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Spotlight on: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

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Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia

Leslie Burke is the new kid in town and Jess Aaronsí next-door neighbor (as much as two farms can be next door to each other). Leslie is different from anyone Jess has ever met: her family isnít concerned about money, she calls her parents by their first names, and she doesnít even seem to be afraid of the school bully, Janice Avery. And sheís not about to let a little thing like her gender keep her from racing the boys on their side of the recess yard.

Jess has two main ambitions: to draw for a living and to be the fastest runner at Lark Creek Elementary. When the previous champion moves on to another school, Jess has high hopes of taking his title. Then Leslie surprises everyone by winning the race. Despite this, and their other differences, Jess and Leslie become fast friends -- partially due to both of them feeling like outsiders. They create an imaginary world called Terabithia in the nearby woods, with themselves as king and queen and a cute little dog as their prince.

Things are going well for Jess -- a teacher on whom he has a crush even takes him on a trip to an art gallery in Washington, D.C. -- when a disastrous event happens. The death of someone very close to Jess threatens to destroy his fragile happiness. This is where author Katherine Paterson sets Bridge to Terabithia apart from its peers. Her realistic portrayal of the five stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance -- is unlike any other childrenís fiction Iíve read. (Paterson makes an interesting comment regarding this in an author interview in the back of the book.)

Bridge to Terabithia was written with 9-12 year olds in mind but this tragedy guarantees some intense moments that may upset or confuse younger readers. This offers parents a good opportunity to discuss these subjects with their children who may have not yet experienced this painful part of life. Through his experience, and using his friendship with Leslie as a support, Jess learns lessons about the people around him. Most of all, he learns about himself and his perceived lack of "guts."

Paterson has written a truly inspired novel (it won the Newbery Medal in 1978). Beautiful and moving without lapsing into sentimentality, it nourishes the mind and the heart. Though life has its share of pain, a true friendship can make it seem not so bad. A good book can have a similar effect, and many who read Bridge to Terabithia never forget it.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form in The Gardner News. Copyright 2005.

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