Zhu Linghong

Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-23 11:00-12:30 Room II

Speaker: Zhu Linghong (China)

Constructing the bridge between the adults and the children

A review on Bridge to Terabithia

I. About the author and her works

Born in China, Katherine Paterson spent part of her childhood in the ancient oriental country until the outbreak of World War II. Back in the U.S., her family moved to various places before her parents decided to settle down in Winchester, Virginia. The constant move made it difficult for her to fit in with the local children. As Paterson once recalled, “ Because I was born in China…when we came to the United States I was a foreigner and people treated me like an outsider…They thought I was stupid because I didn’t know what they knew…I had to watch other people and wasn’t included naturally in groups at school…” (http://books.scholastic.com)

Such life experience made Paterson concerned about children from the underprivileged group, and many of her works describe the growing up of the disenfranchised children and the difficulties and struggles they experience, just to name a few, Muna in The Sign of the Chrysanthemum, Lyddie in Lyddie, and Vinnie in Filp-Flop girl.

Published in 1977, Bridge to Terabithia tells a fascinating story about the growing up of a timid boy, Jess, who was from an impoverished family. He was led into the magic land of Terabithia by his friend, Leslie, and became a king there. He also managed to overcome the shock of Leslie’s death with the help of his family and his teacher and finally completed the passage of coming of age. Through the carefully woven plot and vivid description, Paterson shows us the difficulties the 10-year-old boy came across, the perplexities he experienced. More importantly, she discloses to us how the boy copes with all these and finally grows up.

II. A synopsis of Bridge to Terabithia

Jess Aarons had been practicing running all summer in order to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. On the first day of new school, he joined the boys in the race, determined to win, but only to be beaten by a new comer, a girl named Leslie. Feeling greatly disappointed, Jess could not hold his anger with Leslie and refused to talk to her. However, they soon became good friends and their lives changed forever. In the dark woods they created their magic land of Terabithia where they were the king and queen. In their imaginary kingdom, Jess and Leslie show great courage and power while leading their people to drive the enemies out of their land. It was also in their kingdom that Jess was deeply attracted by Leslie’s story about the Denmark Prince and the great white whale. Just as they enjoyed their friendship and their life in Terabithia, a terrible tragedy occurred. On a rainy morning, Leslie went to Terabithia by herself. As she swung across the creek to land on Terabithia, the rope broke and Leslie died accidentally. On hearing the news Jess first could not accept the death of his best friend, and then he started to resent Leslie for leaving him alone in Terabithia. With the help of his father and his teacher, Jess eventually overcame the shock of Leslie’s death and regained the courage to return to Terabithia alone.

The book deals with several themes, such as being different, friendship, family relationship, death, etc. In this article, I will explore the relationship between the children and the adults, including the parents and school teachers, and how it may influence the growth of the children.

III. A child going through difficult times

It is generally agreed that “ of all passages, coming of age, or reaching adolescence, is the purest, in that it is the loneliest. In birth one is not truly conscious; in marriage one has a partner; even death is faced with a life’s experience by one’s side.” (Nilsen&Donelson, 1993) Growing up is a difficult journey for the adolescents to accomplish in that they have little experience and nobody to rely on. The process becomes even more difficult when the child is considered as different in the group. And this is what Jess experienced in his life.

At the very beginning of the book, Paterson describes Jess as the only boy smashed between four sisters. The older two had despised him, and the littlest one cried if he looked at her cross-eyed. “ Sometimes he felt so lonely among all these females----even the one rooster had died, and they hadn’t yet gotten another. With his father gone from sunup until past dark, who was there to know how he felt?”( P15)

Being the only son in his family was not a privilege for Jess, but rather it made him feel lonely as he could not share with anybody in his family what he thought and how he felt. He was so desperate to have someone who could understand him that he even missed the rooster his family once raised.

To make matters worse, as Jess’ mother held the idea that man should do man’s work and women should do women’s work, Jess was often assigned to various chores while his father was working in the city. And he often felt hurt when he saw the intimacy between his father and his younger sister, May Belle. “ She could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.”

Both of his parents’ attitudes towards him made him feel he was the least favored child in this family and he even suspected he was a foundling. He imagined that way back when the creek had water in it, he came floating down it in a wicker basket waterproofed with pitch. His dad found him and brought him here because he’d always wanted a son and just had stupid daughters. His real parents and brothers and sisters live far away.

Jess often escaped to his own imaginary world with his drawings where he drew “crazy animals with problems often found in impossible fixes”. Though Jess enjoyed drawing very much, he dared not show it to anyone, not even his most favorite younger sister, May Belle. This is because his father does not approve him of drawing. His father’s attitude to his drawing shocked him so much that Jess could not forget it even after four years. Things are no better at school, as “ none of his regular teachers ever liked his drawings. When they’d catch him scribbling, they’d screech about waste----wasted time, wasted paper, wasted ability.” ( P12) The only teacher that appreciated Jess’ drawing was his music teacher, Miss Edmunds. Unfortunately she only came on Fridays and she herself was considered some kind of hippie and was not popular in school.

