Here at EW, we’re reminiscing about the pop culture moments that we still can’t get over — no matter how much time has passed.
Fact #1: A great book you read as a kid will always affect you more deeply than a great book read at any other age.
Fact #2: Katherine Paterson’s Newbery Award-winning Bridge to Terabithia happens to be one of the greatest, saddest, most unforgettable children’s books ever written.
Fact #3: During a summer when Jeff Bridges’ long-in-the-works adaptation of The Giver actually seems to be gaining traction and theaters are finally showing a movie based on a Judy Blume book, it’s only natural to think about other kids’ classics that have made it to the big screen — bringing me back to Terabithia, which received its own overly CGI’d adaptation back in 2007. (The film starred baby Josh Hutcherson, pre-Hunger Games — check out his Bieber hair and chipmunk cheeks!)
All that is a long way of explaining why I found myself musing about Terabithia today — more specifically, about its ending, which has been responsible for more sobbing grade-schoolers than anything this side of Where the Red Fern Grows. (Spoiler alert: The red fern grows on top of dead dogs.)
But first, a brief plot summary: Bridge to Terabithia tells the story of artistic farm boy Jesse and imaginative free spirit Leslie, a new classmate who quickly becomes Jesse’s closest companion. The two spend hours creating and playing in a magical world they call Terabithia, which can only be accessed by swinging on a rope over a creek.
Anyone who’s ever read a book about a regular kid whose world is changed by an exciting new friend (Freak the Mighty, A Separate Peace, even Charlotte’s Web) can guess what happens next — though that doesn’t make it any less awful.
One day, Jesse impulsively goes to an art museum with his favorite teacher and secret crush, Miss Edmunds, without telling Leslie about his plans. He returns home to find out that Leslie died while trying to swing her way in to Terabithia alone — the rope snapped, leaving her to drown in the stream below. I’ll pause so you can grab some tissues.
While Leslie’s death is shocking, horrible, and utterly devastating, Paterson somehow manages to keep it from feeling contrived. Perhaps that’s because she based Leslie on one of her son’s own friends, who died suddenly at age 8 after being struck by lightning on a beach. (Truth: It’s stranger than fiction!) And to the author’s credit, Jesse does get a bit of closure before the book wraps up for real — he finds comfort in his family, and the novel’s last scene shows him building the titular bridge, which will allow him and his little sister May Belle to cross into Terabithia safely. (You couldn’t have built that bridge four chapters ago, Jesse?!)
But between Jesse’s gut-wrenching thoughts after Leslie dies (“I am now the fastest runner in the fifth grade”), Leslie’s parents’ raw grief, his father’s gruff assurance that “God ain’t gonna send any little girls to hell,” even though Leslie’s family wasn’t religious — gahhh! I’m tearing up over here just thinking about it. Clearly, I am not, and never will be, over this book. Go ahead and talk up dystopian YA series, but I’m convinced that all the Hunger Games tribute deaths in the world can’t have the same emotional impact as one bright 5th grader’s fatal fall.
How about you?