"I hope they have a girl, six or seven," said May Belle. "I need somebody to play with."
"You got Joyce Ann."
"I hate Joyce Ann. She's nothing but a baby." (2.4-6)
Here, the characters' expectations about friends are revealed: that they should be the same gender and the same age. While this is a typical attitude toward friendship that a lot of us might share, it's also a reminder that, by narrowing categories for friendship like this, we might miss out. If Jess stuck to these criteria, he wouldn't be able to become great friends with Leslie.
The person slid off the fence and came toward him. "I thought we might as well be friends," it said. "There's no one else close by." (2.49)
Moving from the previous idea, the idea that Leslie doesn't appear overly-girly right away – Jess can't even tell if she's a girl or a boy – might contribute in the long run to Jess's willingness to be friends with her. She doesn't read as "girl" or "boy," but as a "person" and potential friend. The other thing to notice here is that she makes the first move – she's the one who reaches out to Jess, not the other way around. She seems kind of diffident, or shy, here, through her use of "might" and her explanation that "there's no one else" around.
He nodded and smiled again. She smiled back. He felt there in the teachers' room that it was the beginning of a new season in his life, and he chose deliberately to make it so. (4.15)
This is a really cool description of the moment when you first become friends with someone and you realize that it's happening. Here, Jess also has the power of agency. He "cho[o]se[s] deliberately" to have this thing happen, to create this "new season." For someone like him, without resources or much encouragement, it must feel awesome to take control and introduce such a positive thing into his life.
For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to. Leslie was more than his friend. She was his other, more exciting self – his way to Terabithia and all the worlds beyond. (4.138)
Like the "new season" (4.15) discussed above, Jess discovers that his friendship with Leslie is constantly bringing him new things and discoveries. She brings joy and excitement to his routine and helps him get excited about experiencing life "for the first time." We can't think of much higher praise to give someone than when Jess says Leslie is not only a part of him but a "more exciting self" – that through knowing her and being her friend, he can get into "all the worlds beyond" what he used to know.
He was angry, too, because it would soon be Christmas and he had nothing to give Leslie. It was not that she would expect something expensive; it was that he needed to give her something as much as he needed to eat when he was hungry. (6.6)
In contrast to the commercial aspects of some Christmas-time gift giving – like May Belle's desire for the Barbie, for example – Jess's desire to give Leslie a gift isn't about displaying his wealth or generosity, or about feeling bad that he doesn't have as much money as she does. Something deep inside him "need[s] to give her something" – because he's her friend, he feels this compulsion to give to her and to make her happy any way he can. We never hear him describe what he wants for Christmas, we only hear him worry about what to get Leslie and how to show her that she matters to him.
He wanted to tell her how proud and good she made him feel, that the rest of Christmas didn't matter because today had been so good, but the words he needed weren't there. (6.23)
The power of Jess and Leslie's friendship is such that it can heal even big wounds and unhappy things like his disappointing family Christmas. Jess's family can't give him what he gave Leslie, or what she gave him. They want to help but they fall short, and that makes them mad. It's not easy or natural, like Leslie's excitement about the dog that Jess gives her for the holiday. Instead, Jess has to turn to Leslie to "feel" "proud and good" – the kinds of feelings that usually come from family but here come from a friend.
There in their secret place, his feelings bubbled inside him like a stew on the back of the stove--some sad for her in her lonesomeness, but chunks of happiness, too. To be able to be Leslie's one whole friend in the world as she was his – he couldn't help being satisfied about that. (7.112)
Jess compares the combination of his feelings for Leslie to a "bubbl[ing] […] stew." Great metaphor, right? This gives us a vivid picture of how his feelings are churning and turning around inside him, evenly mixing between the positive and negative. Even as Jess feels bad for her because she doesn't have other friends, he's happy that she feels as strongly about their friendship as he does.
"She loved you, you know." He could tell from Bill's voice that he was crying. "She told me once that if it weren't for you…" His voice broke completely. "Thank you," he said a moment later. "Thank you for being such a wonderful friend to her." (12.13)
While the timing of this isn't the best – Jess can't really take anything in because of his grief, and immediately starts thinking about how Leslie would've laughed at this – it confirms the news he was so glad for earlier. Their friendship was pure and good, and so important. He mattered to Leslie just as much as she mattered to him. She loved him.
She was scraping at the mud on her bare legs. "I just wanted to find you, so you wouldn't be so lonesome." She hung her head. "But I got too scared." (13.35)
We knew it… May Belle was ready to be Jess's friend all along. He just wasn't yet ready to see it. There was no room in his mind or spirit to treat her like an equal and friend instead of a little sister. May Belle's trying to give him something because he's "lonesome," just like he wanted to give Leslie a great present. Both of them are acting generously towards their friends without thinking about other ulterior motives.
Sometimes like the Barbie doll you need to give people something that's for them, not just something that makes you feel good giving it. Because Mrs. Myers had helped him already by understanding that he would never forget Leslie. (13.57)
Once again, friendship is tied to the idea of generosity. Giving people the things they need is an act of larger friendship. By giving Mrs. Myers praise on Leslie's behalf later in life, Jess thinks he will be thanking Mrs. Myers for assisting him in handling his grief, and also honoring both his memory of Leslie and of his friendship with her.