It seemed that Jess’ family could not understand him, nor could his regular school teachers and that nobody seemed to appreciate his talent in drawing except his music teacher. The lack of understanding didn’t only make Jess feel lonely in his life, but also caused him to lose confidence in himself to be a nothing---- “a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big----trying to hide a whole mob of foolish little fears running riot inside his gut.” (P126)

With the arrival of Leslie, Jess’ life began to change dramatically. Together they established their imaginary kingdom, Terabithia, where they ruled the kingdom as the king and the queen. There Leslie also told him stories about the Denmark prince and the great white whale. Gradually Jess regained his courage and confidence. Every time he came to the imaginary kingdom, he felt “taller and stronger and wiser in that mysterious land”. (P46) With such changes, life became enjoyable. “ For the first time in his life he got up every morning with something to look forward to.” (P46)

However, Leslie’s accidental death brought an end to the joy of Jess’ life. On hearing the death of his best friend, Jess was plunged into great confusion, sorrow, and even resent. He was angry with Leslie’s parents for their decision to cremate her body, and especially for their decision to bring her to Lovettsville, because otherwise, Leslie wouldn’t get killed at the creek. He even started to resent Leslie, for she had failed him. “ She went and died just when he needed her the most… She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there----like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.” ( P114) Feeling lonely and desperate, Jess could not recover from the shock of Leslie’s death.

IV. Helping the child going through difficult times

Facing death is difficult for everybody, and it is especially so for a ten-year old boy standing all by himself. In a fit of anger and despair, Jess threw into the river the papers and paints which Leslie had given him as Christmas gift and which he had cherished so much. Watching the paints floating and the papers swirling in the river, Jess burst out crying.

Jess didn’t feel any better until his father came to comfort him. His father showed his care toward his son as if Jess was a little baby. He “ pulled Jess over on his lap as though he were Joyce Ann ( Jess’ youngest sister who was only four years old), patted his head and saying ‘There. There.’”(P116) This was something that Jess had never remembered his father had ever done to him before, and this was something that made Jess feel envious of his younger sisters. Though Jess may not be used to the way his father treated him, it worked well in comforting him.

Jess gradually grew quiet and started to talk with his father about the death of his friend. His father talked to him as if he were a grown-up man, which Jess found strangely comforting and which made him bold. It was his father’s understanding of Jess’ feeling that comforted Jess a lot. His father also helped Jess realize that Leslie was just a little girl who wouldn’t have been eleven until November. Only then did Jess try to understand how others felt. He began to feel sorry for slamming May Belle ( his favorite younger sister). He also felt sorry for Bill ( Leslie’s father) for running away from his house. More importantly, he began to understand Leslie and her death. The second time Jess came to Terabithia after Leslie’s death, he began to understand how it felt when one faced death alone. “ It occurred to him that he probably had cancer of the throat… He began to sweat. He didn’t want to die. Lord, he was just ten years old. He had hardly begun to live.” (P119) Only then did he really understand his friend’s death and were able to forgive his friend for leaving him alone in their kingdom.

However, it wasn’t until his teacher helped him by understanding that he would never forget Leslie that Jess really recovered from his friend’s death. When Jess was back to school after Leslie’s death, his teacher, Mrs. Myers told him how she felt when her husband died and how grateful she was to have such an intelligent student like Leslie. Jess readily accepted his teacher’s offer of help when she said, “ So----I realize. If it’s hard for me, how much harder it must be for you. Let’s try to help each other, shall we?” (P125) He even wanted to comfort the teacher instead of being comforted. And he finally came to the realization that he needed to give people something that’s for them, not just something that made him feel good giving it.

The change of Jess’ attitudes towards Leslie’s death and other people showed how the 10-year-old boy accomplished his journey of growing up. But without others’ help, Jess could never reach the end of the journey. At first, Jess thought “Leslie belonged to him. More to him than anyone in the world.” ( P114) He even hated Leslie for having tricked him and left him alone in this world. With his father’s understanding and comfort, Jess began to understand others’ feeling. With his teacher’s understanding and help, Jess began to recollect his courage to face his friend’s death bravely.

Jess’ father and Mr. Myers tried to comfort and help Jess in different ways but they both showed their understanding which constructs the bridge between the adult and the child. The story ended with Jess building a bridge to Terabithia. This bridge may lead Jess to a whole new world where he could set free his imagination and gain confidence in himself. Another bridge was also built. It’s the bridge between the adults and him. This bridge may lead him into a new stage in his life where he became more understanding and was able to cope with such hard issues as death.



Nilsen A. P. & Kenneth L. Donelson. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1993

Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1977

Soter, Anna. Young Adult Literature and the New Literary Theories. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1999