[Book Review] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Jess Aarons' greatest ambition is to be the fastest runner in his grade. He's been practicing all summer and can't wait to see his classmates' faces when he beats them all. But on the first day of school, a new girl boldly crosses over to the boys' side and outruns everyone.

That's not a very promising beginning for a friendship, but Jess and Leslie Burke become inseparable. Together they create Terabithia, a magical kingdom in the woods where the two of them reign as king and queen, and their imaginations set the only limits.

So, uh, this was not a fun read... but I don't meant that in the way you're probably expecting. While the core emotional theme of the novel (the handling of childhood grief) is a valuable one and reasonably well done here, what surrounds this aspect of the story is a regrettable product of its time.

From the standpoint of 1977, this was (if the banned books lists are to be believed) an offensively progressive story that children should never read.

From the standpoint of 2020, this is an offensively regressive story that children should never read.

This book is misogynistic from the first page to the very last. Jess and his father are walking toxic masculinity, none of which is ever questioned. The girls are all treated terribly, with the exception of A) the woman that Jess has a crush on and B) the little girl who's "not like other girls". Jess even punches one of his sisters in the face, and neither of his parents ever say a word about it because he's going through ~emotions~ (which is the most blatant co-signing of the idea that boys cannot be expected to handle their emotions and that boys can only be expected to express their emotions via anger and physical violence). Meanwhile, Leslie is the child version of a manic pixie dream girl, and the entire emotional weight of the story is in how she gets fridged.

To a lesser extent, the book also has problems with endorsing body-shaming, abuse, and Christian supremacy. The book goes out of its way to hatefully mock its overweight characters (there's a whole imagine spot about a teacher being sent to "one of those fat farms" where she will be "publicly humiliated in front of all the other fat ladies"); it heartily endorses the idea that reporting abuse is a "betrayal" and a failure on the part of the victim to "protect" their abuser; it goes out of its way to make clear that the soon-to-be-dead little girl is an agnostic/atheist character, and then proceeds to make it clear that her own opinions about religion do not matter and that she will absolutely be going to heaven anyway because, again, the choices of atheists and agnostics do not matter when they might stand in the way of Christians doing and thinking what they want.

Now, obviously, all of this is not to try to take away anyone's enjoyment of the novel. If you have a hearty nostalgia for the story because you read it during your childhood, that's great! Nothing at all wrong with nostalgia for works that maybe don't really hold up. But Bridge to Terabithia needs to be left in the realm of nostalgia; it does not belong in the world of 2020. Even beyond what I've outlined above, there's jokes about pedophiliac incest (why does the six-year-old girl know enough about sexuality to needle her brother about "looking at [her] that way"???) and a deeply creepy date that the ten-year-old little boy goes on with his goddamn teacher.

All in all, it's just not a book that has anything to offer modern children. There are hundreds if not thousands of other books that deal with the same themes of loss and grief, and I can all but guarantee those books won't be bogged down with the 1977-baggage that drags this story down.

Don't give your kids Bridge to Terabithia.


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