When you were the only boy smashed between four sisters, and the older two had despised you ever since you stopped letting them dress you up and wheel you around in their rusty old doll carriage, and the littlest one cried if you looked at her cross-eyed, it was nice to have somebody who worshiped you. Even if it got unhandy sometimes. (1.8)
Here the narrator moves into second person to describe Jess's place in his family. Since most of the book is in third person limited omniscient (see "Narrator Point of View" for more), this is unusual. It has the effect of putting readers into Jess's shoes and forcing us to really empathize with his position.
And May Belle would pop her buttons. Her brother was the fastest, the best. That ought to give the rest of the first grade something to chew their cuds on.
Even his dad would be proud. (1.20-21)
Jess's ambition to run fastest is fostered by a desire to please his family. In ascending order, he'll have the glory of being the fastest; the sister he likes best, May Belle, will "pop her buttons"; and "even his dad [will] be proud." That's the most exciting thing about the fantasy of winning – getting approval and acknowledgment from his dad.
Sometimes he felt so lonely among all these females – even the one rooster had died, and they hadn't yet gotten another. With his father gone from sunup until well past dark, who was there to know how he felt? (2.29)
Jess feels like an alien in his mostly female family. Everyone on the farm is female, even the livestock. The only other guy is his dad who's never there. So what this really tells us is that Jess's dad seems like an absent parent and Jess craves his father's approval and attention. Without his dad around, he feels even more isolated and alone.
Durn lucky kid. She could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born. (2.39)
Jess is jealous of his siblings because he feels like their dad is more loving and affectionate with them. They get the attention he craves. Yet he has to act like a "man," which seems to mean here that he doesn't get hugs and can't spontaneously demonstrate or ask for physical attention or reinforcement.
Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that really, from anyone else's point of view, he and Leslie were not related at all. (6.5)
We can see here that Jess's feeling about what constitutes family and whom he's closest to in the "real world" doesn't jive with what an outsider might think when just looking in. Brenda, his actual relation, would seem closer to him than his dear friend Leslie, even though that's so far from the truth it's laughable.
It wasn't one of those big sets that they advertised on TV, but it was electric, and he knew his dad had put more money into it than he should have. But the silly cars kept falling off at the curves until his father was cursing at them with impatience. Jess wanted it to be OK. He wanted so much for his dad to be proud of his present, the way he, Jess, had been proud of the puppy. (6.43)
Poor Jess and poor Jess's dad. Even though this present cost more than the Aarons could afford, it's still relatively cheap: it doesn't even work that well. Because it's flawed, Jess's dad is embarrassed and angry: it points to how much money they don't have and how, even when they do more than they can afford, it's still not enough. Somehow, Jess was able to get around this and give Leslie a present that transcend categories of money, but his father has not yet learned how to do so.
"What are you kids doing?" It was the same words that Jess's mother might have used, but it didn't come out the same way. Judy's eyes were kind of fuzzed over as she spoke, and her voice sounded as though it were being broadcast from miles away. (9.13)
Well, we know all about Jess's absent father, and faded mother, and here we see Leslie's mother is absent in a different way. She's there, in the same house as they are, yet she's also not there. Her brain is somewhere else. She makes all the right motions and says the same thing Jess's mother might have, but it doesn't mean the same thing somehow. For one of the first times, we realize that Leslie might have a similar problem to the one that Jess has, just in a different form.
He wondered what it would be like to have a mother whose stories were inside her head instead of marching across the television screen all day long. (9.23)
Jess's mother doesn't come off too well here in comparison to Leslie's – Leslie's is creative and preoccupied in the quest for establishing new knowledge, while Jess's is preoccupied by emptying her mind and letting other people's ideas fill it.
Suddenly his mother let out a great shuddering sob. "O my God. O my God." She said it over and over, her head down on her arms. His father moved to put his arm around her awkwardly, but he didn't take his eyes off Jess. (10.72)
For most of the book, we see Jess's parents through his biased lens, and see them in a negative light – especially in comparison to Leslie's parents, or to Leslie and Jess's own actions. But here we're reminded of their deep love for Jess as we see their fear that he was in danger and their relief that he's OK.
He tried to run faster, but his father passed him and stopped the pickup just ahead, then jumped out and ran back. He picked Jess up in his arms as though he were a baby. (11.10)
This is, finally, the physical affection Jess wanted at the beginning of the book and felt like he couldn't have. But, just as he gets to be the fastest runner when it doesn't matter anymore, here Jess is so grief-stricken over the loss of Leslie that his father's affection doesn't have the positive impact it might have had under more normal circumstances. Affection is still tied to the idea of youth rather than growing up or maturity, as Jess's father cradles him "as though he were a baby."
He would like to show his drawings to his dad, but he didn't dare. When he was in first grade, he had told his dad that he wanted to be an artist when he grew up. He'd thought his dad would be pleased. He wasn't. (2.13)
Poor Jess. At May Belle's age he had larger ambitions than just being a runner, and his dad squashed them. This did more damage to Jess than his dad probably knew. Even though Jess still loved to draw, it became more of a secret thing, and even the encouragement of Miss Edmunds wasn't enough to get Jess to defy his father and be more open about it. It's his friendship with Leslie that helps him recapture that desire to make art.
