This book lets actions and reactions speak for themselves. Unlike pure fantasy books like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example, where fantasylands are described in loving and exquisite detail, in this book Terabithia exists only in the characters' minds. We readers can't see Terabithia except as Jess and Leslie perceive it – we have to imagine it along with them. Paterson's understated tone enables us to take part in that transformation along with Jess and Leslie, and to follow along as they create a fantasyland where other people might just see an ordinary patch of forest. Paterson's use of understatement is particularly poignant when bad things happen. There's no need to go into detail about why the bad things are so awful: we, and Jess, already know.
Bridge to Terabithia is very much a work of children's literature. The language Paterson uses is honest and age-appropriate. Complicated things happen, but they're always described with the kinds of words her characters would use. Jess might drink coffee and struggle with adult topics – frustrated ambition, desire, and, finally, grief – and Leslie's parents treat him and Leslie like adults, but they are still in elementary school. Even as they co-create a complex fantasy world, they're also forced to deal with bullies on the bus and do what they regard as stupid homework assignments.
In writing a book like Bridge to Terabithia aimed primarily at an audience of children, Paterson reminds her readers that tragedy, joy, love, and grief happen to us no matter how old, or young, we are. Jess isn't old enough to drink, or smoke, or vote, or even to drive a car. But he is old enough to have an amazing friendship, to love his friend, and to realize what that friendship, and that friend, gave him. For more on how the book was received as Children's Literature, see the "Intro."
Let's take this in parts and, just for kicks, we'll even go backwards. Terabithia is the magical, imaginary land invented by the book's two main characters, Leslie and Jess. It's a part of a forest and they have to cross a creek by swinging on a rope to get to it. But, once they make it there, Leslie and Jess aren't just out-of-place fifth graders – they're a queen and king.
The "bridge" part of the title is both literal and metaphorical. At the end of the book, Jess literally builds a bridge to Terabithia that crosses the creek (see "What's Up With the Ending?" for more on this). It's an actual object that connects imaginative Terabithia to ordinary Lark Creek. But, the idea of the bridge can also be seen metaphorically, as something that connects Jess and Leslie, that solidifies their friendship, and that links them to that magical place, Terabithia.
The ending of Bridge to Terabithia is sad, but it's also beautiful. Leslie dies, and that's awful. She was Jess's best friend and, he felt, the best part of himself: "his other, more exciting self – his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond" (4.138). Leslie showed Jess that he could be more than he was, and that he could be great – that he should believe in himself and that he was worth believing in. Death's never not going to be hard to deal with or not make people sad. But when Leslie dies, that's the worst possible thing Jess could imagine. She brought Terabithia to life: it was always her speech that described who and what happened there, and Jess always turned to her for advice on how to act or speak in ways that "fit."
Partly, that's what makes the way he decides to honor her memory, and keep her with him, so moving. Instead of deserting Terabithia, or blaming it for Leslie's death – and Jess totally could have gone there – he realizes the value their shared imaginary land had and fights on to preserve it. By building the bridge to Terabithia and leading his little sister across it, he makes the magical land more accessible and reclaims it for himself. Just as Leslie taught him to use his imagination and look for secret worlds of mystery and magic where other folks only saw trees and brush, he's now going to teach May Belle about the value of such hidden things.
The characters all live in a small town called Lark Creek and, except for when Jess goes to Washington, D.C., with Miss Edmunds, all the action takes place there. Lark Creek is a small, almost backward town in Virginia where people are slow to accept change and frown on difference (see "Character Analysis: Miss Edmunds" for more on this). They don't like hippies or girls who wear pants. People live on farms, work hard, and struggle. They don't have many resources and people, even children, are supposed to make do with the little they've got.
In a way, that's how Terabithia is – Leslie and Jess making do with what they've got. They've got a rope swing, a creek, a patch of forest, and a grove, which we know doesn't sound like much. But gosh, they do have something worth so much more than what the other characters in the book possess – real, exciting imagination, imagination so powerful that it almost seems like magic. Magic turns the creek into a boundary between realms, the grove into a sacred place, a puppy into a prince, and two fifth graders into a king and queen. We don't see that much of Terabithia, but we know it's a setting for court ceremonies, battles, and imaginative progress. And it's part of Lark Creek. Jess tells us that ideas and morals from Terabithia bleed over into regular life in Lark Creek and, by the end of the book, we see him formalize the connections between the two regions, physically linking them by building a bridge. (For more on this, see "What's Up With the Title?" and "What's Up With the Ending?")
