Katherine Womeldorf Paterson was born in Qing Jiang, China, to Christian missionaries George and Mary Womeldorf. Her father was a principal at Sutton 690, a school for girls, and traveled throughout China as part of his missionary duties. The Womeldorf family lived in a Chinese neighborhood and immersed themselves in Chinese culture. When Katherine was eight years old, the family was forced to leave China during the Japanese invasion of 1937. The family moved to Richmond, Virginia for a short while before returning to China to live in Shanghai. In 1940, the family was forced to flee again, this time to North Carolina.
The Womeldorf family moved 13 times between 1937 and 1950 because of George Womeldorf's work and also because of the war in China. Katherine was always the newcomer and never fit in very well, perhaps in part due to her British accent and secondhand clothing. She was lonely during this time and turned to writing to deal with her loneliness. While in school, she wrote many plays in which her peers acted.
Paterson's first language was Chinese, and she initially experienced difficulty reading and writing English. She overcame these challenges and, in 1954, graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English from King College in Bristol, Tennessee. She then spent a year teaching at a rural elementary school in Virginia before going to graduate school. She received a Master's degree from the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (Richmond, VA), where she studied Bible and Christian education. Paterson had hoped to be a missionary in China, but its borders were closed to western citizens. A Japanese friend pushed her to go to Japan instead, where she worked as a missionary and Christian education assistant. While in Japan, Paterson studied both Japanese and Chinese culture, which influenced much of her subsequent writing.
Paterson began her professional career in the Presbyterian Church by teaching Sunday school curriculum for fifth and sixth grade parochial students. In 1966, she wrote the novel Who Am I?. While continuing to write, she was unable to get any of her novels published. After being persuaded, Paterson took an adult education course in creative writing during which her first novel was published. Her first children's novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, was published in 1976. A Japanese fairy tale, it is based on Paterson's studies in Japan. Bridge to Terabithia, her most widely recognized book, was published in 1977. Terabithia was highly controversial due to some of the difficult themes.
Some of her other books also feature difficult themes such as the death of a loved one.
Her awards include the National Book Award (The Master Puppeteer, 1976; The Great Gilly Hopkins, 1979); the Edgar Allan Poe Special Award (Master Puppeteer, 1977); the Newbery Medal (Bridge to Terabithia, 1977; Jacob Have I Loved, 1981); the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction (Jip, His Story, 1996); the Hans Christian Andersen Medal (1998); and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (2006).
Katherine Paterson is currently vice-president of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance, a non-profit organization that advocates for literacy, literature, and libraries. The Patersons continue to live in Barre, Vermont, and Dr. Paterson has retired as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. The Patersons' children are adults, and they have seven grandchildren.
On April 28, 2005, Paterson dedicated a tree in memory of Lisa Hill (her son David's childhood friend who became the inspiration for 'Bridge to Teribithia') to Takoma Park Elementary School. Paterson still does school visits but chooses to stick to schools that are close to her Vermont home. She is currently promoting her work and just put out a new book entitled Bread and Roses Too. She was inspired to write this book after seeing a photograph of 35 children taken on the steps of the Old Socialist Labor Hall in Barre, Vermont captioned, “Children of Lawrence Massachusetts, Bread and Roses Strike come to Barre,” Paterson's home town.
Bridge to Terabithia has been adapted into film twice, the 1985 PBS version and the 2007 Disney/Walden Media co-production. One of the producers and screenwriters for the 2007 version is Paterson's son David L. Paterson, whose name appears on the dedication page of the novel.
Another of her novels, The Great Gilly Hopkins, was optioned by Christine Vachon's Killer Films in April 2008.
She has written a play version of the story by Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. It was performed at a conference of the Beatrix Potter Society in Fresno, CA in April 2009.
In January 2010, Paterson replaced Jon Scieszka as the Library of Congress's National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a two-year position created to raise national awareness of the importance of lifelong literacy and education.
In Paterson's novels, her youthful protagonists face crises by which they learn to triumph through self-sacrifice. Paterson, unlike many other authors of young adult novels, tackles themes often considered to be adult, such as death and jealousy. Although her characters face dire situations, Paterson writes with compassion and empathy. Amidst her writing of misery and strife, Paterson interlaces her writing with wry wit and understated humor. After facing tumultuous events, her characters prevail in triumph and redeem themselves and their ambitions. Paterson's protagonists are usually orphaned or estranged children with only a few friends who must face difficult situations largely on their own. Paterson's plots may reflect her own childhood in which she felt estranged and lonely.