Jess's face went hot. "Sure," he said recklessly. "Why not?" He turned deliberately toward Leslie. "Wanna run?" he asked.
"Sure." She was grinning. "Why not?"
"You ain't scared to let a girl race are you, Fulcher?" (3.64-66)
Jess turns the tables on his frenemy Gary and accuses him of cowardice so that Leslie can compete in the race too. This shows us how the merest accusation of being fearful can be a powerful motivator. Nobody wants to look like a coward, and sometimes that makes people act foolishly instead of bravely. Here, though, it's definitely brave and right to let Leslie run in the race. We're all about equality, and hope you are too.
Lord, he was such a coward. How could he be all in a tremble just listening to Mrs. Myers read about it? He was worse a baby than Joyce Ann. His dad expected him to be a man. And here he was letting some girl who wasn't even ten yet scare the liver out of him by just telling what it was like to sight-see under water. Dumb, dumb, dumb. (4.43)
Here we have this really interesting connection of manliness to bravery. There's a stereotype here that "be[ing] a man" means not being a "coward." Jess compares himself unfavorably with Leslie, who he calls "some girl," because she's describing something he sees as brave because he'd be scared to do it himself. What Jess doesn't realize yet is that men get scared, too – and that's totally OK. Everyone does from time to time. He shouldn't be embarrassed about it – sometimes there are good reasons to listen to your fear and hesitate.
"You're just yeller, Jesse Aarons. If you wasn't yeller, you'd beat somebody up if they took your little sister's Twinkies." (5.16)
By calling Jess "yellow," May Belle means that he's a coward. (For more on why "yellow" has this connotation, check out the article about it on Stumblerz). Because she's so little, she can't fight this battle herself. The implication here is that if she were her own big brother (we know, that's confusing), she would beat people up for stealing a sibling's snack. Her anger doesn't let her see that there's no way Jess could successfully beat up a seventh grader.
"We must have courage, my king. It may indeed be so."
They swung silently across the creek bed. On the farther bank, Leslie picked up two sticks. "Thy sword, sire," she whispered. (7.32-33)
Leslie gives Jess courage here, as she often does. As you can see with this quote, they take that courage into Terabithia to face their imaginary foes. Although the enemies are imaginary, they feel no less real. Jess and Leslie must arm themselves, remind themselves of their place as rulers, and defend their lands. They have the same kind of attitude inside Terabithia and as they do outside it.
"Leslie, I swear – I'd go in there if I could." He really thought he would, too. "You ain't scared of her, are you, Leslie?" He didn't mean it in a daring way, he was just dumbfounded by the idea of Leslie being scared. (7.70)
Amazingly, Jess discovers that Leslie feels fear too. While this sounds a little bit like him heckling Gary from earlier in the book – about letting girls run races – the narrator specifies here that this has a different tone. Jess is so amazed that Leslie could feel "scared" that he inadvertently taunts her into going in and facing Janice. Where she'd often given him courage in the past, here he inspires it in her.
For Jess the fear of the crossing rose with the height of the creek. Leslie never seemed to hesitate, so Jess could not hang back. But even though he could force his body to follow after, his mind hung back, wanting to cling to the crab apple tree the way Joyce Ann might cling to Momma's skirt. (9.50)
Although Jess compares his desire to "cling to the crab apple tree" to his baby sister "cling[ing] to Momma's skirt," which could be seen as a kind of put-down or negative – not very "manly" – it's actually pretty rational. Jess is right and Leslie is wrong, as later events unfortunately show. The creek is really dangerous. While courage and bravery seem positive and fear seems negative, too much courage can be worse than not having enough. Courage needs to be tempered with reason and rationality.
It wasn't so much that he minded telling Leslie that he was afraid to go; it was that he minded being afraid. It was as though he had been made with a great piece missing… Lord, it would be better to be born without an arm than to go through life with no guts. (9.67)
Jess worries that there's something wrong with him because of the amount of fear he feels – like he was born without the genetic code for bravery or something. Jess's feelings here are reminiscent of his complex concerns about getting Leslie the right Christmas present. He's not worried about how he'll appear to the world – he's being pushed by a powerful inner compulsion, which, in this case, is shame and upset-ness that he's afraid at all.
You know something weird?
What? Leslie asked.
I was scared to come to Terabithia this morning. (11.20-22)
Here Jess is trying for a do-over, having an imaginary/dream conversation with Leslie in which he tries to alter the future and confess his fear to her, perhaps in order to alter the course of future events. Even though he worried so much about confessing his fear about going to Terabithia during the storm, he never got a chance to do it. We can see how he would blame himself for her death because of that. In this conversation, he tries to make that right by admitting his fear and what also seems like a little guilt.
"I'm scared, Jesse. I'm too scared."
"'Course you're scared. Anybody'd be scared. You just gotta trust me, OK? I'm not gonna let you fall, May Belle. I promise you." (13.21-22)
Jess finally realizes that it's all right to "be scared," and tells May Belle that too. There are some circumstances that would scare everybody. Even though they're both afraid, that doesn't stop him from acting bravely. We could argue that he actually acts more bravely because he's determined to deal with the circumstances and overcome his fear.
Of course, her temper had been terrible, and she had screamed at Jess all afternoon and was now too tired to fix any supper.
