Katherine Paterson once planned to be a missionary. She was born to missionary parents in China and 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 became a writer.

Some of her early novels reflect her love of Japanese culture, and some of her nonfiction books reflect her religious background. But she's probably best known for Bridge to Terabithia, a story about two children—a girl named Leslie and a boy named Jess—who create an imaginary kingdom in a secret grove.

Terabithia won the Newbery Medal in 1977 and was recently adapted into a movie now showing in theaters. (See the film review at ChristianityTodayMovies.com.)

Paterson spoke to CT Movies critic Peter T. Chattaway about the book, the film, and the meaning of "story." (Warning: This interview includes plot spoilers for both the book and the film.)

Did you ever envision a movie coming out of this book?

No. I thought it was such a private book that my editor probably wouldn't want to publish it; and if he wanted to publish it, I thought nobody would read it; and if they read it, [I thought] nobody would understand it. I was shocked to realize that teachers were reading it out loud in schools. It just seemed like a very, very private, personal story.

How involved have you been with the new film?

I actually haven't been all that involved, because I gave the rights to my son David. It was actually his friendship with, 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 also because he's a very good playwright.

It took him many years, and by the time he sold it, his original screenplay had been sent to a highly paid Hollywood writer who changed the story considerably. So he's been fighting for the integrity of the story for a long time, not only because it grew out of his own story, but also because I was his mother and I had entrusted this to him and because, as he said, he wanted to honor his friend who died. I think they've made a good film.

How does your Christian background inform the story?

I think C. S. Lewis said that a book cannot be what a writer is not. 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 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.

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In the book, Leslie knows Narnia and lends the Narnia books to Jess. Yet she seems unaware of the Christian elements there, because when she goes to church and hears the story of Christ, it is completely new to her.

That happens all the time with kids who've read Narnia and have no Christian background whatsoever. I actually had a friend who loved all the books and then felt betrayed when people told her they had Christian associations. She didn't want it to be there, because she didn't believe that stuff. She said, "I loved the books until somebody ruined it for me!" Whereas for Leslie, it helps her to appreciate the story of Jesus.

In some ways, your book is more explicitly Christian than Lewis's Narnia tales, because it incorporates the Easter story.

I'm not going to argue that, because I am a Christian. But I have certainly not tried to write a Christian pamphlet.

When the children play in Terabithia, they pray to "the spirits" there. As a Christian writing those scenes, how did you approach that?

Leslie, who has no Christian background, has made this up; she thinks there is something very mystical in the grove, so she prays to the spirits of the grove. When she tries to get Jess to do this, the only language he knows is biblical language. He's read the Bible, so his language comes out like biblical language. But again, it's coming from the children's point of view, not from the point of view of me trying to [spell out] my religion.

Do you think this movie might stifle imagination, or replace it, or perhaps be a stimulus to imagination in some other way?

I hope it will stimulate the imagination of viewers. I'm not sure that a movie can ever do that as well as a book, simply because you have a big picture right there in front of you that you're not allowed to make for yourself.

Terabithia and Gilly Hopkins were on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s.

People say, "Aren't you proud?" and I say no, because it means some teacher or librarian is in trouble because of me, and I can't enjoy that. But the sad thing is, I think it's because people don't understand what a story is.

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What is a story?

A story is open-ended. A story invites you into it to make your own meaning. If you look at Jesus' parables, most of the stories he told were very open-ended.

I mean, even with the Parable of the Prodigal Son, you get to the ending and you think, Well, did the big brother come in or not? Jesus left it open deliberately for you to answer.

That's what a story does. It's inviting you to identify yourself as a part of it and to come into it from where you are—and if you hear the same story after a period of years, you'll be in a different place, and the meaning is going to be different.

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.

Well, don't give them the Bible, because it's certainly not a safe book. Safety and faith are different things. If you want everything to be safe, then you can do without 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?

Related Elsewhere:

CT Movies reviewed Bridge to Terabithia, which opens February 16.

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