Friendship is the most important kind of relationship in Bridge to Terabithia: friends are the family that you get to choose for yourself. The most evolved characters – Jess, Leslie, May Belle – are the ones who are concerned with finding and making friends. And not just any friends. We're talking good friends – the kind who understand and support you, but also help you grow and continue to evolve. In the best friendships, like Jess and Leslie's, the bond they share strengthens as both people involve. They each have things to teach the other, they encourage each other, and they believe in each other. Friendship means helping people access and become open to a greater world than the one they knew before.
Bridge to Terabithia demonstrates that friendship is the most important part of children's lives, and is key to developing imagination.
In Bridge to Terabithia, we learn that participating in the kind of friendship that Jess and Leslie share is worth even the most devastating loss.
Sometimes family can be hard to relate to (pun intended). See, in his family, Jess is the odd one out – faced with his mom's figurative and dad's literal absences, and his older sisters' shallow obsession with appearances, Jess's ambition and desire to move beyond what he is marks him as different. May Belle's the only one much like Jess, but at seven years old, seems too little to be an ally or a friend. Leslie becomes his family instead. But when he loses her at the end of Bridge to Terabithia, Jess feels a responsibility to recreate and hold on to the kind of relationship he had with her. That might be one reason he reaches out to May Belle and finally invites her in to Terabithia with him.
In comparing Mrs. Aarons and Mrs. Burke, we see that there's no such thing as a perfect mother: even the most present parents have flaws, and even the most neglectful ones have strengths.
Jess's strained relationships with his four very different sisters show that blood isn't thicker than water: in other words, just because you're related to someone doesn't mean you understand, empathize with, or are compatible with them.
Courage takes many forms in Bridge to Terabithia, whether it's standing up for girls' rights to run with the boys, crossing a rushing creek in the pouring rain, getting revenge on a bully, or comforting that bully. It's also about admitting when something scares you, knowing when to wait instead of fight, and learning that acknowledging or facing your fear is just as brave as not feeling fear in the first place. There are always going to be scary events and encounters, but what matters is how you treat others, not how strong or weak you might feel inside.
Ultimately, through examining his relationship with Leslie, Jess realizes that he's more courageous than he ever realized.
Through his experiences in Terabithia, Jess discovers that even the bravest people can be motivated by fear, and sometimes the most fearful people act most bravely.
Terabithia exists inside Lark Creek – it's brought to life within the bounds of the boring, the stifling, and the ordinary. What's amazing is how living and being inside Terabithia allows characters like Jess and Leslie to take its magical properties with them into that other, seemingly boring, straightforward world. This happens in moments like when Jess finds the same peace in the National Gallery as he does in the sacred grove, or when the two decide to help, not harm, Janice Avery. They learn that, even in the darkest moments, kindness, love, and grace can be found anywhere.
Present-day children are so consumed by elaborate toys and technology that they don't have the capability to create a magical world like Terabithia for themselves. (If you disagree, how about arguing for the other side?)
Without the dullness and lack of excitement or energy in Lark Creek, the invention of Terabithia wouldn't have been possible.
Innocence takes many forms in Bridge to Terabithia. Jess's mom doesn't know how to use correct grammar, and she believes her daughter when Ellie tells her that her dad promised her some money. Leslie doesn't realize that not having a TV is the mark of an ostracized outsider. Jess doesn't know the "stories" of Moby Dick or Hamlet. But while some characters, like Ellie and Brenda, think they already know everything and are experienced, that's not really true. Because Jess acknowledges his limitations and what he doesn't know, he's able to fill in the gaps. He can appreciate the beautiful and the unusual, like the art in the museum. Most of all, he's able to appreciate Leslie.
The more obviously "experienced" characters in the book – Ellie, Brenda, and Janice – don't have as much maturity or intelligence as the supposedly "innocent" characters like Jess and Leslie.
Both Leslie and Jess's parents are equally innocent in different ways – Leslie's because they live in an abstract, artistic world and Jess's because they can't conceive of that world.
Where does the power of transformation come – from the inside or the outside? In Bridge to Terabithia, it's both. Through their friendship, both Jess and Leslie are changed for the better. Jess becomes more imaginative, and Leslie becomes more compassionate. They each teach the other about becoming a better person. But becoming a better person also comes from within. In teaching Leslie compassion, Jess strengthens his own capability for it, and in leading Jess into Terabithia, Leslie expands the boundaries of that realm for herself. They learn to see other people as their friend sees them, and make a more ordinary kind of transformative magic for themselves by imagining Terabithia.
Without Leslie appearing in his life, Jess might have become the fastest runner in fifth grade, but he wouldn't have learned nearly as much about courage, imagination, and a potential larger world.
Through her encounters with Jess, Leslie also learns about the complexities of the world outside Terabithia and how, in order to be truly good, it's necessary to find compassion for even the scariest enemy.
In Bridge to Terabithia we see the social class distinctions and the distinctions between the fifth graders (and even younger kids) and the seventh graders. Just as Jess and Leslie's parents are separated by how much money and education they have (the former, very little; the latter, quite a bit), students at school are divided by even firmer, unspoken class distinctions. The older students get all the resources and get to abuse the younger students. The younger students have to take care of, and amuse, themselves. But maybe if they'd been given more resources, Jess and Leslie might have been less inspired to create Terabithia.
In Bridge to Terabithia, we see that money can provide education, ability, and opportunity, but even it can't prevent tragedy or protect us from being different from others.
The five Aarons children's varying attitudes prove that nature is stronger than nurture – they all have the same background and disadvantages, but only Jess and May Belle make attempts to rise above it.
Ultimately, ambition in Bridge to Terabithia is about being greater than yourself, or pushing past the bounds of your mind and heart. At the beginning of Bridge to Terabithia, we think ambition is about running the fastest or drawing the best. And it can be. But it's also about challenging yourself, and others, to enlarge the scope of your world and imagination, and to live the best way you can – sharing the joy of this expansion the way it was shared with you. By the book's end, Jess hopes that he can do his best to live the kind of life Leslie would have lived, as well as the kind of life she would have liked him to live.
Although Leslie prevents Jess from achieving his short-term ambition of being the fastest runner at school, she reawakens another desire for artistry, imagination, and growth.
While Miss Edmunds and Leslie have different ideas and approaches, they both want to see Jess succeed in the same way.