Jess made peanut-butter sandwiches for the little girls and himself, and because the kitchen was still hot and almost nauseatingly full of bean smell, the three of them went outside to eat. (2.1-2)
This shows us many of the bad things about Jess's life in Lark Creek. Sure, life is tough for everyone, but here it seems especially hard for poor Jess. It's Jess who has to take care of, and essentially be a parent to, the "little girls and himself." They can't even bear to be in their home because of the bad (temporary) smell. His mom can't control her temper and is mean to Jess, even though it sounds like he was working just as hard as she was all day. He doesn't have the luxury of having someone else make dinner for him.
"I know" – she was getting excited – "it could be a magic country like Narnia, and the only way you can get in is by swinging across on this enchanted rope." Her eyes were bright. She grabbed the rope. "Come on," she said. "Let's find a place to build our castle stronghold." (4.102)
Leslie (and Jess) create Terabithia where before there was nothing, through the power of imagination. Like the authors who create magical realities for their child characters to disappear into – C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, Edward Eager, and J.K. Rowling, most notably – Leslie imagines and names a vivid world. Unlike the authors and characters in those other books, though, Leslie and Jess really get to enter into and interact with the world they've created.
He believed her because there in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, Gary Fulcher, Wanda Kay Moore, Janice Avery, Jess's own fears and insufficiencies, nor any of the foes whom Leslie imagined attacking Terabithia, could ever really defeat them. (4.113)
Here the regions overlap. In Terabithia, Jess and Leslie find safety and protection from every enemy in each region. While their enemies are real and imagined, internal and external, they end up fighting some of the same battles wherever they go. The protection they forge inside and outside of Terabithia defends them everywhere. Jess may feel most confident in Terabithia, at "the stronghold," but with Leslie at his side, he can be confident in Lark Creek too.
They were always nice to Jess when he went over, but then they would suddenly begin talking about French politics or string quartets (which he at first thought was a square box made out of string), or how to save the timber wolves or redwoods or singing whales, and he was scared to open his mouth and show once and for all how dumb he was.
He wasn't comfortable having Leslie at his house either. (4.136-137)
There are different regions within Lark Creek, too. Jess feels out-of-place at the Burkes' home, and also feels like Leslie is out-of-place at his home. Although the differences between homes aren't as sharp as those between Lark Creek and Terabithia itself, they're still deeply felt. Jess's fear that he doesn't belong at the Burkes' comes from a lack of self-confidence and shared knowledge. But he's probably far harder on himself than they would be.
Leslie took a deep breath. "This is not an ordinary place," she whispered. "Even the rulers of Terabithia come into it only at times of greatest sorrow or of greatest joy. We must strive to keep it sacred. It would not do to disturb the Spirits." (4.146)
Terabithia may be made up, but that doesn't mean it's not complex, or that its parts aren't clearly differentiated. There are special and "sacred" places inside Terabithia, reserved only for special occasions: as Leslie puts it, for "times of greatest sorrow or of greatest joy." Her description shows how deep the magic of Terabithia goes, and how great her capacity for imagination is.
Leslie gave a deep satisfied sigh. "I love this room," she said. "Don't you feel the golden enchantment of it? It is worthy to be" – Jess looked up in sudden alarm – "in a palace." Relief. In such a mood, a person might even let a sworn secret slip. But she hadn't […] Terabithia was still just for the two of them. (7.27)
Here, Terabithian qualities bleed into the everyday world. Leslie's special vision, which allowed her to see Terabithia in a patch of forest and then show it to Jess, can transform ordinary and extraordinary places alike. Jess is worried that in her excitement about the golden room, she'll reveal their secret, but he should know better: Terabithia is theirs alone.
All he could think of was dry clothes and a cup of hot coffee and maybe just plunking down in front of the TV for a couple of hours. He was obviously not worthy to be king of Terabithia. Whoever heard of a king who was scared of tall trees and a little bit of water? (9.61)
As great as Terabithia is, it does have its limitations. Lark Creek may be ordinary, but sometimes ordinary comforts, like "dry clothes" and "hot coffee," are exactly what are most needed. Jess feels "not worthy" of Terabithian status because he has these everyday concerns and wants, but we don't think he should. Everybody, even a king, deserves warm clothes and warm drinks.
Entering the gallery was like stepping inside the pine grove – the huge vaulted marble, the cool splash of the fountain, and the green growing all around. Two little children had pulled away from their mother and were running about, screaming to each other. It was all Jess could do not to grab them and tell them how to behave in so obviously a sacred place. (10.53)
Just as Leslie saw the golden room as "a palace" (7.27), Jess views the museum as similar to their "pine grove." This shows how much she's taught him – he can see Terabithia in the outside world too. He realizes that "sacred place[s]" exist outside of Terabithia and that he too has the vision and the ability to access them.
He landed slightly upstream from Terabithia. If it was still Terabithia. If it could be entered across a branch instead of swung into. (13.5)
Jess's loss makes him question the permanence of Terabithia. Can it "still [be] Terabithia" if Leslie's not there to envision it with him, or if the way he used to access it has been permanently tainted and removed? The answer, we find, is yes. Terabithia can still be Terabithia, as long as Jess wants it to be. The power of the visionary now lies with him.
