Monday, February 7, 2011

Bridge to Terabithia - 1978

by Katherine Paterson,
read by Robert Sean Leonard

This classic, dealing with themes of death, friendship, and imagination, won the (well-deserved) Newbery Medal in 1978. Ten-year-old Jesse Aarons befriends the new girl at school, his next-door neighbor Leslie Burke. They deal with a school bully and their families (Jesse's family is rural, poor and rather uneducated; Leslie's parents are wealthy writers escaping the big nearby city of Washington, DC, and trying to live the simple life. Both of them desire parental and adult love and approval).  Jesse and Leslie create an imaginary world they call Terabithia* near the creek in the woods behind their homes. Then there is a tragic accident.

At the end of the audiobook, Michael Conroy with HarperAudio interviews Katherine Paterson and her son David, sometime in 2006. Katherine explains that "when [David] was seven and eight years old, his best friend was a girl named Lisa Hill, and the summer they were both eight, Lisa was struck and killed by lightning." Katherine said she wrote the book "to try to make sense out of a tragedy that didn’t make sense."

"I figured that David had a right to say whether or not he wanted the book published, because although he was not actually Jesse Aarons, all of his buddies at school would think he was... So I read it to him before I sent it even to my editor, and the only thing he said when I finished was...'I wanted it to be dedicated to me and Lisa,' so that’s why the book is dedicated to both of them."  In a 2007 interview, David says there are "a lot of similarities" between him and Jesse, including being "in love with his music teacher" (the guitar-playing Miss Edmunds in the book).

The songs Miss Edmunds sings with the kids, and Leslie's no-TV, call-me-by-my-first-name parents are among the few clues that the book is set in the 1970s; otherwise the setting feels rather timeless.  Katherine continues in the HarperAudio interview, "There’s some quality in this particular book … that opens itself up for people to bring their own lives to it in a very powerful way so that the story becomes their story, and I have people write to me, long long long letters, explaining how this book is their book and how it is their life that I am telling about. But that’s the reader’s response, it’s not something the writer can consciously do. It’s a magical thing when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen."

I think this is because nearly everyone grew up with a Terabithia, an imaginary world to play in.  David said, "One thing that I found so amazing is everyone remembered Terabithia, but they all remembered it differently. The gift that her book gives the reader is she allows them to imagine, she guides them to their own imagination. But the funny thing is, people remember this so vividly, and ... Terabithia takes place in just a very small amount of the book – I believe it’s 12 to 14 pages – and yet, that’s what people remember. They remember these wonderful, wonderful experiences that Jess and Leslie went through, whereas most of it they made up in their own minds.”  Katherine said, “Terabithia is the creation of the reader, not the writer."

The book is also a classic because it's about a child dealing with the death of another child, his friend.  In the same HarperAudio interview, Katherine states, “Everyone will have to go through death, their own and the death of those they love, ... and a book in which a child dies is sort of a rehearsal for that. We hope the child will not have to go through it as early as David did, but it gives them a chance to go through those emotions vicariously."  On her website, she adds that "though I was not fully aware of it, [I wrote it] to help me face my own death," which I think adds to the book's appeal to adults.

David pointed out, “I think that one reason the book has been so resoundingly successful throughout the years is that it was, when it first came out, one of the first books to really address... the death of a child, and the death of a friendship, and it still resonates today because it introduces the concept at a young age for young readers, which is also why it’s banned a lot of places, because adults don’t feel that children can handle issues such as this."  Katherine added, “I even had a letter from someone who said death is not age appropriate for a ten-year-old. No, it’s not, but it happens.”

Indeed, in a 2002 interview, Paterson notes that the book has been challenged for more than being "not age appropriate" in discussing death. "Initially, it was challenged because it deals with a boy who lives in rural Virginia, and he uses the word 'Lord' a lot, and it's not in prayer."  (Katherine taught for a year in a rural Virginia school, and on her website, she notes that "Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, simply to care about them and understand them.")

"Then there are more complicated reasons. The children build an imaginary kingdom, and there was the feeling that I was promoting the religion of secular humanism, and then New Age religion." Additionally, Jesse's family only goes to church at Easter, although the Bible "s'bout the only book we got around our place" (page 109).  Leslie's never been to church before, and there's an amusing yet thought-provoking scene after she accompanies Jesse's family at Easter.  I imagine this scene is likely to offend some fundamentalist/conservative Christians.

Actor Robert Sean Leonard (best known for playing Dr. Wilson on the TV show House) does a fine job narrating the audiobook. All in all, this is a wonderful book for about age 10 and up, and I highly recommend it.

*On her website, Katherine explains, "I thought I'd made up "Terabithia."  I realized when the book was nearly done, that there is an island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis called Terebinthia. I'm sure I borrowed that unconsciously, but, then, so would Leslie who loved the Chronicles of Narnia. And, by the way, Lewis got Terebinthia from the Biblical terebinth tree, so it wasn't original with him either."

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[This audiobook and a print copy for reference were borrowed from and returned to my university library.]