The drum beats remorselessly, and out of the wings come the kimonoed figures, their mincing walk framed by mysterious hooded shapes. The life-sized puppets launch into a drama of star-crossed lovers and suicide, each character manipulated by three operators straining for perfection in every tiny movement. Narrators to one side unfold the plot and the audience soon forgets that the protagonists are 200-year-old wooden dolls, not samurai or maidens in distress.

During the four years from 1957-61 that she lived in Japan, Katherine Paterson had come to know the Bunraku puppet theater in Osaka. In those days the art seemed doomed, performances were pared to a minimum in a bomb-damaged theater. When she returned a new theater had been built, and enthusiastic apprentices were waiting in line. Bunraku was world famous. The story she wove around the theater, its puppets and their operators became "The Master Puppeteer" a mystery novel for young people set in feudal Japan which last month won the National Book Award for Children's Literature.

Katherine Paterson is the wife of a minister and lives in Takoma Park, a rambling leafy suburb that seems a far cry from medieval Japan and from Tsing Tsiang pu, China, where she was born 44 years ago, the middle child of five in a Presbyterian missionary family.

They had already been in China for 18 years and Paterson lived there until she was 4, speaking Chinese and attending a Chinese kindergarten. She has never returned to mainland China, but those first influences of the Orient and of Christianity have remained constants in her life.

The family was driven out of China by the Japanese invasion of 1939 - hardly a propitious beginning for someone who was to base her literary career on Japanese history and culture. She remembers the Japanese soldiers "streaming up the beach and across our yard, practicing they said, for the invasion of San Francisco." She also remembers bombs dropping all around, and expeditions to the bomb areas with her father. She thus grew up to regard the Japanese as "the enemy" and was deeply wounded when she got back to the States and schoolmates called her "Jap" because they vaguely knew she had come from the Orient.

War and the changing political scene in China ruled out the return of the family to Tsing Tsiang pu and Paterson settled to a regular American childhood in Winston-Salem, N.C. Gradually her bitter image of the Japanese faded. "Just Growing Up" was a part of it, and so was a close friendship with a Japanese girl in college. On graduation Katherine Paterson volunteered her services to the Presbyterian Mission Board. Her story never strays very far from the path of down-to-earth working Christianity, revered yet taken for granted, all-pervasive yet never obtrusive.

So she studied Japanese, proved a gifted linquist, and spent two years teaching religious studies in the rural island of Shikoku where foreigners ever today are conspicuous. Was she writing all this time? She is skeptical, "from time to time my mother sends me stuff I wrote when I was young," she confesses, "but it's all so abominable that I destroyed it. I suppose I have written all my life - but never very well." So much for Paterson juvenalia.

After two years in Japan, she got a scholarship to study religious education at Union Theological Seminary in New York. There she met John Paterson (who is now rector of the Presbyterian Church in Takoma Park) and in 1962 married him. With her usual original timing, this was not only the "happily ever after" part of the story. For Katherine Paterson, author, this was just the beginning.

Then there were the children. The four Paterson children and the Paterson books are inextricably linked. "Of Nightingales That Weep" is dedicated to Lyn Paterson; "The Master Puppeteer" is John Jr.'s special book and he was in New York with his parents to see it honored; David's book "Bridge to Terabithia" is scheduled for fall publication and like Mary's book, still in manuscript, it is set in contemporary America.

Paterson's first book for young people "Who Am I?" written at the request of a religious organization was completed the year after John Jr. was born, while the Paterson's were awaiting the arrival of Lyn from an orphanage in Hong Kong.

They had applied for her three weeks after their marriage and she is the eldest, but red tape delayed her arrival for so long that she finally reached this country, aged two, a few months after John Jr. was born. "At 32," says Katherine Paterson, "I went from no children to two small babies in a few months." After David was born the following year, she began taking writing courses because "writing was the only thing that belonged just to me," and began work on what would eventually be her first published work of fiction: "The Sign of the Chrysanthemum," a story of a medieval Japanese sword maker.