And when he finished, he put flowers in her hair and led her across the bridge – the great bridge into Terabithia – which might look to someone with no magic in him like a few planks across a nearly dry gully. (13.82)
Jess's loss makes him value Terabithia even more, while also realizing its impermanence and value. Even as he crosses "the great bridge into Terabithia" with the help of his ever-growing imagination, he knows what the entrance to Terabithia would look like to an outsider – just some wood "planks." But Jess is someone with "magic in him," and that magic isn't borrowed or reflected from Leslie's magic – it's magic of his very own.
"Oh, all right. But I ain't got no money to give you."
Any money, something whispered inside Jess's head.
"I know, Momma. We'll just take the five dollars Daddy promised us. No more'n that." (1.48-50)
Both of Mrs. Aarons' children are smarter than she is in this unfortunate moment. Ellie tricks their mother into giving her "five dollars" by telling her their father "promised" it – which for all we know, he most likely did not. Meanwhile, Jess silently corrects his mother's grammar. Both Ellie's and Jess's actions show role reversals in which they know more or are wiser than their parent.
The Perkins place was one of those ratty old country houses you moved into because you had no decent place to go and moved out of as quickly as you could. He thought later how peculiar it was that here was probably the biggest thing in his life, and he had shrugged it off as nothing. (1.67)
In a rare moment of perspective that moves outside of the story's timeline, we hear from a future version of Jess, who's reflecting that this was a special, life-altering moment and he yet "shrugged it off as nothing" at the time. But that's normal, not "peculiar" – a lot of the time, we encounter ordinary events and don't realize how or in what way they might impact us later. That's one of the cool things about fiction – it allows this kind of double take and reflection on life.
The reaction didn't seem to bother her. She stood there in front, her eyes saying, "OK, friends, here I am," in answer to their open-mouthed stares while Mrs. Myers fluttered about trying to figure where to put the extra desk. (3.3)
Leslie's innocence in this moment can also be read as purity. She's so open and ready to be "friends" with everyone in the room, even as their "open-mouthed stares" look back at her. She doesn't see those looks for what they can contain: mockery, disdain, and difference. She accepts them and expects to be accepted in return.
He couldn't help turning to watch. She ran as though it was her nature. It reminded him of the flight of wild ducks in the autumn. So smooth. The word "beautiful" came to his mind, but he shook it away and hurried up toward the house. (3.87)
Jess has no choice but to admire Leslie's run, just as Leslie has no choice but to run the way she does. Watching her "beautiful" run inspires beautiful thoughts in him. Jess may not think of himself as smart, sophisticated, or educated, but he creates a beautiful metaphor here when he unconsciously describes Leslie's run as like "the flight of wild ducks in the autumn."
"Did I ever tell you the story of Hamlet?"
He rolled over on his back. "Not yet," he said happily. Lord, he loved Leslie's stories. Someday, when he was good enough, he would ask her to write them in a book and let him do all the pictures. (5.62-63)
Jess doesn't realize that Hamlet or Moby Dick, or any of the rest, aren't necessarily "Leslie's stories" – but, of course, we know they were written by Shakespeare and Melville, and people like that. But, for Jess, they basically come from Leslie herself. Here we see a side of Jess's innocence, as he imagines a future for the two of them in which she writes these stories (which have already been written by other people) and he draws the illustrations – a child's fantasy of a grown-up world.
"Did you know her father beats her?"
"Lots of kids' fathers beat 'um." Will you get on with it?
"No, I mean really beats her. The kind of beatings they take people to jail for in Arlington." She shook her head in disbelief. "You can't imagine…" (7.85-87)
We think this small interchange is one of the most painful things in the book. Leslie, in her innocence, is horrified and amazed by the way that Janice describes her "beatings." For Leslie – the queen of imagination and of Terabithia – to classify those beatings as something that "can't" be imagined, means they must be incredibly, incredibly bad. What compounds this, though, is that Jess isn't amazed or shocked at first by the fact that Janice gets beaten. Instead, he matter-of-factly says, "Lots of kids' fathers beat 'um." What kind of world are these kids living in?
"May Belle's right." Jess reached down into the deepest pit of his mind. "It's because we're all vile sinners God made Jesus die."
"Do you think that's true?"
He was shocked. "It's in the Bible, Leslie." (8.66-68)
Who do you think is more naïve here? Is it Leslie, for wondering whether Jesus did die because of the "vile sinners" on earth? Or is it Jess, for unquestioningly accepting that when something's in the Bible, that means it's "true"?
"Great," she said. "My life has been worthwhile after all." He didn't understand her, but he didn't care. He knew she was happy to be with him, and that was enough to know. (10.53)
Miss Edmunds is talking about things Jess doesn't understand – we can see her as being sarcastic, kind of, but we also get the sense that working and teaching in Lark Creek is pretty thankless. Jess, however, judges her in this moment by her actions rather than her words. Giving someone else pleasure by just keeping them company isn't something that happens a lot for Jess, and that in itself makes him "happy" too.
They had never been there in the dark. But there was enough moon for them to find their way into the castle, and he could tell her about his day in Washington. And apologize. It had been so dumb of him not to ask if Leslie could go, too. (11.15)
Our hearts break for Jess a little here when he denies Leslie's absence and wants to apologize, to turn back the clock, and to hang out with Leslie again. In his denial of the terrible thing that happens, he becomes suddenly, shockingly brave. He's confident that they can make it to Terabithia even "in the dark," and that he can talk with Leslie just like nothing ever happened – smoothing things out by apologizing, and trying so hard to change the past.
