True Story: Bridge to Terabithia

On Episode 50 of the podcast, writer Meg Elison and I felt all of the feels in a discussion about Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Medal-winning middle grade novel Bridge to Terabithia. The book was published in 1977, but its themes of friendship and grief and self-discovery are about as timeless as it gets. Rereading this book was so much more emotional than I expected it to be, and I’m so glad Meg joined me to chat about how the author presents so many big subjects for young readers: class, poverty, relationships, grief, and the afterlife. It’s pretty heavy!


I had no idea when I offered Bridge to Terabithia as an option for Meg that this book meant so much to her when she was a kid, and that she had even aspired to be Katherine Paterson when she was growing up! The universe works in funny ways. I’m so glad that Meg had a chance to share more about how Bridge made a difference in her life, and I think that recording this episode gave us both a chance to dig deep into the recesses of our childhood emotions. As usual, I wasn’t able to share all of my opinions about this book (there’s just so much here!), so it’s time to give you the True Story. Since we’re back from hiatus next week, I’ll finally be able to share the True Story of the book we covered on the most recent new episode in my Friday blog post, so look out for that! In the meantime…

Here are some of my additional thoughts (AKA the True Story)…

(And here’s a summary of the book if you need it!)

There’s a lot (and I mean a lot) of heteronormative language in this one.

Meg and I spoke briefly about some of the heteronormative themes in this book. We also discussed the interesting dynamic that’s created when Jess is unsure of Leslie’s gender, since she doesn’t present the way that others girls he knows does. There was a lot more that I wanted to say, though, about the use of “traditional” gender roles and gendered language in Bridge to Terabithia. Yes, I know that it’s a product of a different time, but I think it’s worth mentioning, anyway.

We see it in the schoolyard, when the boys in Jess’s class are offended that Leslie would have the nerve to join their races… let alone beat them! We see it at Jess’s house, where it seems as though the only things that the girls and women in the family care about are clothes and appearances. Jess craves the kind of attention that his sisters get from their dad. “[May Belle] could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.” Jess’s dad is the one promoting much of the heteronormative thinking in the book.

Jess is so driven to make his family — especially his dad — proud, in a way that is relatable to readers of any age.

While we’re on the subject of Jess’s dad, let’s talk about how much Jess wants to please him. Because Jess doesn’t earn validation from his father in the form of attention and physical affection (the way his sisters do), he seems to be constantly on the lookout for the smallest indication that he is doing his father proud. He spends the summer training for the schoolyard running races so that he’ll have bragging rights at home, and he never quits on the long list of farm chores assigned to him, despite the fact that no one seems to notice his efforts. All of this totally broke my heart, not only because I grew so attached to Jess over the course of reading this book, but also because this obsession with parental approval is something that so many of us can relate to, even as adults. Haven’t we all had moments of wanting to make our mom or dad proud, even if it seems like we’re not going to get the validation we’re looking for?

I liked the way this book portrayed boy/girl friendship.

All too often in middle grade books, there’s an undertone of flirtation and awkwardness permeating friendships between girls and boys. We don’t get any of that in this book! Jess and Leslie adore each other, but it’s entirely platonic and innocent. As someone who had many platonic relationships with boys when I was in middle and high school, I found this really refreshing and true to life. I appreciated that Katherine Paterson opted to never muddy the waters of Jess and Leslie’s relationship. It made their feelings for each other seem that much more meaningful and intense. They didn’t need to have crushes on each other to be in love.

Bottom line: Jess doesn’t want to share Leslie.

We’ve all been there, right? You meet an awesome new friend and you want to spend all of your time with them. The sheer notion that this friend might be able to have fun with someone else or that you would have to give up time with them so they can hang with another person becomes very upsetting. I definitely felt this way as a kid! It feels icky to say, but friendship can get a little territorial.

I recognized this in Jess’s relationship with Leslie. He is so grateful to have her in his life and he can’t deal with the thought of her bonding with anyone else. He’s not especially excited to invite kids or adults into their magical little world, whether that be Miss Edmunds, Janice, May Belle, or Leslie’s parents.

I was fascinated by the presentation of seventies culture in Bridge to Terabithia.

I’ve always loved the seventies. It’s probably my favorite era in terms of pop culture (and fashion, of course). In Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson presents a really interesting picture of the seventies, in which hippie culture is constantly at odds with a more conservative sensibility, which is extremely prevalent in Jess’s small town in Virginia. I thought it was fascinating that even the kids were aware of this divide, and that they were getting in on the “debate” by commenting on the ways in which their teachers dressed and presented themselves. Even the differences between Jess and Leslie’s families reveal a bigger picture divide between these two approaches to life.

Listen to the podcast episode about Bridge to Terabithia here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about Bridge to Terabithia. Share them with me in the comments below.

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