Katherine Paterson was born in China in 1932, the daughter of Christian missionaries. However, her parents were very liberal Christians, dedicated to educating others about the faith rather than forcing others to believe. This philosophy was doubtless imprinted on Katherine as well, and it is demonstrated in her treatment of faith in Bridge to Terabithia.

The Paterson family left China during World War II, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, and returned to the U.S. The Paterson family didn't stay in one place for very long throughout this World War II period; instead, they moved to various towns in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, finally settling in Winchester, Virginia—a rural area quite similar to the setting of Bridge to Terabithia. It was in Virginia that Paterson learned English. Although she had always been a voracious reader, this transition to a new language was difficult for her, but the benefits were great.

Soon after that, Paterson began to attend King College in Bristol, Tennessee, studying literature. By now, Paterson had developed a dream of becoming a missionary, and it was this desire to educate and enlighten, perhaps, that led her to spend a year teaching sixth grade in Lovettsville, Virginia, where she says "almost all the students were like Jesse Aarons." After this year teaching, she undertook graduate studies in Richmond, studying the Bible and Christian education.

After she had completed graduate school, she moved to Japan. She had always wanted to go back to China, but it had never been feasible, and a friend suggested that she might want to learn about Japanese culture. At first she was nervous about this, seeing the Japanese only as the enemy during World War II, but eventually she set aside her misgivings and went. She came to love it there, and it figures heavily in her early books. She would have stayed there except that she met and fell in love with the Reverend John Paterson, a Presbyterian minister. They were married in 1962, and together they moved to New York.

Over the years, they had four children, two adopted and two biological. It was in these years as well that Paterson became seriously dedicated to becoming a writer. However, she met with very little success at first, writing prolifically and getting hardly anything published. Finally, a friend, taking pity on her efforts, invited Paterson to join her in a creative writing class she was taking. The novel she wrote in the class, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, a Japanese fairy tale, was published in 1974.

In 1977, a tragedy occurred which is the basis for the novel Bridge to Terabithia. Her son David, then eight years old, had become inseparable friends with a little girl named Lisa Hill. Paterson had wondered about the implications of this cross-gender friendship, and felt a little uneasy about the unusual bond between them. Then Lisa was struck by lightning on the beach and was killed. David was understandably devastated, and Paterson grieved as well, understanding now how unimportant her fears had been. As a way of helping them both work through their grief, she wrote Bridge to Terabithia, which won the Newbery Award in 1978.

Bridge to Terabithia is actually part of an ongoing censorship battle in many areas around the country. Critics cite the use of profanity in the book, but in fact the profanity is mild and infrequent: in dialogue some of the characters might use the words "damn" and "hell," but it is certainly not particularly pervasive. Clearly, the critics are angered for other reasons that they are more reluctant to aim, and general surmise attributes their complaints to the treatment of religion in the book. Leslie's family is liberal politically and do not attend church, whereas Jess's family only attends church at Easter. Religion is certainly not portrayed in a negative light in the book, but true to Paterson's upbringing, faith is shown to be fulfilling when divested of the strict, unforgiving dogma of the organized church. The ending, which reaffirms that God does not send good people to hell, essentially, is probably the reason that right-wing conservatives have come down on the book so strongly.

Katherine Paterson has always advocated the need for contemporary, realistic children's fiction, eschewing fluff and mindless entertainment. All of her books challenge the conventional boundaries of acceptable themes for children's literature, taking on such topics as the death of a loved one (Bridge To Terabithia, Flip-Flop Girl), the tribulations of foster children (The Great Gilly Hopkins, which was written out of her own brief, unsatisfactory experience as a foster mother), governmental persecution (Rebels Of The Heavenly Kingdom), and the historical exploitation of young workers (Lyddie).