Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5
Bridge to Terabithia, the 1978 Newbery Medal Winner, is a story of two lonely children finding each other and inventing a fantasy world all their own. Katherine Paterson strikes a perfect balance with this book. There is no grand drama and precious few evil foes, but the tender character-building carries the story. It makes the plot twist towards the end of the book that much more painful.
Jesse Aarons was always something of an outsider. He’s a gifted artist, the only boy in a family of girls, and lacks friends at school. When Leslie Burke, a city girl, moves into the farmstead adjacent to his, Jesse finally finds someone with whom he can be himself. Leslie loves running, is afraid of very little, and has an immensely powerful imagination. Together, Jesse and Leslie defeat the school bully, and make peace with their classmates. Leslie also invents the imaginary land of Terabithia, located in a grove of trees and reachable only by swinging over the creek on a rope. The pair pretend to be royalty, even dubbing the puppy Jesse gives Leslie Prince Terrien.
One rainy day, their world comes crashing down. While Jesse is in Washington, D.C. visiting the National Gallery, Leslie attempts to swing over the rain-swollen creek. The rope breaks and she dies. The event is nearly as stunning for the reader as for Jesse, who learns about it only when he comes home from a day out. The last portion of the book deals with Jesse’s attempt to accept Leslie’s death and move forward. Through Jesse’s clear eyes, the author writes a visceral description of grief and how people handle it. Eventually, Jesse makes peace with Leslie’s death and decides that Terabithia is something he wants to share with his younger siblings, to help give them the growth and development that it brought him. Jesse came to the conclusion:
“that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world – huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? (Handle with care – everything – even the predators.)
Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn’t there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.”
As noted above, I am in awe of Paterson’s skill in creating this story. It is in turns cozy and challenging, fraught and comforting. Bridge to Terabithia deals with so many problems kids face, including bullying and loss of a friend. Through embedding backstory skillfully into the narrative, Paterson rouses sympathy for even the initially “bad” characters. For example, Janice Avery, who bullies Leslie, eventually opens up to Leslie, admitting that her father beats her. While there is (thankfully) no Hallmark moment where Leslie and Janice become best friends, the revelation does help the two reach an understanding. Each character, even the minor ones like Jesse’s sisters, is treated with similar care.
I have no qualms in recommending this book to everyone, ever. It may be a particularly useful read for kids who are dealing with the main “problems” in this title, like bullying or loss of a loved one. Bridge to Terabithia will inspire people of any age to live more brightly and to interact with others in a purposeful manner.