Paterson, who has already earned regard with her historical fiction set in Japan, proves to be just as eloquent and assured when dealing with contemporary American children–and Americans of very different backgrounds at that. Jess, from an uneducated family in rural Virginia, has been practicing all summer to become the fastest runner at school–a reputation more desirable than his present image as “that crazy little kid who draws all the time.” But Jess is beaten in the first race of the fifth-grade year by a newcomer–who is also the first girl ever to invade the boys’ part of the playground. Soon Jess and Leslie, whose parents have moved from the suburbs because they’re “reassessing their value structure,” become close friends. On her lead they create Terabithia, a secret magic kingdom in the woods, and there in the castle stronghold she tells him wonderful stories. . . about a gloomy prince of Denmark, or a crazy sea captain bent on killing a whale. She lends him her Narnia books and lectures him on endangered predators. . . but he teaches her compassion for a mean older girl at school. Indeed Leslie has brought enchantment into his life. Then one morning, with the creek they must swing over to reach Terabithia dangerously swollen by rain, and Jess torn between his fear of the maneuver and his reluctance to admit it, he is saved by an invitation to visit the National Gallery with his lovely music teacher. The day is perfect–but while he is gone Leslie is killed, swinging into Terabithla on their old frayed rope. Jess’ feelings range from numb denial to rage to guilt to desolation (at one point the thought occurs that “I am now the fastest runner in the fifth grade”)–typical grief reactions, but newly wrenching as Jess is no representative bibliotherapeutic model. By the end, he is ready to think about giving back to the world something of what he had received from Leslie. You’ll remember her too.
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Leslie was more than his friend; she was his other, more exciting, self, his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond. -Bridge to Terabithia
Okay, before I make this unmanly confession, let me first state in my own defense that I have two small children and I was listening to the conclusion of this book at a very early hour, before I’d even had breakfast to fortify me for the day. That said, I’ll now acknowledge that I very nearly started sobbing…
In 1976, Katherine Paterson’s son David was 8 years old when his friend, Lisa Hill, was struck by lightning and killed. A year later Bridge to Terabithia was published, winning a Newberry Medal and becoming, if such a thing is possible, an instant classic. Ms Paterson drew upon this personal tragedy to create the story of a boy, Jess Aarons, and a girl, Leslie Burke, in rural Virginia, who become the best of friends. Jess is the middle child, and only son, of a reticent father, who struggles to earn a living. Leslie is the daughter, and only child, of two successful writers who have moved to the country, next door to the Aarons, for lifestyle reasons.
The friendship between the two kids is hesitant at first, particularly after Leslie usurps Jess’s title as the fastest runner in their 5th grade class at Lark Creek Elementary. But both have some trouble fitting in with theirs peers, Jess because of his interest in Art, Leslie because of her scholastic ability and her parents’ very 70s social attitudes (like not having a TV), and this shared awkwardness gives them a unique bond. Leslie creates an imaginary kingdom called Terabithia for them to rule over, accessible only be a rope swing over a local creek.