Of course, by Monday Jess knew; but still, but still, at the bus stop he looked up, half expecting to see her running up across the field, her lovely, even, rhythmic run. (13.44)
Jess may only be in the fifth grade, but he'd probably have this reaction to Leslie's death no matter how old he was. It's going to take him a while to realize, to remember, that Leslie won't "run up" to the bus anymore, that he won't "see her running" again at all. Just because he knows she won't be there, doesn't mean he's not going to expect or desire it. She's his best friend. He doesn't want her to be gone.
But this year Wayne Pettis would be in the sixth grade. He'd play football until Christmas and baseball until June with the rest of the big guys. Anybody had a chance to be the fastest runner, and by Miss Bessie, this year it was going to be Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr. (1.19)
Here, we see Jess attempting to transform himself through force of will. He spies an opportunity and wants to take advantage of it. Through hard work, he can make himself into what he wants to be, which in this case is the "the fastest runner."
Jess drew the way some people drink whiskey. The peace would start at the top of his muddled brain and seep down through his tired and tensed-up body. Lord, he loved to draw. (2.11)
The practice of drawing changes Jess from the inside out. It's like a drug, or an addiction. He gets a high from doing it that calms him down and brings him "peace." Even though his father disapproves of Jess drawing, Jess can't help it. He craves the activity and needs the "peace" it brings.
We don't belong at Lark Creek, Julia and me. "You're the proverbial diamond in the rough," she'd said to him once, touching his nose lightly with the tip of her electrifying finger. But it was she who was the diamond, sparkling out of that muddy, grassless, dirty-brick setting. (2.23)
Both Jess and Miss Edmunds ("Julia") recognize the other as someone who doesn't belong. Miss Edmunds is unlike the other teachers in that she recognizes Jess's potential for transformation, seeing talent that needs to be uncovered and polished. While she calls Jess a "diamond in the rough," he sees her as that "diamond." It probably doesn't hurt that her first name, Julia, sounds like "jewel."
Terabithia was their secret, which was a good thing, for how could Jess have ever explained it to an outsider? Just walking down the hill toward the woods made something warm and liquid steal through his body. (4.139)
The act of going to Terabithia has the same physical effect on Jess that drawing does. Whenever he does either of them, he feels "something warm" ("peace" [2.11]) "steal through his body." Maybe it's the mental challenge or use of imagination that's having a physical, calming effect. Maybe his body recognizes something's good for him before his mind can. Either way, despite what other people might think or say, Jess can feel the rightness of going to Terabithia, of drawing, and of moving outside himself.
Jess tried going to Terabithia alone, but it was no good. It needed Leslie to make the magic. He was afraid he would destroy everything by trying to force the magic on his own, when it was plain that the magic was reluctant to come for him. (7.2)
Halfway through the book, Jess still relies on Leslie to get to Terabithia. He thinks both he and Terabithia "need" her "to make the magic," and isn't yet confident enough that he can do it himself. While he's opened up enough to the possibility of seeing Terabithia and sharing in Leslie's creation of it, he doesn't think he can shape it on his own. His transformation into being a magic-wielder is only partially complete.
Leslie's eyes were sparkling. "Arise" – she barely swallowed a giggle – "arise, king of Terabithia, and let us proceed into our kingdom." (9.47)
Like she's knighting someone, Leslie confers magic and kingship on Jess. They both believe in it, and yet recognize the silliness too. When Leslie tells Jess he's the king, he becomes transformed into that king.
He watched the car go out of sight and then turned and ran with all his might to the house, the joy jiggling inside of him so hard that he wouldn't have been surprised if his feet had just taken off from the ground the way they sometimes did in dreams and floated him right over the roof. (10.70)
This pure "joy" is, unfortunately, short-lived. Yet, maybe it's only because it's short-lived that it's so deeply felt. Jess is so overcome with this "joy" that he practically flies, having so much feeling flood through him that he almost comes off the ground. This happiness makes him run faster.
If he got up now and went down to the old Perkins place and knocked on the door, Leslie would come to open it, P.T. jumping at her heels like a star around the moon. It was a beautiful night. Perhaps they could run over the hill and across the fields to the stream and swing themselves into Terabithia. (11.14)
Now Jess is trying desperately to make magic happen, when before he thought he couldn't. It's as though thinking about it hard enough will not only get him into Terabithia, but also will bring back Leslie, alive again, so they can go together.
She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there – like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone. (12.17)
Jess is angry with Leslie for transforming him and then up and leaving. It's a natural stage of grief. He's mad at her because she was taken from him after totally changing him, but not quite finishing the process – leading him partway and then disappearing. He can't unlearn or change back to the way he was, but he also doesn't feel like he can move forward.
It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. […] After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn't Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world--huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? (13.59)
Finally, Jess realizes that transformations themselves are temporary and keep evolving. In order to honor how Leslie changed him, he has to, in turn, keep on changing. It's not enough to do some growing and then stop. You have to keep doing it, keep challenging yourself, and keep pushing "beyond to the shining world." (It's sort of like how the narrator in Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" also wants to seek a better world: see our section on "Ulysses" for more.)
