Burning Bridges

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My own Prince Terrien got in on reading Terabithia.

THE DEFENDANT: Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson

THE VERDICT: Bridge to Terabithia is a perennial classic, which sadly means it’s also a perennial banned book. It was the 8th most frequently challenged book in the 90s, according to the ALA. It continued to grace the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books List from 2000-2009, but dropped down to #28. However, it was back to #8 again in 2002 and #10 in 2003.

THE CHARGES: According to the ALA, Bridge to Terabithia has been banned or challenged for “occult/Satanism, offensive language, violence”. The book was also challenged in Connecticut, along with The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The petition for the books removal sought to “eliminate the study of materials containing information about witchcraft, magic, evil spells, or related material, now and forever. We believe this material is satanic, a danger to our children, is being studied excessively and has no place in our schools” (qtd in Connecticut Residents Seek to Ban Two Newbery Medal Winners from School).

“Some critics also proclaim that Leslie is not a good role model simply because she doesn’t attend church”, according to Banned Books Awareness. The book was banned in Pennsylvania for “profanity, disrespect for adults, and an elaborate fantasy world that might lead to confusion”. Readers or parents have also taken issue with the book’s inclusion of death and grief.

THE REVIEW: The Newbery Award winning children’s/YA classic is taught in English classes the world over and has spawned both a PBS made for TV movie and a recent film adaptation. It tells the story of Jesse Aarons, a poor but artistic boy living in rural farm country during the 1970s. He encounters the freethinking and tomboyish new girl at school, Leslie Burke, and the two become friends as they deal with family, school bullies, and other childhood issues. The two find refuge in a make-believe kingdom they created while exploring the nearby forest.

However, they reach their fort and fantasy world via an old rope swing over a dried up creek. As the spring rains begin to make the water level rise, Jess grows nervous but is afraid to mention this to Leslie. One day Jess is invited on an impromptu field trip to Washington, D.C. by his hippie music teacher, Miss Edmunds, and does not invite Leslie. When he returns, he discovers that the rope snapped while Leslie was crossing to Terabithia, presumably to find him, causing her to hit her head and drown.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of this tragedy as Jess struggles to accept Leslie’s death and honor her memory. The book is purely fictional, however, it was inspired by the real-life death of a little girl named Lisa, the best friend of Paterson’s son.

Much like with The Giver or Tiger Eyes, I am sad that I did not read this book at the age it was intended (it seems my elementary school was behind in the modern classics department, which is not surprising, given that some of our globes still said Soviet Union on them). But 9-year-old Shannon missed out on this one.

The book captures the struggles of school and the joys of childhood perfectly, a rare feat in a world of out-of-touch adult writers condescending to children or failing utterly to imitate or imagine their speech patterns, slang, and life problems. When Jess and Leslie are playing make-believe it seemed entirely authentic. I could practically smell the pine needles of my own childhood fort where my best friend and I created our own fantastic worlds.

The bullies at Jess and Leslie’s school, while immediately familiar, are not one-dimensional. Similarly, most readers can relate to Jess or Leslie’s family, social, or economic problems to one degree or another. Annoying siblings, clingy siblings, chores, not being able to afford new school supplies, having parents with different values or rules than the other kids, being the new or weird kid at school, not fitting in at school or home, having different aspirations/priorities than one’s parents or community, holding on to joy and imagination as one leaves childhood behind, all of these resonate as much today as they did in the 1970s.

This book is an excellently written and poignant coming of age story that provides kids both an entertaining read and a road-map for navigating life’s many struggles with imagination, compassion, and courage. Both the reader and Jess have their minds opened to a wide world they may not have been aware of, whether it’s the fact that bullies and parents and teachers have feelings and problems of their own or that there are other ways of living and thinking than many children (and many adults for that matter) have been exposed to in their schools, homes, or communities.

And while not everyone will lose a best friend to a tragic death, learning to cope and ultimately thrive in the face of loss is a skill that will serve children far better in life than avoiding anything that could potentially make them sad or upset.

THE DEFENSE: The religious qualms in this book are bizarre to me. To start, Leslie is a child. If not going to church makes her a bad role model, than I suppose all non-Christian literature is out. Bye, Odysseus. Bye, Aladdin. Hell, Bambi doesn’t go to church. Non-Christians have always and will always exist and chances are your child goes to school with at least one person that is not Christian. Not to mention that plenty of Christians don’t go to church…

Part of Jess’s horror and guilt over Leslie’s death stems from his concern that Leslie will go to hell, due to an earlier conversation in which May Belle’s childlike, black and white interpretation of the rules and Leslie’s lack of a religious upbringing forces Jess to confront his own beliefs in a personal way. The book (or at least the parents in it) taking the edgy stance that a fourth grade girl whose done nothing wrong isn’t going to hell should not offend.

