Westminster John Knox Press, 352 pages | Published September 12, 2022
The name “Katherine Paterson” has been synonymous with excellence in the art of storytelling since she published her first book 50 years ago. Paterson has won every possible award for children’s books, sometimes twice, including the National Book Award and the Newbery Medal. But the story of her own life is her most compelling, now available in a newly revised edition.
First published in 2013, the updated Stories of My Life highlights her range of work and may surprise those who think of her solely as a children’s author. A lifelong Presbyterian, Paterson’s first publication was church curriculum. Perhaps best known for Bridge to Terabithia, she’s published picture books, novels, original Christmas story-sermons and more. “Next Chapter,” also new to this edition, describes life at the age of 90 and adds some of her most poignant words: “I believe that grace is the thread that goes through my life and is, therefore, the thread that connects all that I have written. Grace … has poured down on me all the days of my long life.” This thread of grace is woven throughout Paterson’s “kitchen sink stories,” those learned as a child while helping her mother wash the endless dishes that multiplied faster than loaves and fishes in a family with five children and no dishwasher.
Paterson reconstructs her story with help from a treasure trove of letters between family members and weaves her own story into this larger tapestry. Her parents served as Presbyterian missionaries in China, and Paterson details her early years living in that country during its occupation by Japan in the late 1930s. One summer, her family lived near the shore where Japanese troops disembarked; her description of hordes of loincloth-clad soldiers racing up a backyard hill, unleashing blood-curdling war cries and waving bayonets is chilling.
The book is punctuated by many such indelible images, but her stories are also steeped with the universal challenges and heartbreak of childhood: feelings of being misunderstood, unlovable, lost, as well as the wonder and joy of absorbing life as it unfurls. These emotions thread their way throughout her life and later through the lives of the characters in her books, making them real and relatable. “I still carry that child that I was inside myself. She is very much alive.”
Readers will be encouraged to reflect on their own “kitchen sink stories,” not only for insight but to reconnect with their inner child. A congregation might use this book for adult education, nudging participants to discover the thread of grace in their own spiritual journeys. Preachers will find an abundance of stories that challenge and inspire. Consider, for example, the story of how Paterson overcame the terrors of the Japanese occupation to later become a missionary in Japan, loving the people there with her whole heart. Or how she discovered breast cancer at the age of 41, just as her publishing career took off. Grace upon grace, in story after story.
Paterson’s book inspires us to examine our own stories, to search for the golden thread of grace stitching scraps of our lives together, creating a beautiful garment of wholeness and holiness far stronger than we could imagine.
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