The Great Children’s Literature Study: Bridge to Terabithia
It occurred to me the other day that in high school and college I studied plenty of great novels — The Great Gatsby, Beloved, The Scarlett Letter, etc. – but what I need to do now, as a kidlit writer, is study great children’s literature.
By this I mean I need to do more than just read well-written novels for young people. I need to analyze them the way one might in school: look closely at the structure, the language, the characterization. Think about them, write about them, learn from them.
Yesterday, I happened to pick up my old copy of Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. I read it all in one sitting, and I was overcome — not just with emotion (this book absolutely guts me every time) — but also with pure awe at what a stunning novel it is.
I know a lot has already been said about Bridge to Terabithia. It’s not a new book (it was published in 1977 and won the Newberry Medal in 1978). It’s also still a popular book. It was made into a Disney movie in 2007, there’s a new 40th Anniversary edition out now. I’m sure the book is still being assigned in fifth grade classrooms around the country, and in fact, I assigned it myself the year I taught 5th grade Language Arts.
Maybe I shouldn’t write about something so well-known, but on the other hand, Bridge to Terabithia is so well-known because it’s SO DARN GOOD… which makes it precisely the type of book I want to study.
And in the rest of this post, I intend to pick apart what makes it so good, and what we kidlit writers can learn from this classic middle grade novel.
This is my first post of what will become a regular feature: The Great Children’s Literature Study. I will discuss new novels sometimes, and I won’t always choose such well-known titles, but I intend to always pick novels that are award-winners and, if not classics already, destined to become classics because they’re SO DARN GOOD. In other words, I want to study books that have a lot to teach us about writing kidlit.
So, without further ado, let’s see what we can learn from Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Warning: Contains spoilers! If you haven’t yet read this book, I suggest you go read it RIGHT NOW and come back to this post when you’re finished.
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Lesson #1: Weakness, Need, & Desire
In his book The Anatomy of Story, John Truby says that every great book starts with a main character who has a weakness, need, and desire.
The desire is the outward goal your character is striving for — and what propels the story forward. In the opening scene of Bridge to Terabithia, we see ten-year-old Jess running in the cow field because his desire is to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade when school starts in the fall:
He had to be the fastest – not one of the fastest or next to the fastest, but the fastest. The very best.
But in addition to an outward desire, the character also has an inner weakness and need. These are less obvious – the character may not even be aware of what his life is missing or how it could be better. Truby says, “the need is what the hero must fufill within himself in order to have a better life. It usually involves overcoming his weakness and changing, or growing, in some way.”
In Bridge to Terabithia, Jess thinks being the fastest fifth grader will gain him the respect of the other kids at school, and, hopefully, make his father proud. And that is Jess’s deep-down need: the love and acknowledgement of his father.
We get the intensity of his longing when he watches his younger sister May Belle run out to greet their father:
It made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down to hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born.
Ohh, that makes me ache, too! Poor Jess! So he has an obvious desire (fastest fifth grader), and a less obvious need (love and attention from his father). He also has a weakness: he’s a coward. Jess thinks he’s a coward because he gets scared of bullies and deep water, but his real weakness is that he’s afraid to be himself — artistic, imaginative, sensitive – for fear of what others will think.
Over the course of the novel, Jess confronts his weakness by gradually opening up to his new friend Leslie as well as showing bravery in a variety of ways.
In the end, the tragedy of Leslie’s death brings Jess closer to his father, and he finally gets what he so desperately needed: the love and respect of his father:
His father pulled Jess over on his lap as though he were Joyce Ann. “There. There,” he said, patting his head. “Shhh. Shhh.” …
His father stroked his hair without speaking. Jess grew quiet…
Finally his father said, “Hell, ain’t it?” It was the kind of thing Jess could hear his father saying to another man.
All this makes for an extremely moving and satisfying story.
Lesson #2: Narrative Voice in Distant Third Person Limited
In the writing class I teach, we often discuss the various points of view in fiction: first person, third person omniscient, third person limited, and so on.
Bridge to Terabithia is a great example of what I call “distant third person limited.” It’s third person, and it’s limited to Jess’s point of view because we only get his thoughts and we only experience what he does.
However, we see Jess at a distance:
His straw-colored hair flapped hard against his forehead, and his arms and legs flew out every which way. He had never learned to run properly, but he was long-legged for a ten-year-old, and no one had more grit than he.
