We all remember how old we were when we first lost a friend in the real world. But friends in literature? That’s another story. Charlotte A. Cavatica was the first I mourned as a child. I remember crying buckets and flipping through earlier chapters of Charlotte’s Web so I could see her with Wilbur while she was still alive.
Leslie Burke was another.
Bridge to Terabithia, the award-winning 1977 children’s book in which Leslie lives and – need I say spoiler? – later dies, turns forty this year. Additionally, this month marks the tenth anniversary of the 2007 film version starring AnnaSophia Robb (“The Way Way Back”) as Leslie and Josh Hutcherson (the “Hunger Games” franchise) as Jess Aarons, her fifth-grade best friend. In between, in 1978, the American Library Association awarded the book its prestigious Newbery Medal, an honor recognizing “the most distinguished American children’s book published the previous year.”
At first, the artistic and awkward Jess dislikes Leslie, the new girl in school, because she can run faster than he can. But after he befriends the creative tomboy, the two become co-rulers of Terabithia, the imaginary kingdom they create in the woods that they reach by crossing a creek on a rope swing. When Leslie tries to visit Terabithia alone one day, the swing breaks and she drowns, devastating Jess and every reader who has taken the young friends to heart.
“‘Why did you kill Leslie Burke?’ is a question I get a lot,” author Katherine Paterson, now eighty-four, said in a 2011 interview. Adults understand that better, the author – who has more than thirty published books under her belt – said.
“It’s a terrible thing. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s not your fault, Jess,” Robert Patrick as Jess’s dad says in the film. “She brought you something special when she came here, didn’t she? That’s what you hold on to. That’s how you keep her alive.”
Much like Jess eventually builds a wooden bridge across the creek, the book has helped those struggling with heartache and tragedy find solace. Paterson recalled once receiving a letter from a college student who dug out his old copy of Bridge to Terabithia after a friend had died.
“He just wanted me to know what a great comfort it had been to him. So that meant a great deal to me,” she said in that same 2011 interview.
The audience’s vicarious experience of losing Leslie is “kind of a rehearsal for what all of us are going to have to face in our lives,” she noted. “We’re all going to lose friends before we die. And actually, death is not the most painful way sometimes to lose a friend.”
Part of the reason for the book’s staying power is the author’s sincerity. Paterson dedicated the book to and based the story on her son David, then eight, and his best friend, Lisa Hill, who died after being struck by lightning.
“I had to make meaning out of that terrible tragedy that was so devastating to us, and I knew that a story was my way through that,” said Paterson. She asked her son for permission to share it before it was published.
Books can provide a great escape from life’s pressures, but they also offer support when dealing with events such as divorce, moving, financial problems, military deployment, and death, the National Association for the Education of Young Children has noted in its Young Children journal. “Real life does indeed call for real books: books that provide information, comfort, and models for coping with life’s difficult times.”
The book industry e-newsletter Shelf Awareness suggested “comfort books” such as Charlotte’s Web, The Little Prince, The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, and The Wind in the Willows after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, for example.
“Don’t be surprised if your child asks for The Bridge to Terabithia and The Tale of Despereaux – two novels that help combat fear and process loss from a safe distance,” wrote Jennifer M. Brown, the newsletter’s editor at the time. “A mouse who bravely entered the dungeon and emerged triumphant, and a boy who honors his friend who has died give us hope.”
David Paterson became a producer on the 2007 film and helped adapt his mother’s book into the screenplay. He considered it his responsibility to “protect the story” and keep the original ending, which some on the project had argued to change.
“I felt the film was a terrific tribute to my friend,” he has said.
To this day, the book remains a powerful tribute to her and to Leslie, as well as a way for Jess and others to forge a path through their pain. As Paterson wrote:
She wasn’t there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. As for the terrors ahead – for he did not fool himself that they were all behind him – well, you just have to stand up to your fear and not let it squeeze you white.