This Day In Writing History
On October 21st, 1977, Bridge To Terabithia, the beloved, award-winning, and controversial children's novel by Katherine Paterson, was published. The heart wrenching tale of two lonely, outcast children - a young boy and girl from very different backgrounds - who create an imaginary world for themselves and become soul mates, only to be separated forever when tragedy strikes, was inspired by a real life tragedy that affected the author and her son.
Katherine Paterson had already established herself as an acclaimed and popular children's author with her first two books, The Sign Of The Chrysanthemum (1973) and Of Nightingales That Weep (1974), when her eight-year-old son David lost his best (and only) friend, a vivacious and imaginative little girl named Lisa Hill. While at the beach with her family, Lisa was struck by lightning and killed. David Paterson was devastated and traumatized by his sudden loss, and his mother was deeply affected by it as well.
After publishing her third novel, The Master Puppeteer (1975), Katherine Paterson and her son were still struggling to cope with Lisa Hill's death. So, for her next book, she decided to write a story about a close friendship between a young boy and girl that ends in tragedy, the boy struggling to cope with his loss. She would later say that writing the book was a therapeutic exercise that helped her and her son make some sense out of a senseless tragedy.
Bridge To Terabithia is set in Lark Creek, a small town in rural Virginia. The novel opens with 10-year-old Jess Aarons, a poor farm boy, going out for a morning run before breakfast. The introverted, artistically gifted Jess has no friends, but hopes to win his peers' admiration and respect when school starts by becoming the fastest boy in the fifth grade and winning the races held during recess.
When Jess returns from his practice run, we get a look at his bleak home life. The Aarons family is large and poor. His two older sisters, Brenda and Ellie, are cruel to him. His younger sisters, May Belle and Joyce Ann, adore him, but also annoy him, as he must share a bedroom with them. His mother favors her daughters over her son and is always yelling at him. His father lavishes affection on Jess' younger sisters but is emotionally distant from his son and shows him no affection. He's often gruff and foul tempered, especially to Jess. With money so tight that he has to commute over an hour each way to Washington, D.C. to work as a day laborer because farming doesn't pay enough to support the family, Mr. Aarons is rarely in a good mood.
At school, Jess' teacher is a nasty, foul-tempered, obese older woman named Mrs. Myers, nicknamed "Monster Mouth" by her students for obvious reasons. The music teacher, Miss Edmunds, is young and pretty, and the only human being who seems to care about Jess. She admires his artistic talent and encourages him to keep drawing. She's a non-conformist like Jess - she wears jeans to class and no makeup. She's also a hippie and plays folk songs on her guitar for the kids. Jess sees Miss Edmunds as a "diamond in the rough," and has a huge crush on her.
Jess' artistic talent is a source of consternation for his ignorant father, who worries that Jess' passion for drawing poses a threat to his only son's masculinity:
He would like to show his drawings to his dad, but he didn't dare. When he was in first grade, he had told his dad that he wanted to be an artist when he grew up. He'd thought his dad would be pleased. He wasn't. "What are they teaching in that damn school?" he had asked. "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.
Into Jess' bleak world comes a ray of sunshine in the form of a new girl who moves in next door. Leslie Burke is Jess' age. She's an intelligent, vivacious tomboy from the city whose parents are both writers. The Burkes are wealthy, but don't own a TV set. They prefer that their daughter call them by their first names (Bill and Judy) instead of Mom and Dad. They're liberal and non-religious, whereas the Aaronses are like most people in Lark Creek - Christian fundamentalists - though they only attend church once a year, on Easter Sunday, because Mrs. Aarons "got mad at the preacher."
Jess and Leslie don't become friends when they first meet. Leslie joins Mrs. Myers' class and then runs against the boys in the races at recess. Unfortunately, she beats Jess in the heat, eliminating him from the races and crushing his dream of being the fastest kid in the fifth grade. Nevertheless, when Gary Fulcher, a bully, refuses to let Leslie run in the final race, Jess stands up for her. Fulcher lets her run, and she beats him. She outruns the other boys as well, humiliating them.
That's no way to start a friendship, but soon, Jess and Leslie become inseparable. Deciding that she and Jess need a place of their own, Leslie chooses a forest clearing on the other side of a creek bed near their homes. In order to reach their secret land, they swing across the creek bed on an old rope tied to a tree. Leslie names their magic kingdom Terabithia. There, they rule as king and queen, though Jess, who is in awe of Leslie, feels unworthy of being her king.
In Terabithia, Jess and Leslie grow closer as she draws him into her world of imagination. There, no enemies - not the imaginary giants from Leslie's stories or their real-life foes can defeat them. Leslie builds up Jess' low self-esteem and makes him feel good about himself for the first time. Although nervous around them at first, Jess grows close to Leslie's parents as well, as they too introduce him to a world he never knew existed.