He didn't worry about a shirt because once he began running he would be hot as popping grease even if the morning air was chill, or shoes because the bottoms of his feet were by now as tough as his worn-out sneakers. (1.1)
This tells us about both the kind of person Jess is and how much money his family has (or, rather, doesn't have). He's determined and doesn't care about how he looks. His family hardly has any money at all. Just consider the fact that he's practicing running in bare feet, perhaps because his "sneakers" are "worn-out," and his feet are just "as tough" as they are.
Lark Creek Elementary was short on everything, especially athletic equipment, so all the balls went to the upper grades at recess time after lunch. Even if a fifth grader started out the period with a ball, it was sure to be in the hands of a sixth or seventh grader before the hour was half over. (1.17)
Even in areas that are already marked out according to class structure – this elementary school doesn't have much money or resources – people still set up their own internal class differences. The elementary school has a miniature class system in which the sixth and seventh graders are superior to the fifth graders, who are then superior to the students in fourth grade and under. In other words, even when you barely have anything, there's still a chance that it can be taken away from you. No wonder Terabithia is so appealing.
But Jess knew what fakes they were. Sniffing "hippie" and "peacenik," even though the Vietnam War was over and it was supposed to be OK again to like peace, the kids would make fun of Miss Edmunds' lack of lipstick or the cut of her jeans. She was, of course, the only female teacher anyone had ever seen in Lark Creek Elementary wearing pants. In Washington and its fancy suburbs, even in Millsburg, that was OK, but Lark Creek was the backwash of fashion. (2.20)
People in Lark Creek are behind the times and don't approve of women who don't wear makeup but do wear jeans. Yet, today, we wouldn't give someone dressed like Miss Edmunds a second thought. Lots of women go out with jeans and with no makeup. No judgment. But the people in Lark Creek really do judge. This shows how much times can change in just a little over thirty years.
Leslie was still dressed in the faded cutoffs and the blue undershirt. She had sneakers on her feet but no socks. Surprise swooshed up from the class like steam from a released radiator cap. They were all sitting there primly dressed in their spring Sunday best. (3.2)
Even though Leslie's family probably has more money than any of the other families in town, that doesn't mean she automatically stands out in a good way. Wealth doesn't guarantee familiarity with new customs or help you fit in with new friends. How would Leslie have known to wear her "Sunday best" to school, especially when, as we learn later, she doesn't even go to church?
"My parents are reassessing their value structure."
"They decided they were too hooked on money and success, so they bought that old farm and they're going to farm it and think about what's important." (4.25-27)
Of course, having the ability to "reassess […] value structure" means having enough money to do so without stressing about putting a roof over your head or food on the table. Because the Burkes have enough money, they can take time to "think about" things that matter, like values, morals, and aesthetics. We wonder if this is a little bit naïve of Leslie's parents because unless they keep providing their family with a certain amount of money and success, they won't have the luxury of working on their "value[s]."
They didn't look like Jess's idea of rich, but even he could tell that the jeans they wore had not come off the counter at Newberry's. There was no TV at the Burkes', but there were mountains of records and a stereo set that looked like something off Star Trek. And although their car was small and dusty, it was Italian and looked expensive, too. (4.135)
It's not just about having money, it's about what you do with it. The Burkes don't flaunt their wealth, but they have nice things, and they're able to express their value system through their purchases. They fill their home with music, books, and art, and although they don't appear stereotypically "rich," they're clearly rich in other ways. (In comparison, with as little money as Jess's family has, they still have a TV, but artistic pursuits are not encouraged in that house.)
His mother always cried poor, but she put a lot of thought and as much money as she could scrape together into making sure she wouldn't be embarrassed by how her family looked. But the day before she planned to take them all over to Millsburg Plaza for new clothes, his dad came home from Washington early. He'd been laid off. No new clothes this year. (8.2)
Imagine only getting new clothes once a year, and then not being able to get them at all. The description of this situation helps us feel more sympathetic to Jess's parents. We can understand his mom's short temper and strain a bit better when we learn about how she does try to get her family looking nice at least once a year, and how much effort even that takes. The timing of Jess's father losing his job is particularly cruel – the money that was saved for new clothes and freshness has to be turned over to living expenses.
When she mentioned lunch, he realized with horror that he would need money, and he didn't know how to tell her that he hadn't brought any – didn't have any to bring, for that matter. (10.57)
Jess was so excited to go on this trip at all that it didn't occur to him to have asked for money. But he "didn't have any," anyway. So even if he'd thought about it, the only outcome would've been saying he might not be able to go because he couldn't afford it. Luckily, Miss Edmunds is gracious enough to take him to lunch as part of their day out together, and Jess is spared any further embarrassment.
Jess and his dad helped them load the U-Haul, and noontime his mother brought down ham sandwiches and coffee, a little scared the Burkes wouldn't want to eat her food, but needing, Jess knew, to do something. (13.64)
Although the Aarons and the Burke families move in different circles – and the fact that Leslie and Jess were friends was most unusual – they're still kind to each other during times of trouble. Even though Jess's mom is worried the Burkes will disdain the refreshments she can provide, she still feels the "need" to provide them.
