When Heartbreak Is Worth It: Katherine Paterson’s Newbery-winning Bridge to Terabithia
The first time my heart broke as a young reader was at the conclusion of Charlotte's Web. I never saw the passing of that beautiful arachnid coming; it hit me like a slap in the face. I was turned off to tragedy for years, leaving the family room when I sensed impending on-film sadness on family movie night, turning off the Atari when I wasn't happy with the inevitable results of Space Invaders, keeping my feet bare well into autumn. I didn't think I could take any more. But then, as I approached the worldly and savvy age of ten, I picked up Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. My mother screened my reading choices as a child, lest I accidentally and prematurely cross the bridge from Judy Blume's Freckle Juice to Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, and when I brought Terabithia to her in the bookstore, she eyed it warily, remembering the aftershocks of Charlotte's death. But here I was, determined and so much wiser. And then there I was a short time later, heartbroken again.
Paterson's Newbery Award-winning book tells the story of Jess Aarons. Jess has been training on his family's farm in rural Virginia all summer long for one reason: to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. The school year begins and the first race finally rolls around. Jess is confident that he's going to win. But then, in a shocking turn of events, Leslie Burke (a girl!) finishes first. Leslie is the new girl in town. She and her parents, free-spirited writers, moved to a house near Jess's family's home. In spite of their rocky beginnings, Leslie and Jess soon embark on an incredible friendship. Two loners with big imaginations escape together day after day to the magical kingdom of Terabithia, gotten to only by rope swing, a land in which they rule as king and queen, with a dog named P.T. as protector and jester.
And then fate steps in. On a rare day that finds Leslie heading to Terabithia alone, tragedy strikes, and Jess's world is forever changed. Readers are pulled into Jess's struggle as he grapples with loss. As a young reader, one is introduced to grief -- and yet learns to reconcile grief with gratitude, as Jess finds warmth in his heart for the short time Leslie was part of his life.
There are certain books that we read over the years that stay with us for any of a multitude of reasons. Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia is one of those books. The reasons? Its lessons: tragedy is manageable, grief is natural, true friendship is special, and imagination is key. The second time my heart was broken was with my first reading (of many) of Bridge to Terabithia. If you've not read it, read it now. If you have read it, revisit it. Read it and revisit it and then share one of the most beautiful heartbreaks you'll ever experience.