The things that make this book tough aren't big words, complex structure, or anything like that. At first, we think we're reading a nice, straightforward text about friendship and imagination amongst elementary school students. Later, though, bad things happen and the characters – and us as readers – have to address some really weighty issues: death, loss, and grief. Don't be embarrassed if you tear up by the end of this book. Shmoop's eyes weren't dry either.
There's nothing highfalutin' or fancy about the language in this book. And that's fitting, because the people in it are plain speaking and straightforward, too. Leslie and her family, who are more obviously cultured and educated than the other folks in the town, aren't pretentious in their use of knowledge or vision: they're just more open. Even in Terabithia, Leslie and Jess speak more formally and solemnly, but they're always motivated by honesty and faithfulness to their idea of the place they inhabit.
And when bad things happen, Paterson uses the same simple, honest language to make sense of them. In the excerpt below, Jess learns that Leslie has died:
Something whirled around inside Jess's head. He opened his mouth, but it was dry and no words came out. He jerked his head from one face to the next for someone to help him.
Finally his father spoke, his big rough hand stroking his wife's hair and his eyes downcast watching the motion. "They found the Burke girl this morning down in the creek." (11.1-2)
Jess can't even speak to figure out what's happened to his friend: "no words c[o]me out." When his dad confirms the news, he doesn't sugarcoat it, or hide it behind platitudes (which are like clichés). He doesn't use meaningless words to talk about such a meaningful event. He just says what happened. What makes this harder is that, even though Jess is looking at his family's faces hoping that they'll "help him" by denying the news or disproving it, his father doesn't even meet his eyes while quickly and immediately letting him know that kind of help won't be coming.
Terabithia is created by Leslie and Jess's conviction that they require a space of their own, a magic space where no one will bother them and where they can hang out in peace. On an early day in their friendship, Leslie tells Jess her idea:
"We need a place," she said, "just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it." Jess came swinging back and dragged his feet to stop. She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. "It might be a whole secret country," she continued, "and you and I would be the rulers of it." (4.98)
Their first ideas about Terabithia come from the Narnia books (by C.S. Lewis), which Leslie lends Jess. They build a castle in their own imagined land, declare themselves rulers, and create customs and ceremonies to observe. In Terabithia, they fight imaginary battles, become victorious, and conduct celebratory feasts. We don't learn much about what Terabithia looks like physically. We know you have to get there by crossing the creek in between their farms and the forest: the place where they build their castle is "where the dogwood and redbud played hide and seek between the oaks and evergreens, and the sun flung itself in golden streams through the trees to splash warmly at their feet" (4.105). To properly "see" Terabithia, we just need to use our imaginations, just like Jess and Leslie do. (For more on Terabithia's significance, see "What's Up With The Title?")
For most of the book, Jess and Leslie get to Terabithia "by swinging across [the creek] on this enchanted rope" (4.102). In a series of tragic coincidences, the rope gives out when Leslie is swinging on it by herself and when the creek is completely full. The danger Jess felt but couldn't express comes suddenly, horribly true. It's nobody's fault, but it can't be undone. After the tragedy, Jess wonders if their magic land is still magical, "If it was still Terabithia. If it could be entered across a branch instead of swung into" (13.5). It takes him a while to figure out that it is, and it can – and that not going back to Terabithia would be a disservice to Leslie. Yet, after his close call with May Belle, Jess realizes there has to be a better way, a new way, into Terabithia:
"The next day after school, Jess went down and got the lumber he needed, carrying it a couple of boards at a time to the creek bank. He put the two longest pieces across at the narrow place upstream from the crab apple tree, and when he was sure they were as firm and even as he could make them, he began to nail on the crosspieces." (13.69)
As if Leslie's memory wouldn't be present each time Jess went to Terabithia, he's ensured a memorial to his dear friend by using lumber from her parents' house to build the actual bridge. The bridge Jess makes doesn't look like much: although Jess knows it's "the great bridge into Terabithia," he understands it "might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully" (13.82). But it's another way of bringing the magic Leslie saw in Terabithia to the outside world where he can share it with others. (For more on the bridge's significance, see "What's Up With the Title?" and "What's Up With the Ending?")
