When Bridge to Terabithia was suggested to me for this project, I wasn’t sure really what to expect.  I had heard of the 2007 film adaptation, but I had never felt the desire to see it (I have, now that I’ve read the book…but we’ll get to that in a bit).  I knew the film’s climax because it had been spoiled for me years ago, and so going in I felt as if I knew how the story would go and what it was going to say.

I was wrong.

Bridge to Terabithia says so much about so many different things that I have a hard time deciding how to even compose this post.  My daughter and I had discussions about each and every chapter, and those discussions were so varied that nailing down a specific direction for this post to take is hard to do.

For those unfamiliar, Bridge to Terabithia tells the story of ten year old Jess and his new friend, Leslie, a girl who moves into the farm next door to his.  This is a coming of age novel that isn’t really about anything specific, plot-wise, but more about these two kids as they journey through everyday life.

One of the things that took me by surprise was how bold this book is in that it addresses some very controversial topics in a very direct manner.  I expected a more subtle, ambiguous approach, especially when you consider that the main draw to this story is the imaginary world created by the two main characters, Jess and Leslie, but that imaginary world of escape often (quite often, actually) takes a backseat to the very real problems that both kids face in their day to day life.  It’s strange because one often prefers a little subtlety to the way that many stories can beat the reader over the head with a ‘message’ and yet the lack of subtlety is not a flaw here.  Bridge to Terabithia is very matter-of-fact, but its delivery is extremely honest.

The issues addressed range from poverty, familial relations, gender roles, religion, bullying, abuse, peer pressure and grief, and each issue felt like it was explored with care and a naturalness that defied genre.

While my daughter and I were able to discuss, sometimes in length, all of these issues, a few cut closer to home for her.  Peer pressure and bullying, and the reactions of both Jessie and Leslie to those situations, were topics of long discussions for us.

My daughter, her nose in a book…

In the book, many in the school are bullied by a girl named Janice Avery, a larger girl who uses her size to intimidate smaller children and who has no issue with lying about others, stealing from them and generally causing problems for them.  At one point in the book, Janice picks on Jess’s younger sister and through the insistence of both his sister and Leslie, Jess agrees to find a way to ‘get her back’.  “I’d never do that dad,” my daughter assured me, but I didn’t need the assurance because I know that she wouldn’t.  She’s experienced the bullying, and her response has always been to ‘kill it with kindness’, plotting ways, not to get back at someone but to endear them to her.  As Jess and Leslie’s revenge on Janice played out, I could see her relating to Jess as he muttered, “Poor Janice Avery.”  As mad as he was at her, there was empathy over her pain and guilt over his involvement in it.

When Janice Avery’s story is fleshed out deeper and the source of her bullying is indicated, it led to a poignant discussion with my daughter.  Bullying is often a mask for something else, and having this novel address it so specifically was very powerful.  Sometimes our children are blinded to the realities of the world around them, and while I am happy that their innocence is preserved in a happy home, it’s important for them to understand that not every home is as theirs is and that there are underlying problems that can cause some children to lash out in the form of bullying.  This is not to say that every bully is experiencing the same issues as Janice (abuse at the hands of her father) but some children battle with jealousy or insecurities or even may suffer from bullying from others and this can lead them to take it out on others.

In this situation we saw not only how someone else’s abuse caused Janice to become the person she was, but also how her bullying caused Jess and Leslie to alter a bit of who they were as they retaliated in kind.

“I don’t want to let anyone change who I am,” she said to me as we discussed this situation.  She’s a kind soul, and I was proud in that moment as we finished reading about Janice and how Jess and Leslie were able to realize the weight of the situation enough to put their differences aside to extend kindness to this young girl, a young girl who needed kindness in order to realize the effect of her own bullying.  “Maybe one day she’ll like me, but even if she doesn’t at least I’ll know I tried.”

This discussion also led right into that of peer pressure, which is an issue that is touched upon here (Jess is pretty much talked into retaliation against Janice by his sister and Leslie), but a different kind is mentioned later and one that I found a little more poignant because it’s one that maybe isn’t addressed as often as it should be.

