More hot tears have been shed in fourth-grade classrooms over the death of Leslie Burke than for Bambi’s mama and the meltdown of Frosty the Snowman, combined.
Leslie Burke is the heroine of Bridge to Terabithia — a 9-year-old city girl who moves to rural Virginia and, with the warmth of her friendship and the boldness of her imagination, transforms the bleak landscape of Jess Aarons’ life.
Perhaps the tears are shed for Jess, the unsophisticated country boy who becomes Leslie’s best friend and then tragically loses her when she dies in a freak accident. Author Katherine Paterson’s portrait of a taciturn, lonely boy’s mourning is so wrenching that to read it is to experience grief firsthand. For thousands of children, in fact, Leslie’s death is their first full-hearted confron-tation with mortality. Many look back on reading Bridge as a rite of passage.
Sound sentimental — a modern and risible Little Nell story? Anything but. Paterson is scorchingly honest and uncannily sharp about a child’s inner life. We share Jess’ depth of loss because we recognize our own familiar frailties in him — like his shaming twinge of self-interest after Leslie’s death (”I am now the fastest runner in the fifth grade”) and his embarrassed awkwardness in the face of grieving adults.
Katherine Paterson won the 1978 Newbery medal for Bridge to Terabithia and has been a star ever since. She’s rare among contemporary children’s authors: Nearly every one of the 18 novels and picture books she has written or coauthored has won both literary laurels and a wide, eager audience.
Paterson is an unlikely guru for the bubble-gum crowd. She describes herself as ”a mish kid,” a child of Presbyterian missionaries, and is not afraid to draw on those rock-ribbed values — or her deep familiarity with scripture — in her own fluent and often challenging prose. Those values charge her narratives with humane depth, rich imagery, and energetic purpose. But you’ll never catch Paterson tacking on a smug moral.
Her novels are emotional journeys in which young people struggle against tough odds toward greater strength of character. In Jacob Have I Loved, another Newbery winner, an adolescent girl almost ruins her life through gnawing jealousy of a prettier, more gifted, more favored twin sister. In one of her most subtle portraits, Paterson delicately reveals how Louise’s resentment distorts her view of her own worth and her basically loving family’s treatment of her. Louise’s vision is so persuasive that the reader, too, must overcome the demon envy before being able to savor Louise’s muted triumph at the end.
Paterson’s best-loved character is probably the touchingly funny, defiant heroine of The Great Gilly Hopkins. Shuttling between foster homes, Gilly recklessly sabotages her own happiness as she battles ”the system.” The book has drawn fire from censorious parent groups for the heroine’s salty language. But Gilly’s spiky rebellion against an unloving world has endeared her to thousands of young readers who feel similarly lost.
The same sparkling evocation of character through perfectly pitched dialogue enlivens Park’s Quest, a moving story of an 11-year-old boy whose father died in Vietnam. Park consoles himself with daydreams of knightly conquest, and of being welcomed as a long-lost heir into his father’s supposedly wealthy Virginia family. Reality, of course, offers a comeuppance. When Park finally visits his , grandfather’s farm, he discovers that a scrappy little half-Vietnamese girl (a deliciously comic character) has usurped his place.
Lyddie is set in 19th-century Massachusetts. Lyddie, an orphaned farm girl, clings ferociously to a dream of reuniting her scattered siblings on the family’s abandoned farm. But work in the abusive textile mills of Lowell sets her on a different path to fulfillment. Like Gilly and Park, Lyddie must sur-mount bitter disappointments and give up cherished illusions in order to move forward. The rewards are all the more cheering for being so hard won.
Unlike many of her fluffier contemporaries, Paterson offers no cheap senti- ment or glib solutions. She’s brilliant at evoking both the idealism and the ignorant prejudices of childhood, the ro-mantic stirrings of adolescence, and the oblique, offhand way kids express their deepest feelings. Her characters warm us with their humor and courage; her plots, plunging vigorously through the thickets of adversity, are, in the end, bracingly hopeful. Terabithia: A+ Jacob: A Gilly Hopkins: A+ Park’s Quest: A Lyddie: A