Friday, June 28, 2019

Book Review: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)

Jess Aarons, the only boy sandwiched between two pairs of sisters, is about to start fifth grade, and, after training all summer, he hopes to be the fastest runner at Lark Creek Elementary School. When Leslie Burke moves in, however, she quickly proves that she is the fastest - and also that she is the ideal best friend for Jess. Though Leslie is different in many ways - she doesn't have a television, she calls her parents by their first names, she doesn't have to worry about money - she has a wonderful imagination, and together, she and Jess create the fantastical kingdom of Terabithia. Jess and Leslie spend hours in the woods imagining their lives as king and queen of their magical land and talking over the events of their lives at home and school. One day, though, after a lot of rain, Jess is not really interested in going to Terabithia, and when he gets an offer to do something else, he jumps on it. While he is gone, a tragedy strikes that guarantees Jess - and Terabithia - will never be the same.

I can't remember a time when I didn't know of this as a sad book, so I never read it as a kid, and I only got brave enough to finally power through it for the first time in 2013. During that reading, I was focused solely on getting through the moments of tragedy as quickly as possible. When I re-read the book this month for a Newbery read-along on Instagram, I was finally able to focus more on the details of the story as a whole, and on the way Paterson crafts a tale not just of loss and sadness, but also of friendship, imagination, and coming of age.

Paterson is one of my favorite middle grade authors, largely because of the economy of her writing. This novel is only 128 pages, but it covers a lot of emotional and thematic ground in just thirteen chapters, and yet never feels rushed or incomplete. Paterson knows how to get many miles out of a few words. Though the tragic event at the novel's climax is in many ways a shock on the first reading, this re-reading helped me to see the little details that foreshadow what happens. Snippets of dialogue and seemingly throw-away lines of description read more like sign posts once you know what's coming, and the arc of the story has an effortless beauty to it that makes it feel satisfying even as it brings the reader to tears.

I stand by my decision not to read this book as a kid. I was definitely too sensitive to handle the sadness of the tragedy, and I needed much more life experience before I was ready to take on the subject matter. That said, it is a wonderfully written book for helping young people to understand and work through grief, and based on her temperament so far, I think at least one of my daughters will probably be able to handle it as she approaches the upper elementary years.

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