Katherine Paterson is the author of more than 30 books for young readers. A two-time Newbery and National Book Award winner, she was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress. She is an elder in the First Presbyterian Church of Barre, Vermont.
I want to start out by simply asking you about your faith. I don’t know that your fans know about your faith background. How does your faith inform your writing?
Well, I was born in China. My parents were missionaries to China and we would have lived there most of my growing up years except for World War II. We were evacuated twice—once in 1928 and again at the end of 1940. So China was my native land, although I am born of American parents.
I grew up in a household where the Bible was very central in our lives and my parents’ commitment to Jesus Christ and to spreading the gospel was very important. When we came back and the war began in earnest between the United States and Japan, we knew we would not be going back to China for a while. My father became a pastor in North Carolina. So I grew up either as the child of a missionary or the child of a pastor.
I went to King College which is a Presbyterian college in Tennessee—Bristol, Tennessee—and began to decide at a fairly early age that I would probably go into mission work myself. I, of course, wanted to go back to China, and I don’t know whether that was the call of God or the call of Chinese food (laughing). These things are never sure, you know—the fallen human condition! So I finished college and spent a year teaching, and then I went to what was then the Assemblies training school, which is now a part of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. I graduated with a masters degree in English Bible, and of course China was not open to missionary work in 1957 when I graduated.
I wouldn’t have dreamed as a child that I would go to Japan, because the Japanese were the enemy and the only Japanese I knew were soldiers in the occupation which were very scary. So I would not have gone to Japan, except that when I was at school in Richmond, I had a Japanese friend who really persuaded me that if I would give the Japanese people a chance that I would come to love them. Since I loved and admired her, I did go to Japan and had a really remarkable four years there as a missionary for the Presbyterian Church.
I have said and I really believe with all my heart that there are few gifts in this world more wonderful than being loved by people that you had thought you hated, because it certainly changes your life in remarkable ways, and the Japanese pastors and the families that I worked with so closely in rural Japan were just so wonderful and played such a healing part of my life that I don’t think I took anything to Japan but I certainly brought a great deal away from those four years.
I was given a scholarship to study at Union Seminary in New York City for what was to have been my year on leave and that was where I met my husband who was a Presbyterian pastor and so for the rest of my life I became a Presbyterian pastor’s wife. I’m actually an elder in the Presbyterian Church here in Berry, Vermont. And even at my advanced age, I still sing in the choir and I’m a very active member of the congregation and hope I look back on my long life and hope I have grown in wisdom and stature and favor (laughing). Sometimes I wonder … but I’m on that pilgrim journey.
Three of the roles that you name—a missionary’s kid, a pastor’s kid, and a pastor’s wife—it’s sort of common knowledge that those three folks, those three categories of people in the church community come out with severe dysfunctions, you know?
(Laughing) Well, doesn’t it sort of depend on the parents and the husband?
That is true, that is true. So it seems as though you had excellent parents and an excellent husband.
I had wonderful parents and a wonderful husband. When my husband changes parishes, one of the first questions is, now what is Katherine going to do? Because they get the minister’s wife for nothing, as well as the minister. And he says, Katherine has her own calling. He feels very strongly that my writing for children is my calling from God and that comes first before cooking for church suppers.
Well, God bless him. After Bridge to Terabithia, a lot of people said, 'Oh kids can’t handle that kind of emotion'—how did you know that in fact kids would completely resonate with that kind of tragedy and loss?
It’s always kind of a miracle to me because kids will come and tell me when they see my grey hair, how do you know how we feel? And I have to say very honestly, I don’t know how you feel. I know how I feel. And I know how I felt as a child; I still have that child very much a part of me and I know how deeply I felt. And so I think to think children don’t think deeply and feel deeply is just a disservice to them. Speaking of the wounds of childhood—so many people grow up deeply wounded because the griefs of their childhood were not taken seriously by the adults, and I think it was because they couldn’t bear the thought that the children hurt that much and so they pretended the children would get over it easily and it wouldn’t matter that much to them.
What kind of grief did you experience as a child? I imagine that it was difficult for you to leave China several times when you had made such a home there.
Yes, and of course when I came to the United States I was an alien and was treated as such by my peers. So it was a long time before I felt at home in this country and the fact that the war was going on and the children that I knew didn’t know the difference between China and Japan and so they knew I came from somewhere over there and treated me like the enemy.
Often people say that a Christian writer or a Christian scientist can’t be trusted because there is a rhetoric behind your work that has ulterior motives. Do you ever struggle with trying to either influence people to the faith through your work, influence children, or influence adults [readers] that you write for?
No. Because I think it’s the job of the Holy Spirit to change hearts, not mine. My job is to tell a story as honestly and as truthfully and actually, as beautifully as I can. I believe that we do God a great disservice when we become propagandists for the faith instead of worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness. My stories are very simple stories in many ways, but I want them to be beautiful and I want them to honor God in that way and I don’t think God is honored by half-truths. What I see that goes by the name of Christian writing is half truth, and that makes me very unhappy because I don’t think that’s the way we honor God.
Jeannie Choi is assistant editor at Sojourners.