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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:
Losing a best friend is probably one of the toughest things to go through in life, no matter how old or young you are. The fact that Jess only has Leslie in his life for less than a year makes her loss even more tragic, if that's even possible: as soon as he finds her, she slips away. But Jess gains so much from his friendship with Leslie – the kinds of life-changing support that almost can't be put into words – that their mutual transformation is more significant than the fact they only had a little time together. Reading about Jess's loss and how he deals with it – how he chooses to be brave, look forward, and honor his friend – helps prepare us to deal with future sadness, or honor people close to us who are no longer here.
Katherine Paterson's Website
Check out Paterson's website and learn about her other books and awards.
"New Envoy's Old Advice for Children: Read More"
Paterson discusses goals for reading in an interview with the New York Times.
Interview with Paterson
Mary Brigid Barrett interviews Paterson for the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance.
This list is keyed to some of the "big words" in Bridge to Terabithia.
Glance through the book on the Harper Collins site.
Bridge to Terabithia (2007)
This 2007 movie version stars Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb.
Bridge to Terabithia (1985)
The 1985 TV movie includes an appearance by Annette O'Toole as Miss Edmunds.
Another Chat with Katherine Paterson
This interview covers Paterson's life and work, not just Bridge to Terabithia.
Check out the cover for the DVD release of the 2007 movie.
Book Cover 1
Artwork by Michael Deas.
Book Cover 2
Another version of the book.