And the story is told in a distinct narrative voice full of country expressions like “mad as flies in a fruit jar.” The voice adds to the setting and emphasizes the poor, rural area where Jess and his family live:
Jess slid out of bed and into his overalls. He didn’t worry about a shirt because once he began running he would be hot as popping grease even if the morning air was chill, or shoes because the bottoms of his feet were by now as tough as his worn-out sneakers.
The narrative voice is self-assured and pitch perfect — and able to relate things that Jess himself wouldn’t be able to put into words. (This story would never work in first person.) And the limited third person POV (instead omniscient third) lets us identify with Jess and feel his story acutely.
Lesson #3: Blending Summary and Scene
Bridge to Terabithia is a short book that spans nearly an entire school year. It does a great job of blending summary and scene to move the story along and only focus on important moments. For a great example of summary with interspersed scenes, see Chapter 4.
Lesson #4: Foreshadowing
There’s plenty of foreshadowing in Bridge to Terabithia. In Chapter 4, Mrs. Myers reads Leslie’s essay on scuba diving out loud to the class and “the power of Leslie’s words drew Jess with her under the dark water.” At the end of the book, however, it is Leslie who is drawn into the dark water — she drowns in a nearby creek.
In Chapter 8,May Belle tells Leslie that God will damn her to hell if she doesn’t believe in the Bible. Leslie isn’t concerned, but May Belle keeps asking her “What if you die? What’s going to happen to you if you die?”
When Leslie drowns at the end of Chapter 10, Jess is worried that maybe May Belle was right. He tells his father, who comforts him, saying “Lord, boy, don’t be a fool. God ain’t gonna send any little girls to hell.”
In middle grade fiction, especially with something tragic like the death of a child, I think you need to include plenty of foreshadowing in order to prepare young readers for what’s ahead. Bridge to Terabithia does it perfectly.
Lesson #5: Simple But Deep
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Bridge to Terabithia is how it manages to be a simple story with incredible depth.
Simple because it’s short – you could probably read it in an hour or two – and on the surface the story could be summed up pretty quickly: a boy makes a new friend who then drowns in a creek.
But, oh, is this book deep: the emotion, the figurative language, the themes of death, poverty, love, and guilt.
This is not a simple story also because Jess and Leslie are such fully-realized and complex characters. Jess is so full of longing (see Lesson #1), so full of emotions he doesn’t know how to express, so full of care and concern for others. Take this scene, when Jess’s dad gives him a racecar set for Christmas. It absolutely wrings my heart to pieces:
It wasn’t one of those big sets that they advertised on TV, but it was electric, and he knew his dad had put more money into it than he should have. But the silly cars kept falling off at the curves until his father was cursing at them with impatience. Jess wanted it to be OK. He wanted so much for his dad to be proud of his present…
In my writing class the other day, we were discussing Middle Grade and YA books with unhappy endings, and Bridge to Terabithia was mentioned (I think by me).
But even though Leslie dies, I wouldn’t say it has an unhappy ending. Because the tragedy brings Jess closer to his father and lets him know that his family really does care about him. It also makes Jess more generous with his younger sister, May Belle, and helps him realize that just because you’re scared doesn’t mean you can’t also be brave.
The last chapter provides catharsis: Jess invites May Belle into the imaginary land of Terabithia where he and Leslie used to play. And he reflects on how he has changed:
…Before Leslie came, he had been a nothing: a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big – trying to hide a whole mob of foolish little fears running riot inside his gut.
It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king.
And so he carries on Leslie’s legacy by building a bridge over the creek where she died, and by bringing May Belle across it as the new Queen of Terabithia.
Oh. My. God. I full-on ugly-cry every time I read this book. And it’s not just the part where Leslie dies that gets me. It’s Jess’s relationship with parents, too. It’s so heartbreaking, his emotions so raw.
I read this book for the first time when I was about ten years old, and I loved it. Even then I knew it was something special. I think Bridge to Terabithia is great example of a children’s book that doesn’t try to hide anything from its readers, and kids appreciate that. Ten-year-olds are a lot smarter and more thoughtful than you might think.
So what are your thoughts about Bridge to Terabithia? And what other great classic children’s books do you think are worth a close study?
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