She is remarkably clear-eyed about her progress towards writing gas a career. She remembers a teacher in graduate school asking her why she didn't try writing. "I was horribly pompus," she grimaces. "I told her I didn't want to add one more mediocre writer to the world." Her teacher came back with what Paterson now calls "the perfect putdown." "But Katherine," she told her, "Maybe that's what God is calling you to do."

"She was right of course," says Katherine with no trace of snug piety. "I had to take the risk of being mediocre in order to achieve anything at all."

The babies grew and "Chrysanthemum" made the rounds of the publishing houses. Some rejections were form slips, others kind letters. Two years passed and Lyn grew old enough to request "a sister who looks like me." That fit right into the Paterson's plan to have two biological children and to adopt two. But by then money was short and the expense of adopting another child from the Orient was out of the question. Mary, a baby of Apache and Kiowan parents from Arizona, solved the problem. Lyn and her parents met the social worker bringing Mary at the airport Lyn looked at the tiny baby and declared with satisfaction "her hair's like mine, her eyes are like mine - and her ears are the same color." The family was complete.

Meanwhile, "Chrysanthemum" had finally been accepted for publication, but was caught in the federal education funds squeeze and did not emerge as a finished book until 1973. "Of Nightingales That Weep," ("still my favorite book") about a young orphaned Koto player in 12th century Japan was finished, and Paterson was at a loss. "I was no emotionally tied up with 'Nightingales" and was convinced my career was at and end, I had no ideas."

Enter her four children demanding a mystery story. "Anyone who could be beaten at chess by a six-year-old had no brain for a mystery story," she protested, little dreaming that among other honors; her next book would be nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe juvenile award given by the Mystery Writers of AMerica! But the children's idea took secret root and an advertisement in the newspaper for the traditional puppet theater of Japan, the Bunraku theater, gave her the idea. "A mystery in a puppet theater would be perfect - the operators all hooded." But she had no background to write such a story."

Enter her husband. "He suggested that I take the advance from 'Nightingales' and go to Japan. I felt very strange. It just didn't seen right for a mother. I suppose that will sound very silly to most young women, but I just didn't see leaving four small children and taking off for Japan." But John Sr. persisted. She agreed to go if she could take Lyn and include a trip to Hong Kong. T.Y. Crowell agreed to double her advance, and "The Master Puppeteer" was on its way.

The trip was a tremendous success. The puppet theater in Osaka was fascinating and her fluent Japanese enabled her to understand the intricate formality of the puppet world. Lyn coped well with the long-for visit to the Hong Kong orphange where she had spent her infancy, and they returned to Takoma Park "full of Optimism.

Then the book soured. "I began writing," Katherine Paterson recalls, "but somehow it was so depressing, so flat, so weighed down with research. I felt terrible. All that fuss and expense and then not to be able to get a good book out it." Life got blacker. A small tumor was diagnosed as cancerous and she was scheduled for a stay in hospital. She is grateful now that her husband John "nagged and pushed" her into fishing the first draft of "Puppetter" before she went into hospital.

It was not until the following summer that she feld able to work on the novel again. The family vacationed at Silver Bay on Lake George and Paterson worked doggedly on the book that she had no faith in. One night an electric storm caused the lights to fail and to keep the children amused she began reading parts of the manuscript to them by candlelight. "They listened," she said, "and the next day I found John Jr. going through my desk. He was looking for the next chapter to find out what happened. That was the breakthrough - what I needed - and I began to think it might be a book after all."

It was this same book that over three years later had is author cooped up in her study trying to write what her children called her "five hundred deathless words" - her acceptance speech to be delivered before the National Academy of Arts and Letters at the National Book Awards presentation ceremony. "I told them I had to get it written before supper, and they got hungrier and hungrier. 'Just 500 words' they kept saying. I told them I had already thrown away at least three thousand."

Katherine Paterson joked that the $1,000 prize would probably go for braces and was calm and self-posessed at the ceremony, until the citation was read.

It included the words " . . . from its pages the poor and persecuted speak to the human and social problems of every eposch." She was near to tears and said afterwards "That part of my books is so important to me and no one had ever mentioned it before.I thought no one had noticed."