Top 100 Children's Novels Poll #10: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
#10 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)
I had read many other books where characters died, but it was always for a “good” or “glorious” reason. This was the first time I read a book that reflected real life, where death is sudden, pointless, and gut-wrenching. I was so upset that I refused to re-read the book for years. – Ann Carpenter
The teacher read this book to our class. I still remember that punch-in-the-stomach shock and trying-not-to-cry throat ache I felt when she read the ending. I never knew before Bridge to Terabithia that a story could make you care so much about people who don’t actually exist. – Bigfoot Reads
“The time a child needs a book about life’s dark passages is before he or she has had to experience them. We need practice with loss, rehearsal for grieving, just as we need preparation for decision making.” – Katherine Paterson.
Our former National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature appears yet again on this list, and her Terabithia (which did not crack the Top Ten last time around) sits proudly here.
The synopsis from the publisher reads, “All summer, Jess pushed himself to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade, and when the year’s first school-yard race was run, he was going to win. But his victory was stolen by a newcomer, by a girl, one who didn’t even know enough to stay on the girls’ side of the playground. Then, unexpectedly, Jess finds himself sticking up for Leslie, for the girl who breaks rules and wins races. The friendship between the two grows as Jess guides the city girl through the pitfalls of life in their small, rural town, and Leslie draws him into the world of imaginations world of magic and ceremony called Terabithia. Here, Leslie and Jess rule supreme among the oaks and evergreens, safe from the bullies and ridicule of the mundane world. Safe until an unforeseen tragedy forces Jess to reign in Terabithia alone, and both worlds are forever changed.”
How did it come about? According to Children’s Literature Review Paterson’s career started in this way: “In 1964 Paterson began her professional writing career formulating curricula for school systems. She eventually began writing fiction and, nine years later, her first novel, The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, was published in 1973. While her literary career began flourishing during the 1970s, Paterson was also faced with a number of difficult personal events, including surviving a cancerous tumor and losing her mother to cancer. During this period, her young son David lost a close friend who was tragically struck by lightning. While attending the annual meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington that same year, Paterson recounted her son’s recent loss to the attendees, and Anne Durell, an editor for Dutton Publishing’s children’s literature imprint, suggested that the incident could be the basis for a children’s novel. Thus, Paterson began writing the manuscript for Bridge to Terabithia, which became a critical and popular success.” Durrell, to her credit, also said to Paterson at the time, “Of course, the child can’t die by lightning. No editor would ever believe that.” True.
As Ms. Paterson said in her Newbery acceptance speech, when her son’s best friend was struck by lightning, he went through “all the classical stages of grief, inventing a few the experts have yet to catalogue. In one of these he decided that since Lisa had been good, God had not killed her for her sins but as a punishment for him, David. Moreover, God would continue to punish him by killing off everyone he loved. I was second on the list, right after his sister Mary.” Years later that same child would go on to write the screenplay for the Walden Media version of the film. David Paterson, for the record, spoke in my Children’s Literary Cafe a couple years ago about adapting his mother’s books to both the stage and the screen.
Aside from Charlotte’s Web this is THE death book for children. Charlotte at least telegraphs that she’s going to be going, and is able to talk it over with Wilbur to some extent. Leslie, in contrast, just disappears. One minute she’s there. The next, she’s gone. Hers is a shockingly realistic death. If you don’t know that it’s coming it’s completely out of the blue. But Ms. Paterson hasn’t ever been all that comfortable with putting the book on “death lists” for kids. In The Spying Heart: More Thoughts on Reading and Writing Books for Children she says, “The first time I was told that Bridge to Terabithia was ‘on our death list,’ I was a bit shaken up. There follows, you see, the feeling that if a child has a problem, a book that deals with that problem can be given to the child and the problem will be cured. As Jill Paton Walsh points out, only children’s books are used this way. ‘One does not,’ she says, ‘rush to give Anna Karenina to friends who are committing adultery, or minister to distressed old age with copies of King Lear.’ Still, if we look at life as a series of problems needing solving, it is hard not to offer nicely packaged, portable solutions, preferably paperback. I know. No one has given out more copies of Ramona the Brave to first graders in distress than I have.” By this point one must assume that she is resigned to, if still not pleased about, her position on such lists.
So naturally it gets banned with frightening frequency. It ranks at #8 on the American Library Association list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books for the decade 1990–2000. In Karen Hirsch’s Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, she says that the reasons include, “Language: Challengers in Nebraska, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Maine have objected to what they call profanity, vulgar language, offensive language, or swear words. In the Oskaloosa, Kansas, school district a challenge ‘led to the enactment of a new policy that requires teachers to examine their required material for profanities. Teachers will list each profanity and the number of times it was used in the book, and forward the list to parents, who will be asked to give written permission of their children to read the material.’ Life views or lifestyles: Challenges in Connecticut and Pennsylvania have said that the book would ‘give students negative views of life,’ ‘make reference to witchcraft,’ show ‘disrespect of adults,’ and promote an ‘elaborate fantasy world that they felt might lead to confusion’.” Someone should do a study to see how often such similar challenges are made today, now that they’ve big old Harry Potter to aim their ire at.
It won the Newbery Medal in 1978 beating out Ramona and Her Father and the now long forgotten Anpao: An American Indian Odyssey by Jamake Highwater (prove me wrong). For the record, it also won the Janusz Korczak Medal, and the Le Grand Prix des Jeunes Lecteurs.
See how 100 Scope Notes chose to re-jacket the book here.
Real covers abound. I find the range of ages of the kids particularly interesting.
Forget not, ye children, that it was adapted into a film not once but twice! First was the 1985 made for PBS movie. There is probably a reason the film is forgotten today. Example A:
When the more recent version of Terabithia was due out, librarians nationwide gave simultaneous screams of agony seeing the following preview. They turned it into a fantasy? What the heckety heck? As it turned out, the trailer was misleading. Amazingly poorly made. A preview of the film at an ALA Conference put many a mind at ease and the film turned out to be a modest success. It had been made for $20 million and grossed $137 million worldwide. That still doesn’t excuse this trailer though:
Josh Hutcherson, who would go on to play Peeta in The Hunger Games, played Jess in this film. The comments by his current female fans on YouTube can be very very disturbing to read.
One thing I love about that movie is the fact that much of it was filmed outdoors. Not on a soundstage with faux natural sunlight. When these kids run through a field that field is real. With all the fantasy fare out there, it’s nice to see some reality once in a while.
Finally, stage productions about, but my favorites are the ones that, like the film, don’t turn the book into a period piece.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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