In fact, this is something many children may relate to and find comfort in, so I thank Paterson for bringing it up. This book is not gospel, it is a human story about human feelings, human struggles, and human experiences. Religion, death, and concerns about both are a universal part of that experience. If the lack of primary school eternal damnation does offend you, perhaps Dante’s Inferno might be more up your alley. Except, oh wait, that’s banned too. And even Inferno features non-Christians avoiding damnation because they were such great guys.

As for the Satanism charge, I don’t even know how to respond to that. There are no evil spells in this book. There is no witchcraft. There is no magic. The make-believe kingdom of Terabithia is clearly an invention of two imaginative children and even that is heavily Christian, as Leslie draws most of her knowledge from the Narnia books (about as Christian as it gets) and Jess’s additions to their pine grove Terabithian rituals are clearly influenced by his Christian upbringing.

“As for why the book has been banned in the past, Paterson explained, ‘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. 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.’ Paterson thinks the latter complaints are ironic since her parents were Christian missionaries, and she is married to a Presbyterian minister.” – qtd in Connecticut Residents Seek to Ban Two Newbery Medal Winners from School

The idea that Terabithia is somehow promoting witchcraft or Wicca is laughable, particularly to anyone remotely familiar with actual pagan practices. The idea that the fantasy kingdom of Terabithia will confuse children is likewise idiotic. Children have long read about Narnia, Middle Earth, Prydain, and Oz and, as much as they may wish otherwise, are perfectly aware that these places are not real. However, unlike other fantasy classics, Terabithia isn’t even real in the book. Once again children can tell fantasy from reality, though, based on challenges like this, it seems many adults can’t.

Issues with profanity or Jess’s blasphemies are also ridiculous. I didn’t even notice while reading and if we took away every book without squeaky clean language or less than solemn religious invocations, there wouldn’t be many books left. Jess merely uses colloquial expressions common to his age group, time period, and region.

Similarly, ‘disrespect for adults’ is another qualm that no book accurately reflecting reality could avoid. Sometimes kids don’t like their teachers or disagree with their parents. Not all adults are Mr. and Mrs. Brady. There are bad parents like Janice Avery’s dad, inattentive parents who mean well but aren’t perfect like Leslie’s parents, and people like Miss Edmunds who inspire and encourage those who don’t necessarily get the confidence or attention they need at home.

However, over the course of the novel Jess learns to see adults as people, whether it’s realizing that the annoying teacher lost her husband or that his parents are people doing their best in difficult circumstances. This is relatable because it is true to life. There’s a reason ‘Atonement With the Father’ is a step on the heroic quest formula.

Concerns that the book will make children sad drive me crazy. It’s as though adults think children are never exposed to anything other than sunflowers, ponies, and song circles until they turn 18. Sad things happen. Bad things happen. Children are aware of that, even if their parents remain willfully ignorant.

Death affects children, as it did Paterson’s son. It might be a friend, it might be a parent, it might be a relative or family friend, it might just be a pet. But if a book can bring children some solace or even just make them feel empathy for someone else, why would anyone deny them that?

Most children’s books and Disney movies include or imply the death of a parent and many books feature the death of at least one character, whether to elicit emotion or to show that the situation is serious (let the redshirts flow). My generation grew up on the sob-fest that is The Land Before Time and somehow survived.

This book at least gives death the weight it deserves. In any case, Bridge to Terabithia is not about death or sadness, but about life, resilience, and keeping joy and dreams alive even in times of hardship and grief. Given this, I have no idea where some got the idea that the book ‘promotes a negative view of life’. It seems pretty optimistic to me.

This book is appropriate for elementary school readers and may even inspire them to go on and read other books, just as Leslie inspired Jess to read The Chronicles of Narnia and The Chronicles of Prydain. I see no reason why Bridge to Terabithia should not be included, not only in school libraries, but in curriculums, as it is a classic.

My only issue with the book was that I was vaguely bothered by Leslie’s advice to Janice Avery and the fact that none of the children reported her abuse to anyone. However, Leslie is a kid and her advice was true to what a kid might say. Besides, this book should be looked at within the cultural/historical context of the time it was written and the place in which it is set. Perhaps this could even jumpstart a class conversation about an issue that negatively affects more kids than the corrupting influence of children’s literature ever did.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

11 responses to “Burning Bridges”

  1. Michelle says :

    Haven’t read this one. I will say, though, that perennial has one R and two Ns. Remember that it refers to annus – year. Like annual. Two Ns. Love you!

  2. Stacie Theis (@beachboundbooks) says :

    Stopping by from the Kid Lit Blog Hop. Thanks for the great review! Will add this to my growing list of books for my middle graders.

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