- Bridges for the Young: The Fiction of Katherine Paterson
Bridge to Terabithia, together with the Newbery acceptance speech for the book, with its unforgettable line, "You don't put together a bridge for a child. You become one," have made Katherson Paterson forever identified with bridges in children's literature: bridges between American and Asian culture, between disappointment and hope, between Christian values and a resisting secular culture. Thus, it is appropriate that this first substantial volume of essays of Paterson criticism is titled Bridges for the Young. The collection includes sixteen essays by thirteen different authors, concluding with a brief bridge-themed essay by Paterson and an exhaustive bibliography. The editors group the essays into four bridge-titled sections: Bridges to the Reader—Narratology and Reader Response; Bridges to Literary Worlds: Intertextuality and Literacy; Bridges to the World: Nature, History, and the Arts; and Bridges to the Soul: Theology and Philosophy. While the sorting of the essays into sections sometimes seems arbitrary (why, e.g., is James Holt McGavran's excoriation of Paterson's theological commitments placed in the section on intertextuality, rather than theology?), the editors freely concede that many of the essays resonate with themes of several categories. The majority of the essays focus on Paterson's most theorized works—Bridge to Terabithia, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Jacob Have I Loved—but every book receives at least some sustained attention, including her theological nonfiction, picture books, and retellings.
The overall tone of the collection, from the introduction on, gives the book more the feel of a festschrift than a standard volume of literary criticism, studded with encomia for Paterson's literary achievements. The introduction reads like a speech in nomination of Paterson for some yet unreceived award, and almost every essay is explicitly laudatory in tone: "Typically Patersonian, Jacob Have I Loved is a tightly woven novel; each episode, each speech, each image helps to incarnate that which the author is imagining" (Smedman 10); "Paterson is by all standards an outstanding writer" (Nikolajeva 19); "Paterson challenges me as a reader. This essay offers an account of that challenge" (Huse 108); "Part of Paterson's extraordinary gift as a writer lies in her ability to absorb and recreate the environment and the times in which her protagonists live" (Smith 243).
It isn't that the praise of Paterson isn't deserved, but that as a whole the volume is overly, perhaps defensively, insistent upon it. One would be surprised to find a volume of critical essays on, say, Alcott or Burnett so extravagant in praise of their subject. Even the one sour note in the volume, McGavran's downright nasty sneer at Paterson's Biblical influences, seems selected to give "the other side" of a chiefly evaluative enterprise: almost everyone else loves Paterson's work; he hates it.
Indeed, some of the essays in Bridges for the Young single Paterson out for high praise for doing what most other good or even adequate children's authors have always done. Laura Mandell Zaidman finds it noteworthy that Paterson actually did painstaking research "to establish factual bases for Lyddie and Jip" (172) and that she "has informed her historical fiction with the names of actual places and people" (182). Do other authors of children's historical fiction fail to do this? Likewise, Maria Nikolajeva finds it noteworthy that Paterson narrates many of her novels in a third-person narration focalized on the protagonist: "The narrator becomes invisible, characters are focalized internally, and readers are allowed to share their deepest thoughts, dreams, and memories" (24). But any workshop for beginning children's book authors presents what authors call "third person, limited viewpoint" narration as one of the most common approaches to point of view in contemporary children's fiction.
Some of the essays provide lovingly detailed and thorough documentation of what we already know: Paterson's fiction is heavily influenced by her Christian commitments; her endings tend to be both painful and hopeful; she...