The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson:
I'm not really sure how to chat about this book without giving away any spoilers. The spoiler is the crux of the book. I'll just say that there is a big, bad tragedy that happens to one of our characters, That's all I'm going to say!
Jesse is getting ready to enter the 5th grade at his rural Virginia school. To prepare, he wakes up early every morning, right after he hears his father's truck pull away, and practices his running in the family's cow pasture (his goal is to be the fastest runner in his class). One morning, he is surprised by his new neighbor: Leslie, a boyish-looking girl who will be in his class and who happens to be an excellent runner.
Jesse and Leslie become good friends, and hang out together at school, or at her house, or at their top-secret magical world, Terabithia, which is just across the creek beside a big, scary forest. Things are going great until that big, terrible tragedy that I mentioned happens. And then we try to make sense of things with the other characters, and then (rather abruptly, in my opinion) all is back to normal and the story ends. This is when I set my book down and thought about the story for a few days. My biggest question was why. Why did the author, Katherine Paterson, write this book? What were her reasons, I wondered. After a quick wikipedia check, it turns out that something similar happened to her son and a friend of his in their childhood. So, I think Paterson wrote it simply as a re-telling of events, or maybe as a way for her to deal with personal tragedy. There must be some reason, I can't help but wonder, because basing a book on a big, bad tragedy and then wrapping up the loose ends tidy & quick leaves me a bit in the dark. So, I looked for clues.
One thing that caught my attention was the "bridge" over the creek - after the big, bad tragedy one character changes it from a swinging rope to a wooden bridge. Does this symbolize perhaps a preparation or a readiness to go forward into adulthood? And I'm still scratching my head about May Belle being asked to come to Terabithia at the end - before, guests were strictly prohibited. Is that a replacement for another character, or perhaps that too has some symbolic meaning - maybe a new openness towards others? I don't know, but I am trying to figure out what Paterson is trying to get at. Maybe I'm reading too much in to it and she is just re-telling a tale from real life. But, this being a Newbery Medal winner (1978) I'm sure there is more than meets the eye. I'm just not sure what it is because the actions of the characters (the main character, specifically) don't make sense to me after the big, bad tragedy.
However, that being said, I loved the characters and I think that's what makes this a great story. They are all very real. Jesse's mother yelling for him, "Jess-see!" Or her making Jesse do all the chores, while letting the older sisters talk her out of work and excusing the younger sisters because they are too little. Even the names of the sisters sound true: Brenda and Ellie are the older sisters, May Belle and Joyce Ann are the younger two (I love that there is a progression with their names - the parents must have grown/developed/changed as the years and children kept coming). The arguments that the sisters have with Jesse seem all too true. I thought this was really the best part of the book: the family dialogue and interactions that allowed each character to stand out.
I liked the characters of Jesse and Leslie, too and thought their interactions were plausible. They played and made believe like most 5th graders would. Leslie's family is also an interesting one, albeit quite the opposite from Jesse's. Again, the characters in the book are the real strength.
I hope I haven't given too many crucial details. If you haven't read the book, it might be best to go into it not knowing what to expect. Unfortunately, I skipped right ahead to the chaper entitled "No!" and quickly read what happened. Maybe if I knew nothing about the book, I might have been more appreciative of the big, bad tragedy & what happened afterwards. As it was, I loved the book up to that part, but I still can't wrap my brain around the big, bad tragedy and why it's there in the first place. Which is how it goes in real life, too.