Jess Aarons dreams of becoming the fastest runner in the fifth grade. He practices all summer, certain that when school starts again in the fall he'll have no trouble beating the other boys his age, but he didn't count on Leslie Burke moving in next door. On the first day of school, all the boys are itching for recess to come so they can resume their racing games. In a moment of impetuousness meant to put a bossy classmate in his place, Jess invites Leslie to join them, never imagining that a girl would beat them all. Out of this inauspicious beginning, Jess and Leslie develop a deep friendship. Together they secretly build a make-believe kingdom called Terabithia where they are the king and queen. They visit the land of their fantasies as often as they can, and learn much about each other while plotting to vanquish their foes both real and imagined. In spite of their differences, they understand each other in a way that no one else does, but when a terrible tragedy strikes, Jess must discover and call upon all the strength, courage and hope that he never realized Leslie had given him.
I hadn't picked up Bridge to Terabithia since I was in fifth or sixth grade when I had to read it for a class assignment. Since that was nearly 30 years ago, I only had vague, fuzzy memories of the story itself and of the book being one that I had liked. I am so glad that I decided to re-read it through adult eyes, because I think I probably appreciated it even more now than I did as a kid. That may be due to me experiencing more loss in the last three decades than I had at the tender age of ten or eleven, which makes the plot resonate with me on a deeper level. As I've said in other reviews, it is rare for a book to make me really cry, but Bridge to Terabithia made my short list of ones that have. The story is a simple one of friendship, tragedy, and coping with loss, but it is layered with depth and complexity that is astonishing for its short length. Katherine Paterson writes with a stark honesty that is utterly beautiful. Her characters are very real and ordinary, yet they touched me in a profound and emotional way. None of them are perfect, but to me that made them all the more genuine in their actions and interactions. Jess' family can sometimes seem harsh, but they were there for him when it counted the most. One of my favorite scenes in the book is near the end, when Jess and his father sit on the bank of the creek and talk. When it comes right down to it, they really don't say all that much, but it was just enough to get the point across and re-establish that father/son connection that Jess had been missing.
Jess and Leslie were two kids that I could have easily been friends with when I was their age. Jess can sometimes be rather mean with his sisters and had some rude thoughts about the adults in his life, but I think even the nicest kids do from time to time. What I really liked about him is that underneath it all, it's obvious that he still cares for his sisters, especially May Belle, even though they get on his nerves, and when it comes to the adults, he still outwardly treats them with respect and is a well-behaved child both in school and at home. I also like that Jess has this hidden creative part of himself that no one but Leslie really understands which is what makes them such great friends. Leslie is kind of the oddball who isn't like the other girls in their class, but she has an empathy and understanding of the world around her that is rare in most kids of that age.
In addition to connecting with the characters as a whole, another thing that resonated with me is the teasing they endure which was much like things I experienced as well. The only thing that bothered me slightly was when the abuse of a secondary character was revealed and it seemed that the issue would probably be swept under the rug. However, given the culture and time period in which the story took place, it made sense. Jess and Leslie's imaginary kingdom of Terabithia reminded me of games that I played with cousins or friends. The rural setting also brought to mind the area in which I grew up. It was almost like experiencing my childhood all over again, yet aside from a few pop-culture references, it is really a story out of time and space that could easily take place anywhere and anytime.
I must say that I'm rather surprised that more than 30 years after its original publication, Bridge to Terabithia is still #28 on the American Library Association's Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list of the last decade (2000-2009). I believe that one of the biggest complaints are the use of some profanities which are quite mild by today's standards. A few are uttered or thought by the kids, but most were said by the adults in their lives. I admit that as someone who had a pretty strict and sheltered upbringing, I was slightly scandalized when I first read the book as a child, but I can say without a doubt that I was completely unscathed by the experience. Now reading it as an adult, I actually felt that the "bad words" were never meant to be shocking or provocative. Instead, they seemed to be carefully placed to give meaning to the story and in my opinion, also added to the genuineness and honesty of the prose. Admittedly, the subject matter of the book could be upsetting to some kids, but if educators or parents are guiding them through the reading experience they should be fine. I would have absolutely no qualms at all about allowing my fifth grader to read it. In my opinion, there is a strong and beautiful message contained within its pages and the positives to be gained from reading it far outweigh any detractors. I would highly recommend the book to both kids and adults alike. To the best of my recollection, Bridge to Terabithia is the only book by Katherine Paterson that I have ever read, but I am greatly looking forward to exploring her other books. I guess it just goes to show that one is never too old to appreciate a good children's book.;-)
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