Katherine Paterson, whose children’s book, Bridge to Terabithia, is now a film coming to theaters this week, says kid lit doesn’t have to be “safe.” After all, the Bible sure isn’t.
Katherine Paterson once planned to be a missionary. She was born to missionary parents in China, and she spent four years in Japan as a missionary herself. But after returning to the United States to continue her education?and after meeting and marrying a young Presbyterian minister?she gave all that up. And then she became a writer.
Some of her earliest novels?like Sign of the Chrysanthemum, Of Nightingales that Weep and The Master Puppeteer?reflected her love of Japanese culture. And some of her non-fiction books?like Who Am I?, Images of God and Consider the Lilies: Plants of the Bible, the latter two written with her husband John?have reflected her own religious background.
But the book for which she is probably best known is Bridge to Terabithia, a story about two children?a girl named Leslie and a boy named Jess?who create an imaginary kingdom for themselves in a secret grove. It won the Newbery Medal in 1977 and has now been turned into a theatrical movie by Walden Media, the company behind The Chronicles of Narnia.
Paterson spoke to us about the book, the film, and the meaning of “story” in a phone interview shortly before the movie’s release this Friday. (Warning: This interview addresses story elements that will be spoilers to anyone who has not read the book or seen the film.)
Bridge to Terabithia was filmed for TV in the 1980s, but this is the first time it has been adapted for the big screen. Did you envision a movie coming out of this book at all?
Katherine Paterson: No. In fact, I thought it was such a private sort of book, that my editor probably wouldn’t even want to publish it; and if he wanted to publish it, I thought nobody would read it; and if they read it, nobody would understand it. I was shocked to realize that teachers were reading it out loud in school. It just seemed like a very, very private, personal story. The Wonderworks version for TV wasn’t awful, but it was very condensed, because of the time. I felt it’s a story of friendship, and there was not enough time [in the Wonderworks version] for the friendship to develop before the death occurs. You didn’t have enough time to really care about the child.
How involved have you been with the new film?
Paterson: I actually haven’t been all that involved, because I gave the rights to my son David. It was actually his friendship and the death of his best friend when he was eight that caused me to write the book in the first place. So when he asked me several years ago if he could do a screenplay and try to market it, I told him yes. Not only because he’s my son, but because he’s a very good playwright.
It took him many years, and by the time he got it sold, his original screenplay had been sent to a highly paid Hollywood writer who changed the story considerably. So he’s been really fighting for the integrity of the story for a very long time, not only because it grew out of his own story, but because I was his mother and I entrusted this to him, and because, as he said, he wanted to honor his friend who died. And I think they’ve made a good film.
Could you talk a bit about the process of writing the book?
Paterson: I was trying to make peace with [a tragedy that befell one of our friends]. When David was in second grade, he was best friends with a little girl named Lisa Hill, and that summer she was struck and killed by lightning. It was just a terrible experience, for him and for our whole family. At the same time, I was operated on for cancer, and he thought I was going to die. And I was trying to make sense of a tragedy that made no sense.
How does your Christian background inform the story?
Paterson: I think C. S. Lewis said somewhere that the book cannot be what the writer is not, and I think who you are informs what you write, on a very deep level. You reveal yourself whether you intend to or not. So you don’t put in stuff to signal that you’re a Christian; you write the story as well and as truthfully as you can because that’s how you glorify God, and you have to be true to the characters and who they are and how they talk. If it comes from a person who has a Christian hope and a Christian knowledge of grace, then I think hope and grace are going to infuse my work?not that I put them in, but because I can’t help having them there.
Here’s a little of the part about the Bible not being “safe.”
There’s a trend lately to provide books and films for Christian audiences that are “safe for the whole family.” Perhaps your books have been challenged because they’re not necessarily “safe” for children. What do you make of the idea that children’s books should be “safe”?
Paterson: Well, don’t give them the Bible, then, because it’s certainly not a safe book. Safety and faith are different things. If you want everything to be safe, then you can probably just totally do without the imagination. If you’re so afraid of your imagination that you stifle it, how are you going to know God? How can you imagine heaven?
Why is it important to deal with death in a story made for children?
Paterson: It’s sort of a practice [before we deal with death in real life]. Some people say, “Well, my child’s friend died, so I gave him a copy of Bridge to Terabithia,” and my internal reaction is, “You know, it’s too late.” I think books give us emotional practice.
We do have trouble dealing with death, but it’s the one thing that is guaranteed we are all going to have to do, and we are going to have to face it many times before we die ourselves.