Bridge to Terabithia


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Year Published

Book Review

This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine

This coming-of-age story by Katherine Paterson is published by HarperCollins. It’s written for ages 10 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Jess Aarons trains to be the quickest runner in fifth grade. During the summer, he wakes up early to train. At Jess’ school, Lark Creek Elementary, being a good runner is the best way for a fifth-grade boy to distinguish himself. Jess is an artist and has previously spent most of his free time drawing, but now he wants to be an athlete.

Jess notices a family moving into a house nearby, and the daughter of the new family stops by for a visit. Leslie Burke is Jess’ age, and she tries to befriend him, but Jess resents Leslie when she beats him in a race at school. His dreams of being the best runner in his grade are dashed when he learns that no amount of practice will make him as fast as Leslie. Jess decides to make friends with Leslie anyway, and he learns that she is a thoughtful and interesting person.

Leslie decides that she and Jess need to invent their own secret country where the two of them can escape from the pressures of their difficult lives. They pick a place in the woods behind Leslie’s farmhouse and dub their new kingdom “Terabithia.” Jess and Leslie visit their land together daily. Jess provides Leslie with support and companionship, and Leslie improves Jess’ world by teaching him new words and telling stories.

Jess and Leslie decide to take revenge on an older girl, Janice, who is unkind to them and who steals things from weaker children. Jess and Leslie fool Janice into thinking she has received a love note from the boy she likes. When Janice tells her friends about the love note, they discover that the note is fake, and Janice is humiliated in front of the whole school.

As Christmas nears, Jess worries about what kind of present he will buy for Leslie. Jess gives her a puppy, and Leslie names it “Prince Terrien, guardian of Terabithia.” Leslie gives Jess a watercolor set. By spending part of Christmas vacation with Leslie, Jess feels less worried about the argumentative atmosphere of his own home. Jess gradually grows closer to Leslie’s parents as he helps the Burkes repair and decorate their farmhouse.

At school, Leslie hears Janice crying in the girls’ bathroom. Jess feels sorry for Janice and asks Leslie to see if Janice needs help. After talking to Janice, Leslie discovers that Janice’s father beats her and that the secret has been spread around school. Leslie comforts her, and the two of them become friends.

In the spring, Jess and Leslie continue to play in the forest, but they are surprised by how much the creek has risen from the spring rains. Jess is afraid of crossing it, but he thinks that he will feel braver after he has taken swimming lessons from Leslie, whose favorite hobby is scuba diving.

Jess’ music teacher, Miss Edmunds, asks Jess to go with her for a one-on-one field trip to the Smithsonian museum and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. When Jess returns from the trip, his family tells him that Leslie has died. After falling and hitting her head, Leslie drowned in the flooded creek behind her house. Jess is overwhelmed by sadness and disbelief. He does not know how to react to Leslie’s mourning family, and he feels angry with Leslie for abandoning him.

Jess goes into the woods to think about the times he spent with Leslie, but his little sister May Belle follows him. May Belle begins to cross the tree bridge over the flooded creek, but she loses her courage halfway across and yells for Jess to help her. Jess brings May Belle to safety on the shore of the creek and discovers that she was trying to join him so that he would not be lonely anymore.

At school, the other students whisper about Jess, but no one speaks to him. A teacher named Mrs. Myers tells Jess that she is sorry for his loss. Mrs. Myers misses Leslie, too, and she says that she and Jess can help each other through the time of loss. Jess understands that Leslie made his life better just by being his friend, and he does not want to forget her. Jess decides to start playing in the land of Terabithia with his sister to show her some of the affection and affirmation that Leslie shared with him.

Christian Beliefs

The principal at Jess’ school insists that the children in music class sing “God Bless America.” Jess imagines himself and Leslie like God in Genesis, looking at their country of Terabithia and proclaiming it good. Jess makes May Belle swear on a Bible that she won’t follow him anymore.

Mrs. Aarons is angry with the local pastor for unknown reasons, so she and her family have not attended church in three years, except for Easter services. Leslie says she is interested in going to church because she has not been before. Leslie goes to the Easter service with the Aarons family. During the sermon, Leslie happily sings the hymns.

