Bridge to Terabithia is one of the most classic books you may ever read about friendship, imagination, and loss. And, with all of these elements, the book won Katherine Paterson her first Newbery Medal in 1978 (she won another for Jacob Have I Loved in 1981). The novel won a lot of other honors, too, including being named an ALA Notable Children's Book in 1977 and a School Library Journal Best Book of 1977.
But, like many other great children's books, it's come under controversial fire. It happens to deal with some pretty difficult subject matter, like death and religion (for example, some critics think Leslie's not a good role model because she doesn't attend church), and it doesn't help that some of the characters do some mild swearing (source).
However, it seems as though defenses for the book are even more passionate than criticisms. English Professor John Simmons, for example, writes in The ALAN Review that censoring a book like this has far-reaching, devastating consequences:
"[…] causing Bridge to Terabithia to be excluded from the literary bill of fare for young adults would do much more than simply allow the censors to ban a high-quality novel. It may sound a frighteningly clear clarion call for a full-scale attack on imaginative literature throughout U.S. programs of study." (source)
Whether you applaud Paterson for giving a voice to childhood loss and grief or not, what some people don't know is that Bridge to Terabithia is inspired by the true story of the author's son and his best friend. In the second grade, Paterson's son, David, became best friends with a girl named Lisa, who was tragically killed when she was struck by lightning. Paterson found herself unable to explain the loss to her son and ended up writing Bridge to Terabithia. In a Q&A on her website, she says, "I wrote the book to try to make sense out of a tragedy that seemed senseless" (source).
Not surprisingly, over the years Paterson has received lots of fan mail that question the rather unconventional decision to write about the death of a main character. In a 2005 interview, Paterson admitted, "When children ask me why she had to die, I want to weep, because it is a question for which I have no answer" (source). Both in life and in fiction, it seems, the loss of a friend like that can't be explained or undone.
[Warning: This section contains spoilers. But be sure to come back once you've finished reading the story.]
There's no nice or easy way to sugarcoat this, so we're just going to come out and ask. Have you ever loved somebody who died? If you have, we're really sorry. If you haven't, consider yourself quite lucky. Eventually, losing someone we love – a friend or relative, a pet, someone who's close to us – is something that happens to all of us. It's part of life and we all have to deal with it.
That's part of what can make reading Jess and Leslie's story helpful and important. It helps us understand three things: