Bridge to Terabithia is one of the reasons I started this site. It’s become a childhood classic, but it’s also one that many people list among the most traumatic books they read as kids. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about depictions of death in kids books, I decided I’d better reread it, instead of relying on 20 year old memories (I first read it as an adult, not a child).
Bridge to Terabithia tells the story of Jess, an 11 year old boy in a poor rural community. He builds an unlikely friendship with Leslie when she and her hippie parents move into the farm next door. She truly understands him, and he becomes more himself when he’s with her. They create Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom in the woods that they get to by a rope swing over a creek.
Primarily, the novel depicts a close friendship and a quest for self-discovery in a world bent on making you something you aren’t. The sheer number of classic books mentioned as formative helps explain why this book appealed to so many elementary school teachers.
And then suddenly Leslie is dead. The rope swing broke when she went to Terabithia by herself. She hit her head and drowned. Jess’ life comes crashing down around him. Jess does eventually pull himself together; after his younger sister nearly drowns trying to get to Terabithia, he builds a bridge for her and their youngest sister so the three of them can safely cross to Terabithia. And thus the novel gets its name.
Published in 1977, the novel is somewhat dated. The Vietnam War has recently ended, but hippies are still treated with suspicion.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Most of the families in the neighborhood are barely scraping by. However, they all have a TV. Jess’ mom and older sisters seem painfully aware of how other people will perceive them.
Leslie’s family has money—enough that they don’t have to worry about how they’ll afford their food and clothes. They’ve moved to the country to get away from the material focus of the city. Going along with those choices, they also don’t have a TV. Most of the kids see this as some kind of child abuse. Of course, the author makes it pretty clear that TV creates slack-jawed viewers, so her parents seem to be in the right. Overall, Leslie’s parents seem kind of oblivious to any class issues.
Although religion seems to play a very small role in Jess’ life, his whole family goes to church each Easter. It’s a big deal, and Jess manages to convince his mom to let Leslie come with them. Leslie has never been to church, and she finds the story of Easter to be beautiful, while Jess feels like religion in general is some kind of punishment.
When Jess’ younger sister learns that Leslie doesn’t believe in the Bible, she gets very worked up because she’s sure Leslie will go to hell if she dies (a little foreshadowing). After Leslie’s death, Jess’ dad assures him that God wouldn’t send a little girl to hell.
Leslie’s parents are creative and mostly supportive. They’re obviously involved in her upbringing. She calls them Bill and Judy, which makes Jess uncomfortable. They accept Jess happily as a friend of their daughter.
Jess’ family is crammed into a small house—he shares a bedroom with his 4 and 6 year old sisters. His older sisters tease the younger kids. His father works long hours far from home, and his mother only wants peace and help with the chores. Jess looks up to his dad, although he rarely gets to spend any time at all with him. He likes his six year old sister. Other than that, there seems to be very little redeeming about his family. In fact, of all the people in the book, Jess only likes Leslie, his sister, his dad, and his music teacher. Everyone else feels like an antagonist of some sort.
Abuse & Violence
It’s just accepted that parents beat their children. The only crime is when a child admits to being hit, thus betraying the parents. One of the girls at school is ostracized when she tells her best friends that her father beat her badly, and her friends spread the story. No one cares that she was beaten, only that she didn’t keep her mouth shut about it.
Kids are routinely bullied and it’s perceived as something you just have to put up with. Instead of telling grownups, you just learn how to follow the unspoken playground rules so you don’t draw attention to yourself. After an older girl, Janice, plays a trick on Jess’ little sister, Jess and Leslie write her a note supposedly from a boy she has a crush on. She’s horribly embarrassed, which makes Jess feel momentarily guilty, but the vengeance for his little sister is worth it.
In the aftermath of Leslie’s death, Jess hauls off and hits his 6 year old sister in the face with all his might. Although he feels bad and means to apologize, the only fall out from this is that she’s nervous around him for a while.
Jess’ fear of water is well established in the novel. He sees it as some kind of weakness, something he has to figure out how to overcome. There’s the implication that all fear should be ignored because it shows your faults and shortcomings. This is also reflected in how no one passes up a dare—once you’ve been challenged, you have to go through with it, even if you don’t want to and it’s possibly a bad idea.
Leslie’s death feels so abrupt that it’s like a different book after her death. Jess’ reaction goes through all the stages of grief—he denies it, he gets angry, etc. until he finally seems to accept it by building the bridge. I suppose this section might be useful to a child coping with loss, but then the rest of the novel is superfluous. For kids who loved the story of the friendship between Jess and Leslie, the ending may feel senseless.
I didn’t like the lead up to it—Jess spends the day with his teacher at an art museum and thinks in passing that he should ask if Leslie could come, but he doesn’t. He has a wonderful experience, then comes home to find out his friend is dead, which she probably would not have been if he’d been with her.
Jess’ parents finally reach out to him, but the strong implication is that they wouldn’t have if Leslie hadn’t died. His teacher, too, reaches out. Leslie’s death finally gets some of the adults to act as they should have been all along. What a high price to pay.
I don’t know that I would recommend this book. If you do suggest it to a child, I’d strongly recommend that you tell them up front that Leslie will die. There are clues throughout the book about drowning and dying that you will only catch once you know the ending. With 10 and 11 year old protagonists, and the action firmly set in 5th grade, this books seems to be aimed at about age 9 and up. However, your kid had better be ready for a gut wrenching depiction of grief. It’s clear that Leslie is only 10 when she dies, and that she was a strong swimmer who should have been ok. There’s a strong underlying message of “Even you could be dead tomorrow” so make sure you’re ready for that conversation.
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson
Published in 1977 by HarperCollins
Borrowed from the local library for my Kindle
Newbery Medal winner