Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson

BridgeTerabithia6Reading level: 4.6
Genre: Realistic fiction
ELL-Friendly: No
Library recommendation: Middle school

Goodreads summary:

Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He’s been practicing all summer and can’t wait to see his classmates’ faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys’ side and outruns everyone.

That’s not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

Spoilers ahead!

There is so much packed into this tiny book that it’s hard to even begin. Let’s start with grief. I didn’t cry when I read this book, and I’m a crier. I think the reason is that I somehow knew what the tragedy was going to be from some long-ago spoiler. It saddened me, yes, but it did not break me down like The Book Thief, The Fault in Our Stars, or Walk Two Moons.

Jess’ dealing with death takes up a good quarter of the book, and it isn’t pretty. Death and grief isn’t sugarcoated or idealized. It’s messy and painful. It’s realistic. In fact, while listening to the interview with the author and her son at the end of the audio book, I learned that Leslie is based upon the author’s son’s friend who was killed at the age of 7 or 8. The book was written to help the boy cope with the death of his best friend. I think it’s realistic to believe that this book may help young people find solace upon the death of someone close to them.

I typically gripe about parents in YA lit, but not for this book. Jess’ parents were clearly difficult to live with. Neither parent (especially his father) showed him much attention, let alone love. I think that sentiment can resonate with may people, especially those who have many siblings. In the end, both parents show heartfelt compassion, revealing their love for their son even though they may not show it often. Leslie’s parents were interesting to me. They were liberal with their love but didn’t have their lives “figured out” as we typically assume parents do. I liked that their lives was an experiment and not perfect.

When I wrote about Hoot, I griped about bullies. The real bully (I cannot remember the name – when I listen to audio books, names slip  my mind too easily compared to when I read) was the prissy, popular girl. She was the stereotypical bully just like Dana from Hoot. Leslie had the courage to comfort the girl and discovered the reason why she was so mean. Leslie and Jess ended up feeling sorry for the bully because they learned to understand that she acted out to compensate for the way she was treated at home, and she was just as human and vulnerable as them.

I can count the swear words used in this book on one hand. The only part I would even vaguely worry about having parents be upset about are the parts about the Bible and God. Jess’ little sister takes the Bible literally and tells Leslie that she’ll go to hell if she doesn’t believe in it. Leslie and the little girl engage in a very genuine conversation about what may happen after one dies, how one knows what happens, and what happens if one doesn’t believe in the Bible. There is nothing offensive; simply children trying to wrap their head around the enormous ideas of God, life, and death.

English language learners may struggle with this text, despite the reading level being quite low. There is a lot of slang and double-negatives. When they’re in Terabithia, Leslie and Jess speak in a very sophisticated way to sound like royalty. Leslie also references lots of literary words from Shakespeare to Melville which may even be confusing for non-ELLs but not in a way that would ruin the book for them at all.

I saw that one person on Goodreads was upset about the teacher stereotypes in this book. There’s the beautiful, perfect music teacher and then there’s the traditional, mean mainstream teacher. However, the music teacher may have partially, although indirectly, contributed to Leslie’s death by taking Jess on a trip, while the nasty teacher was Leslie’s advocate and tried to help Jess through his grief. Although he didn’t know how to take her kind words, he knew they were meaningful and might appreciate them later. These two teachers may be stereotypically bad and good, but that dichotomy is turned on its head at the very end.

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