Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson moved me deeply when I read it as a child, back in about 1985. Reading it now, as a writer and a parent, it took my breathe away.
I remember having to do a school project about this book. I created a newspaper that might be read in the rural town outside Washington DC that Jesse and Leslie lived in. It seemed like a lot of work at the time, and I have vivid memories of creating that newspaper. And having to add in the headline that a child had died.
Back then, this book was an eye-opener for me. I am not sure I knew before reading this that children could die. But even as a little of my innocence evaporated, a greater compassion was born.
I recently picked my old copy off the shelf to reread. I am not sure why. Perhaps because of all the tragedy and sorrow that surrounds us every day in this crazy world. Perhaps the clouded memory of how it had once touched me simply resurfaced. Perhaps my own losses compelled me toward this classic story. I am not sure. But I know that I hoped to find something profound within its pages.
What I found was a perfect model for a writer. Paterson's sentences hit every mark. And I was drawn into Jesse's world from the first moment. But this book is more than a well crafted story. It brings tears to my eyes even now, thinking about it. As a child I learned from this book in the abstract that a child could die. But now I am a person who knows the harsh reality that children can be massacred in their schools, that blended families don't always work out so well, that a bomb crafted by a disillusioned and confused person can rip your heart out, now I know that these things are real, and they do happen. As a parent, Jesse and Leslie are not from a story book, they are my son, my stepdaughter, my children.
The characters in the story could become vengeful. They could retaliate and live in anger and hatred. They could be scarred by the sorrow of loss, unable to recover. But Jesse doesn't become this. He attempts to move forward anyway. This little boy from a rural town makes his way through the madness and pain and suffering of life to build a bridge back to the world where he once did and always will know hope. And we, the parents and readers and children of today, must do our best to follow him there.