Decoding the Newbery is a monthly column in which Newbery Medal winners are examined and deconstructed by regular contributor and author Catherine Faris King. This month, Catherine read Bridge to Terabithia, the Newbery winner for 1978.
October’s book is Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson’s classic and the Newbery winner for 1978. My sixth grade teacher would like me to remind you that, despite what the trailers for the 2007 film adaptation show, Bridge is not a work of speculative fiction, but is in fact solidly grounded in the world which we inhabit. The film trailers lied (although the film is scrupulously accurate in most every other respect). That said, (you’re welcome, Mrs. Flicker), let us Break this Down…
In a Small Town somewhere in eastern Virginia, a Kid Hero named Jess hopes for some distinction. He sprints every morning in the hope of becoming the fastest kid in the fifth grade, but his dreams are dashed with the arrival of the lightfooted Doomed Catalyst, Wise Soul, and New Kid in Town, Leslie Burke. Jess at first dislikes this outsider, but a snap moment of connection in music class turns into a close friendship. Out of their daydreams, they build a magical kingdom in the woods, which they call Terabithia.
Despite this friendship forming the backbone of the book, I’ve never read it as being even dimly Romantic. Jess is devoted, but insecure, feeling like he doesn’t measure up. Part of his insecurity stems from their backgrounds: Leslie’s parents are cosmopolitan and well-educated, and chose to live out in the country to discover themselves. Jess’ family thinks that the Burkes are strange and snobbish. But more than that, Leslie’s imagination furnishes Terabithia, and Jess feels like he has less to offer there, beside his rough painting and carpentry (which, together, form an underplayed Hands-On Activity). Jess feels his best gift is Prince Terrien, a little puppy who becomes the guardian of Terabithia (and the book’s Animal Friend).
Jess and Leslie’s friendship is not even a year old before, one day. Tragedy strikes.
(Spoiler warning: if you haven’t read the book yet and would like to avoid being spoiled, look away now).
I wish I could say that the tragedy was that Leslie’s eccentric writer parents decide to move to Pawnee, Indiana, and change their last name to Knope; that Leslie parts sadly with her best friend, but then goes on to a successful career as the Deputy Director of Parks and Recreation. But no. This book’s Death by Newbery Medal is infamous and brutal: on the one day, the one day, that Jess doesn’t reach out to her, but leaves her to go to Terabithia alone, Leslie dies.
For the book’s final three chapters, Jess must come to terms with her death, deal with his grief and anger, and find a way to “pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.” (Bridge, pg. 126)
The best thing I can say about Leslie’s death is that at least there’s ample foreshadowing. In the hands of a lesser writer, Bridge could have been a piece of maudlin sap building to a cruel twist, meant only to shock. But Katherine Paterson is an excellent writer. She could have written a strong ending where Leslie lives to the end. But she chose not to, because Bridge to Terabithia is a work of mourning.
Many years ago, in the suburban town of Takoma, Paterson’s son, David, was having trouble fitting in with the second grade. He became friends with a bright girl named Lisa Hill. Lisa died in a freak accident – a lightning bolt out of a clear sky. The Patersons mourned with the Hills, and after a time, Katherine Paterson wrote Bridge to memorialize Lisa, up to her sudden, senseless death. So Jess and Leslie are based on real children – even if a few degrees and years removed. That is important to remember. But my speculation and assessment will be based on the fictional characters, with all due respect.
On my latest readthrough, I really noticed the constant questioning of gender roles. I took my copy of the book and set a Post-It note for every time another character comments that Leslie isn’t like a real girl, or that Jess is not manly enough. For a slim 128 pages, the Post-Its sure crowd together.
Jess is the middle child with four sisters, the only boy. He feels the pressure to live up to expectations of being the boy. Four years ago, Jess told his father that he wanted to be an artist, and his father responded with
‘What are they teaching in that damn school? Bunch of old ladies turning my only son into some kind of a–’ He had stopped on the word, but Jess had gotten the message. It was one you didn’t forget, even after four years. (Bridge, page 12)
Jess still indulges his love of drawing, but in secret, in shame. Terabithia is the only place where he openly expresses this part of himself. He hates football but pretends to enjoy it because it’s manly; he tries to play with the race car track his father buys him for Christmas, but can’t muster up real interest. In fact, the only time in the book when he satisfies the demands of masculinity is when he fails to cry over Leslie’s death. (pg. 108)
Contrast to Leslie. Jess’ initial meeting of her runs so: “The person had jaggedy brown hair cut close to its face… He couldn’t honestly tell whether it was a girl or a boy.” (pg. 18) After three paragraphs of “he or she” and then “it” pronouns, Jess decides, “Girl. Definitely a girl, but he couldn’t have said why he was suddenly sure.” The narrative even calls out “Leslie” for being one of “those names that could go either way” – it was almost exclusively a male name until the 1940’s, and now is almost exclusively given to girls.
Jess’ older sisters make fun of Leslie for being such a tomboy. But while they attempt to outdo one another in a simpering, over-spending competition of femininity, Leslie seems to just not care. In Terabithia, she rules as Queen, but she does not set out to imitate Lucy Pevensie or Eilonwy of Prydain. Leslie is happy to remain Leslie, now a ruler, warrior, and priest.
In Terabithia, all of the demands of gender roles fall away. Jess and Leslie don’t rule as married sovereigns, but as equal friends. Jess, particularly, learns to accept his sorrow, his gentleness, his artistry. At the end, he sees his mission as one of “beauty and caring.” He starts to see the people around him as whole beings with histories and heartache. And his last act of the book is to weave flowers into his little sister’s hair, and lead her over the bridge he built.
This rejection of toxic gender roles may seem appallingly obvious to a reader like me, until I look around, outside of my liberal bubble. I see a society that still objectifies women into prizes, that encourages men to be macho and heartless. Even within this work, it says a lot about our society that Leslie’s apparent androgyny comes from dressing in a “boyish” fashion. It’s also telling that in the 2007 film, Leslie, played by AnnaSophia Robb, is dressed in a colorful and quirky fashion that is far “girlier” than Donna Diamond’s illustrations.
In this little book, there are many elements that I could have unpacked – the treatment of religion, Jess’ grieving process, the portrait of a poor rural community. But the consistent defiance of gender roles stands out to me. To get really speculative, this bildungsroman contains the seeds of a coming-out story. Had the book extended into the years, I could easily imagine Jess as a young man, packing up his paints and heading for New York City. And, because all fiction is equally true, I can imagine Leslie striding alongside him, a gallant leader with self-picked pronouns and jaggedy hair worn like a crown.
Bridge to Terabithia illustrates how art and imagination leads to empathy, and how imagining a world of kindness and beauty is the first step to creating it – the greatest Hands-On Activity of all. As for its Social Issue, in an understated but pervasive fashion, this book firmly rejects the trappings of gender as the foundation of identity. That’s why it is still essential reading in 2015, and why I say that Bridge to Terabithia is one of the best Newbery winners I have yet read
So much for that…. What’s next?
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Catherine Faris King is a Los Angeles based writer who studied English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing at Whittier College, and French Literature at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The Ninety-Ninth Bride from Book Smugglers Publishing, is her publishing debut.