“Her words stirred inside of him. He’d like to be a ruler of something. Even something that wasn’t real.”
As far as children’s books go, this is one of best and worst. The magical world of Terabithia inspired much imaginative adventuring as a child with my own best friend – hills became mud monsters guarding treasure, backyard sprinklers became rivers to race down and the tunnel over the creek by my house became a portal to another dimension. Fortunately, none of my friends drowned in that creek.
The friendship between Jess and Leslie is perfect. They’re exactly how I would want my children to behave. They’re remarkably bold in standing up for what they believe and those who need defending. Yet they still, with their flaws and insecurities and sometimes mischievous pranks, come across as believable. Jess, even when he’s defending Leslie’s right to race with the boys, gets embarrassed and frightened, steeling himself for the expected sock in the mouth.
The story essentially starts when Leslie moves in next door to Jess just as they’re ready to begin fifth grade. Jess doesn’t really fit in anywhere – he doesn’t have a lot of friends at school, at home he’s surrounded by four sisters, and his dad doesn’t think he’s man enough because he likes drawing instead of sports. Leslie definitely doesn’t fit in at school – a pants-wearing girl with boy-cut hair and rich writer parents but no TV. They bond as outcasts and create a world where they don’t only belong but rule as King and Queen.
Unfortunately that world is on the other side of a gully, and they get there by swinging over it on a very roughed up rope and in the spring the gully fills up with rushing water. If you haven’t read this book, I’m sure you can see by now where it’s going.
I don’t like spoiling books but you need to know how this ends to understand its impact. Over Easter break the young art teacher, the only other person who Jess feels comfortable around, invites him to Washington to the Smithsonian. Jess, seeing this as opportunity to spend the day with Miss Edmunds as well as skipping out on swinging over the rushing river and thus avoiding telling Leslie’s he’s afraid to do so, jumps at the chance. He has the best day he could have hoped for. And when he comes home he’s greeted by his family staring, as his pouty sister says “your girl friend’s dead.”
I was also ten when I first encountered the death of someone I love. My grandpa died after more than a year of fighting cancer. But he was old, and he was sick, and I was sad but I grasped that this is how things end for everyone one day. Leslie was young and healthy and a great swimmer but her rope broke and she hit her head. Jess isn’t sad because he can’t grasp that this is how things ended for her. And then it hits him and breaks your heart.
There are a lot of good lessons that come out of this book, without smacking you in the face with the “moral of the story.” It tells kids that you should do the right thing no matter what people think, and you should befriend whoever you fancy, and in an entire subplot that I haven’t discussed, that you shouldn’t judge people because you likely don’t know what struggles they’re facing. And it says that those things aren’t easy to do but in the end really pay off.
Heartbreaking as it is, the book ends on a high note. Leslie had a purpose in Jess’ life, even though hers was cut short.
“It occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn’t Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world–huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile?”