hopkins became a CBS afternoon special.
A stage version of Paterson’s Bridge is currently on a national tour with Stage One, the Louisville, Ky., children’s theater group. When the show recently played in Barre, Vt. — where Paterson lives with her husband, John, a Presbyterian minister (they have four grown children, John, Lin, David, and Mary) — she had the company over for supper. After all, Katherine Paterson knows what it’s like to feel alone in a new town.