None of the characters in the book are very religious, but some of them still attend church. Leslie's family doesn't go at all, and Jess's only makes it there once a year. For the Aarons family, church seems to be as much about presenting a good front to the community as it is about actually believing. We hear about belief systems from the very young May Belle, who insists to Leslie that without a belief in the Bible, "God'll damn you to hell when you die" (8.72). Leslie, with her imaginative, secular mindset, disagrees. This is one of the things that worries Jess when Leslie dies, and his father reassures him: "God ain't gonna send any little girls to hell" (12.34). Yet some people see these ideas as "anti-religious sentiments" instead of comforting ideas (source). For more on how the topic of religion is touched on in potential censorship, this website and Shmoop's "Intro."
Paterson's use of third person (limited omniscient) point of view means we see the events and the circumstances as Jess would see them, like we're peeking over his shoulder. We usually know how he feels, even though the book's not written in first person. Most importantly, we get to see Leslie as Jess sees her. It's not that he views her with eyes so biased that we don't get a clear picture of her – it's that we never see Terabithia or Jess directly through Leslie's eyes too. We know how she felt about both of them, but that information is always filtered through someone else's perspective, like Jess's, or her father's. Because we never hear the story from Leslie's point of view, when she dies, we don't have any way to process that information except to feel along with Jess and be sad along with him.
In the setup to the book, we meet Jess, learn about Lark Creek (see "Setting"), and figure out a little bit about his family life. We see that Jess isn't understood by his family, doesn't have any real friends, and doesn't even like school very much. So, he takes all the feelings he has about loneliness or being left out, or wanting something more for himself, and puts them into the goal of training to become the fastest runner in his grade. Being the fastest runner will give him identity, glory, and purpose. It's the most exciting thing on his horizon.
Even though Jess and Leslie are both looking for friends, and they've just become neighbors, Jess doesn't start out thinking Leslie's an appropriate friend choice. After all, she's a girl, and at the beginning of the book his understanding of friendship is kind of limited by gender roles. Yet, even though he barely knows Leslie, he stands up for her when she wants to run in the boys' race. He doesn't even know why he does so, and kind of regrets it when she beats the pants off everybody else. On just her first day at school, she's ruined his dream of being the fastest runner. But her efforts persist and eventually she wins Jess over. By losing the title of fastest runner, Jess gains a surprising new friend.
Jess and Leslie's friendship is strengthened by their two encounters with Janice Avery, the seventh grade bully. First, Janice takes May Belle's Twinkies. Since Jess can't try and beat Janice up for revenge, he and Leslie concoct a plan whereby they write her a fake love letter and embarrass her. They use ingenuity to achieve a better end result. Later, though, when Leslie finds Janice crying in a bathroom, she and Jess find they've grown in compassion and make an attempt to comfort the former bully. Together they learn that even enemies should be treated with dignity.
Jess is thrilled beyond expectation when Miss Edmunds offers to take him out for a special day. He's so taken aback that he forgets about his worry that it wouldn't have been safe to go to Terabithia that day. Throughout his time with Miss Edmunds, he thinks about how Leslie would react and how she would advise him in different situations. Ironically, on his way home he thinks that the day was so great it would be worth any sacrifice. Little does he know that it will cost him something tremendous.
At first Jess can't believe his friend has died – he refuses to process the information. He tries to deny it when people tell him, and then starts acting like nothing happened. He even dreams that her death was another, worse dream, and tries to talk to her and tell her about the magical day he had – a day that will forever be tainted. It's not until he throws Leslie's gift to him away that he begins to realize she's actually gone and is finally able to cry.
Jess is still struggling to process his grief when he admits to his father his worry Leslie will go to hell, and his dad reassures him that their God wouldn't do that. What helps Jess most might be talking to his teacher Mrs. Myers, who reminds him that he has the power of memory and can keep Leslie with him, in a way, by honoring her memory and thinking about her. By observing her grief, he learns about human nature and realizes just how much he learned from Leslie after all.
At the end of the book, Jess returns to Terabithia and has to save his sister's life when May Belle tries to follow him. Using lumber given to him by Leslie's parents, Jess is inspired to build a bridge across to Terabithia, so that both he and May Belle can get there safely. While we're sure he wishes they'd built the bridge months earlier, so Leslie would have been safe, the fact that he builds it after her death means that he still values Terabithia and thinks it's important to keep going there, rather than staying away after the tragedy. Leslie would have wanted it that way.