Leslie is fascinated by the story of Jesus. She says that Jesus is like Abraham Lincoln, Socrates and Aslan, because he was someone who had done nothing wrong and yet was killed. Jess says that Jesus’ story is not beautiful and that God made Jesus die because human beings are all vile sinners. Leslie thinks it’s strange that Jess feels forced to believe that the stories about Jesus are true, and yet he hates the stories, while she does not have to believe the Bible but still thinks its ideas are beautiful.

May Belle tells Leslie that God will send her to hell if she does not believe in Him. After Leslie’s death, Jess asks his father if he believes that people really go to hell. Mr. Aarons says that God does not send little girls to hell.

After Leslie’s death, Jess goes into the forest and paraphrases Scripture, saying that he commends Leslie’s spirit into God’s hands.

Other Belief Systems

Jess says he thought the forest behind Leslie’s house was haunted. Leslie says the forest is haunted, but with good spirits. During their playtime, Leslie prays to the spirits of the forests, thanking them for their help in defeating the imaginary armies that have invaded Terabithia. Jess notices that Leslie is more comfortable with magic than with religion. Later, Leslie asks the spirits to help her overcome an unknown evil curse that has come to Terabithia. After Leslie’s death, Jess makes a large wreath in the woods and announces that his offering pleases the spirits.

Authority Roles

Mr. Aarons has a long commute to work and rarely has time to spend with his son. Jess has fond memories of a time when his dad was not so tired, and the two of them would have fun and wrestle with each other. Jess longs to hug and kiss his father, as his little sisters do, but he knows that his father would not appreciate such open displays of affection. Mr. Aarons is also concerned about his son making friends with a girl, because it seems unmanly.

Mr. Aarons is not pleased with his son’s artistic abilities. When Jess was in first grade, he told his father that he wanted to be an artist when he grew up, but his father was angry at the announcement. Jess no longer dares to show his drawings to Mr. Aarons, even though he would like to share his work with his father.

When Jess hears about Leslie’s death, he runs away from home, and Mr. Aarons follows him. Mr. Aarons picks up his son like a baby and carries him. Later, Mr. Aarons offers words of comfort to Jess as he grieves.

Mrs. Aarons needs her two teenage daughters to help with household chores, but she allows the girls to go shopping instead. The girls try to make their mother feel guilty for not letting them have more free time and spend more money than they currently do. Mrs. Aarons angrily gives her daughters the money they request for their shopping trip.

Mrs. Aarons screams at Jess when they are canning beans together. When she is too tired to cook dinner, Jess makes peanut butter sandwiches for himself and his two younger sisters. Mrs. Aarons claims, in front of all her children, that Ellie is the only child who cares whether her mother lives or dies.

Jess has a crush on his music teacher, Miss Edmunds, who is the only person to encourage his artistic ability. Leslie calls her parents by their first names, which shocks Jess. Unlike Jess’ parents, Leslie’s parents enjoy her company and like to have her near them while they work on home improvement projects. Jess finds it strange that Mr. Burke wants to be friends with his own daughter.

Profanity & Violence

God’s name is frequently taken in vain. The words h— and d–n are used. Jess’ sister uses “Christmas” as an interjection. H—hole is used to describe Jess’ house in the summer heat. B–ched is used to mean “complained.”
Janice’s father beats her, but details are not mentioned. Jess punches his 6-year-old sister in the face when she repeatedly asks him about whether he has seen Leslie’s dead body.

Sexual Content

Jess’ teenage sister Ellie buys a see-through blouse, and her mother is angry over the indecent purchase. As Jess waits outside the girls’ bathroom for Leslie, he is worried that a teacher will think he is a pervert, trying to peek at the girls inside the bathroom. Jess believes that a girlfriend is a girl who chases a boy on the playground and tries to kiss him. Jess is amused by his 6-year-old sister May Belle’s ugly appearance when she first wakes up, but May Belle misinterprets his gaze and threatens to tell their mother that he’s been staring at her while she’s only wearing her underwear.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Alcohol: Jess’ extreme love for drawing pictures is compared to an adult with an addiction to whiskey.

Smoking: Janice, the seventh-grade bully, smokes in the bathroom.

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