As the story starts to draw to a close, there is an issue that continually starts to alert Jess.  The creek that he and Leslie cross to enter their magical world of Terabithia is rising and every time they cross, he’s nervous.  He sees a danger there, but he’s unable to address it because Leslie, the friend he loves, trusts and admires, acts as if she sees none at all.  He’s afraid to appear weak to her and so despite feeling as though they are endangering their own lives, he won’t confront her with his feelings.  In the end, this proved disastrous and so it highlights the importance of not allowing others to change us, even indirectly, or to persuade us away from our own instincts simply because we don’t want to upset them or cause them to dislike us.

From an outsider’s point of view, it seemed silly.  “Why didn’t he just tell her?” she’d ask me, but discussing it, it made more sense.  We’ve all been there, where we love someone so much that we don’t want to hurt them or cause them to look at us differently and so even when we are alerted to a potential bad situation we just ‘go along for the ride’.  That is never the right course of action.  If we just speak up to how we feel, we could not only spare ourselves but could potentially save a friend from a bad outcome.

While, thankfully, my daughter doesn’t find herself in many of these ethical conundrums now, I know that she will.  She’s getting to be of an age where these things will pop up.  With social media and the dangers lurking there, and driving just around the corner (for some of her friends, almost literally) it is extremely important to have these kinds of conversations with her.  All it takes is for her or her friends to ‘go along for the ride’ one time for something truly regrettable to happen.

I think that is the power of a good story; it forces us to confront things, whether it is our circumstances or our way of thinking, and it causes us to relate and react to those things.  The power of a story like Bridge to Terabithia is that it helps children understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, while simultaneously helping parents understand their own children.  I felt similarly when watching Pixar’s masterpiece, Inside Out (but that’s for another discussion).  These are stories that take us into the minds of our children and help us to remember what it was like to be a kid, to be confused and even intrigued by the world around us, to be innocent and objective before we grew up and forgot what that was like.

As I said, this novel covers a bounty of issues.  The segment on religion produced a nice talk with my daughter about Leslie’s approach to faith and how her words to Jess (“You have to believe it, but you hate it.  I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.”) are so true.  Watching her come to her own relationship with God and to love him, not because she has to but because she wants to, has made me prouder than anything else can.  Discussing gender roles and the perception that boys can’t be artistic or that girls can’t ‘play with the boys’ gave way to discussions about accepting others for who they are and not conforming our identity to make someone else happy.

For me, the film couldn’t quite balance all these issues properly.  So many aspects of the novel’s detailing is lost in the film’s pacing and we are left with many of the story’s key points being brushed over completely.  Modernizing the tale didn’t help.  Some of the story’s more shocking moments (regarding Janice’s abuse and how everyone else reacted to it) are tied into the story’s initial setting (written in the 70’s, Paterson’s novel has the feel of a story placed in the 50’s) and are muddled in a modern setting.  Many of the story’s topics of conversation come across like throw away statements or are skipped entirely.  More focus is given to trying to establish their magical world, which I think cheapens what Paterson was going for with her prose.  Like my daughter said, “This is a story about Jess and Leslie, not about Terabithia,” but the film seems to forget that a bit.  It also hurt that the child actors appear to be closer to early teens than ten, and so this hurts the idea of their imaginary world being a real source of escape.  Their play teeters on ‘silly’ instead of carrying the weight of the novel’s depiction.

As my daughter and I finished reading Bridge to Terabithia, there were tears.  Both of us had a hard time reading those last three chapters.  Despite knowing how it would end (my daughter did not) I was choking on the words because I felt these characters deeply; and watching my daughter’s eyes fill with tears didn’t help.  That just goes to show how honest this story is, and even with the tears both my daughter and I highly recommend this beautiful book.  There is so much here that is still so achingly poignant today, maybe even more so now than when this was written.

Check out our discussion of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret here!

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