Together, there's nothing that Jess and Leslie can't do. When another bully, Janice Avery, steals food from Jess' little sister May Belle, he and Leslie get even by playing a brilliantly conceived and executed practical joke to humiliate Janice in front of the other kids. Later, when Jess hears Janice crying in the girls' bathroom, he gets Leslie to reach out to her. They learn that she is being abused - brutally beaten - by her father, which is why she became a bully.
Although Jess likes Leslie's parents, he's uncomfortable having her over at his house. His sisters tease him about his "girlfriend," his mother hates Leslie's boyish looks and clothes, and his father is "fretting that his only son did nothing but play with girls," and is "worried about what would become of it." When Leslie asks if she can go to church with Jess and his family for Easter services, (she's never been to a church before) his mother grudgingly says yes. Afterward, on the way home, Leslie wonders why Jess, who is a Christian, hates church so much while she, a nonbeliever, thinks that the story of Jesus is beautiful. May Belle warns Leslie that she has to believe in the Bible, or else God will damn her to Hell when she dies. Leslie disagrees.
The closer Jess grows to Leslie, the less he thinks about his crush on Miss Edmunds, the music teacher. But one morning, Jess is stunned when she invites him out to see an art gallery in Washington. Thrilled to be able to spend time with Miss Edmunds outside of music class, he goes off with her, asking his sleeping mother for permission. He forgets to call Leslie and tell her that he won't be meeting her in Terabithia that day. Jess loves the art gallery, and immediately chastises himself for not inviting Leslie along. It's just not the same without her. He promises himself that he will invite her next time.
There won't be a next time. When Jess returns home, he finds his family worried, his mother in tears. His older sister Brenda breaks the news: Leslie is dead. She had been swinging on the rope to Terabithia when it broke. She fell, struck her head, and drowned in the creek. The family thought that Jess had been killed, too. Disbelieving them at first, the terrible realization hits Jess and he takes off running, as if by running, he could keep Leslie alive. His father brings him home.
Jess goes through all the stages of the bereaved: denial, anger, fear, guilt, and sorrow. He and his parents go to the Burkes' house to pay respects. The experience is unreal to him. Afterward, Jess struggles to deal with his grief. The only way he can cope with his loss is to use all the inner strength that Leslie had given him. He decides to repay her for her kindness by passing it along. He builds a bridge to Terabithia and brings his neglected little sister May Belle into the magical kingdom, making her the new queen.
Katherine Paterson's powerful, emotional story won the Newbery Award the year it was published. Over 30 years later, it continues to touch the hearts and minds of new generations of readers. Surprisingly, Bridge To Terabithia holds the distinction of being the most banned and challenged children's book of all time. It often appears on teachers' assigned reading lists for classroom study and discussion, raising the ire of disgruntled parents and conservative groups who complain about the novel's dialectic use of profane language, (casual use of the words damn and hell in conversation) ridiculing of authority figures, and negative depictions of Christians and Christianity.
These criticisms are surprising, considering that the author is the wife of a Presbyterian minister. Religious themes are handled in an honest, realistic way. Due to the effect of the religious dogma he was raised to believe in, Jess' faith is no comfort to him at all in his greatest time of need. On the contrary, he is terrified that God will send Leslie Burke to Hell for being a non-believer. His father assures him otherwise, telling him that "God don't send no little girls to Hell."
Bridge To Terabithia was first adapted in 1985 as an episode of the PBS TV series, Wonderworks - a zero-budget, horribly written, poorly acted episode of a series that usually produced quality adaptations of children's literature. Fans of the book, including me, believed that it would never be made into a movie because of its controversial nature. However, in 2007, Disney's Walden Media division produced a feature film version of Bridge To Terabithia.
With David Paterson (who grew up to become a playwright) serving as producer and co-writer, the movie turned out to be a faithful adaptation that beautifully captured all the emotion of the story. Lovingly directed by animator Gabor Csupo in his first live-action film, the movie features stunning performances by young leads Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb as Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke. They're backed by a stellar supporting cast, including Robert Patrick as Mr. Aarons and Zooey Deschanel as Miss Edmunds.
Although the "Disneyfied" screenplay tones down the story (the book is much darker) and omits or waters down the most objectionable elements of the novel, the movie still ignited a firestorm of controversy due to deceitful marketing practices over which the filmmakers had no control. The movie was falsely marketed by Disney as a lighthearted fantasy similar to The Chronicles Of Narnia. Parents and children unfamiliar with the book went to the movie expecting to see what was advertised. Instead, they saw a deep and very sad story that really had little to do with fantasy. The marketing also drove away fans of the book (like me) who believed that the story they loved so much had been totally butchered and ruined.
The Bridge To Terabithia movie is currently available on standard and Blu-Ray DVD. I wholeheartedly recommend that you see it - after you read the book, which is a masterpiece of contemporary children's literature.
Quote Of The Day
"When people ask me what qualifies me to be a writer for children, I say I was once a child. But I was not only a child, I was better still, a weird little kid." - Katherine Paterson
Today's video features an interview with Katherine and David Paterson on the Bridge To Terabithia movie. Enjoy!