It also helped to know some things that Bill for all his brains and books didn't know. Jess found he was really useful to him, not a nuisance to be tolerated or set out on the porch like P.T. (7.19)
So, money can't buy everything, and having a formal education doesn't teach you everything either. Jess is glad to discover that even though he feels so inferior to Bill in terms of education and smartness, he still has some knowledge that is valuable. It's important to Jess to be seen as "useful," and sad for us to see him worry that he'll be evaluated as "a nuisance" like a pet dog.
He figured if he worked at it – and Lord, had he worked – he could be the fastest runner in the fifth grade when school opened up. He had to be the fastest--not one of the fastest or next to the fastest, but the fastest. The very best. (1.7)
Jess's desire to be "the fastest" runner is practically the first thing we learn about him. We know right away that he has talent and determination. We also see him trying to carve out a place for himself and achieve something at school, and really become known for something: for being "the very best." That desire to be the best says good things about his character and his moral state.
One time last year Jesse had won. Not just the first heat but the whole shebang. Only once. But it had put into his mouth a taste for winning. (1.18)
This is the root of Jess' ambition: winning. The "taste of winning" – of that short-lived glory – inspired him to train all summer and find a place for himself in the school hierarchy the following year by being the fastest runner. It gave him purpose and direction. Even though it happened "only once," it was enough to make him completely motivated to win the following year.
"All right, Jesse. Get your lazy self off that bench. Miss Bessie's bag is probably dragging ground by now. And you still got beans to pick."
Lazy. He was the lazy one. He gave his poor deadweight of a head one minute more on the tabletop. (1.63-64)
This is all about context. We readers know Jess isn't lazy and so we side with him. We saw him get up and train for his race while the whole house was still asleep, and we just witnessed his older sisters bamboozle their mother into letting them get out of chore duty. Despite that, Jess is the one who gets called lazy and who has to do the most around the house. It just doesn't seem fair.
This was the day he was going to be champion – the best runner of the fourth and fifth grades, and he hadn't even won his heat. (3.73)
Humiliation ensues. Jess worked all summer for this – we saw in the first chapter how hard he trained, and how tired it made him – and now he doesn't even make it to the final round. The story he had written for himself about how this "day" and this year would go is instantly unwound – instead of being fastest, he's not even in the top four.
Jess knew now that he would never be the best runner of the fourth and fifth grades, and his only consolation was that neither would Gary Fulcher. They went through the motions of the contest on Friday, but when it was over and Leslie had won again, everyone sort of knew without saying so that it was the end of the races. (4.2)
It's all over for Jess's dream of being "the best runner" by the end of fifth grade, and it's all because he stood up for a girl and for equality. He was the one who fought for Leslie's ambition to run in the race and, because of that, wasn't able to fulfill his own ambition of winning himself. What's sad about this is that Leslie wins so definitively that no one else takes pleasure in racing or competing anymore.
How could he explain it in a way Leslie would understand, how he yearned to reach out and capture the quivering life about him and how when he tried, it slipped past his fingertips, leaving a dry fossil upon the page? "I just can't get the poetry of the trees," he said. (4.111)
With the excitement of the races dissipating, and with his new friendship with Leslie strengthening him, Jess returns his attention to drawing. His ambition to draw well is as strong as his desire to run fast. Here, though, he seems to get results less quickly. He knows what he wants to do but can't seem to achieve it.
The stream was a little lower than it had been when he had seen it last. Above from the crab apple tree the frayed end of the rope swung gently. I am now the fastest runner in the fifth grade. (12.21)
Numbly, Jess reflects on his achieved and once-longed-for ambition. It's morbid, but he's at the very place where Leslie died, looking at the rope that failed her when she was crossing the creek. Implicitly, we understand that Jess feels like he might have failed her too, by not being there to convince her to wait and go to Terabithia only when the creek calmed down. Instead of thinking about those things, he turns his attention to the fact that he's become the "fastest runner."
He was suddenly ashamed that he'd thought he might be regarded with respect by the other kids. Trying to profit for himself from Leslie's death. I wanted to be the best – the fastest runner in the school – and now I am. (13.45)
This isn't how Jess wanted to win that race or become "the fastest runner" at all. Now he has what he wanted at the very beginning of the book, but it's meaningless. He's the fastest runner now, but it's not because he improved, or trained harder, or got fancy new running shoes. It's because his competition can't race against him anymore.
Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn't there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. (13.60)
By absorbing Leslie's ambition into his own, Jess's desire for shaping his future life becomes deeper and more profound. It's no longer about being just the fastest runner in fifth grade, or creating awesome drawings. It's about making a lasting contribution to the world that reflects what Leslie taught him and helps memorialize her in another way. Instead of striving for records or material things, he will "pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength." Because she can't keep on giving that "vision and strength," he'll take on the responsibility of turning those qualities into "beauty and caring," and send them back out into the world.
They gave Jesse all of Leslie's books and her paint set with three pads of real watercolor paper. "She would want you to have them," Bill said. (13.63)
Even though Leslie's no longer there, she's still able to give Jess one last push of encouragement. Through her parents' gift of resources and supplies, she encourages Jess to keep learning, thinking, and drawing. While Jess doesn't have Leslie to tell him stories, he'll have her books, where she found those stories, to inspire him.