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Literature / Bridge to Terabithia

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Bridge to Terabithia is a novel by Katherine Paterson, twice adapted to film, first as a 1985 Made-for-TV Movie for PBS, the second as a 2007 theatrical film produced by Walden Media, and distributed by Disney.

Jesse, the main character, is a young boy who lives in a small rural town, not too far from Washington, D.C. A bit of a loner, he practices running all summer so he can be the fastest in his grade at school. Being the fastest boy sure beats being the quiet boy who loves drawing more than he should. But on the first day of school, his new next-door neighbor, Leslie Burke, completely overtakes him. What starts as resentment and annoyance turns into friendship, an extraordinary friendship, because Leslie is an extraordinary girl. With her gift for words, she and Jesse create a kingdom together in the nearby woods, a castle stronghold to fight imaginary monsters and plot battles to fight real monsters, an adventure that will completely change Jesse's world, a kingdom that they call "Terabithia."

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The story has a Bittersweet Ending, and a grade-A example of Death by Newbery Medal. It has been banned on more than one occasion for Teacher/Student Romance subtext and other non-existent sexual content note  as well as religious content and some swearing.


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The book contains examples of the following tropes:

  • The '70s: The early post-Vietnam War era, referenced throughout the book but abandoned by the movie.
  • Academic Athlete: Jesse thinks highly of Leslie Burke because she beat all the fifth grade boys in their race and she can impress teachers with her imaginative essays and ability to appear focused in class.
  • Adult Fear:
    • The idea that a cheerful, friendly, imaginative child full of life suddenly dies in a freak, senseless accident (best swimmer in a class drowning in creek shallow enough to walk through) is utterly terrifying to parents.
    • Jesse has this reaction when he sees Maybelle trapped on a fallen log across the river, while it's still roaring and high. He quickly goes to rescue her and pull her to the safety of the banks. As they catch their breath, she reveals she was following him because she noticed he was missing that morning and got scared. Jesse is more relieved that she didn't fall in the river the way that Leslie did.
  • All Just a Dream: Jesse initially believes that Leslie's death was this trope. Unfortunately, he's wrong.
  • Aloof Big Brother: Jess is one to Maybelle. Their two oldest sisters are also not pleasant.
  • Alpha Bitch: Played with. Janice Avery is a female bully, but she's anything but the stereotypical blonde rich girl who relies on social manipulation. Instead, Janice is large, loud, and relies on physical intimidation, usually the realm of male bullies. She has a Freudian Excuse.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Maybelle and Joyce to Jesse. He gets better towards Maybelle.
  • Bait-and-Switch: When Jesse gets back from the museum, we (and in the book, he) expects he's going to get in trouble for going to the museum without permission. (In the book, he knew full well his mother was half-asleep.) The truth is far worse.
  • Belated Love Epiphany: Jesse has a crush on his teacher Ms. Edmunds and doesn't realize how much Leslie means to him until she dies.
  • Big Brother Instinct: While Jesse doesn't challenge Janice directly in a fight, he and Leslie scheme to get revenge for Janice eating Maybelle's cupcakes. Much later, he quickly runs to help her when she gets stuck on a fallen log trying to follow him to Terabithia.
  • Big Brother Worship: Maybelle to Jess. Jess finds it mostly annoying.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Leslie dies while swinging on the rope to Terabithia and Jess blames himself for it. Luckily Jess's father helps him accept Leslie's death and convinces him that it's not his fault and to hold onto Leslie's friendship to keep her alive. Jess returns to Terabithia, but builds the titular bridge, and takes his sister with him, offering her the title of princess.
  • Blithe Spirit: Leslie, a new student whose imagination and general weirdness coaxes Jess to have lots of fun and deal with his difficult circumstances.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Jesse gets hit with this hard when he doesn't invite Leslie with him and Ms. Edmunds to the art museum, and Leslie, when going to Terabithia by herself, drowns because she hit her head while falling.
  • Changeling Fantasy: In-Universe, a disparaging comment from Brenda about Leslie leads Jess to imagine that his dad found him in the creek, and that he really comes from a bookish family.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: The protagonists are children and the story is about the two using their child fantasies as a way of dealing with the pressures of their everyday life. And in Jess's case, mending relationships with family members and dealing with death.
  • Cool Teacher: Miss Edmunds, the music teacher. It's played up more in the book, where it's established that the entire school strives for conformity and she's a bit of a hippie.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Leslie shows shades of this in the novel, but not in the 2007 film.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: In the novel, Jesse and Leslie both went barefoot (as is seen on the cover) partly because all the shoes they got were hand me downs and also it was not at all uncommon for kids in the 1970s to go barefoot, especially in the country. Averted in the 2007 film.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: One of the most famous textbook examples. While killing a little girl might seem a bit brash and unanticipated, the entire story is inspired by a real-life event where a friend of Paterson's son was struck dead by lightning at the age of 8.
  • Everybody Knew Already: Jess and Leslie assumed that they had a secret place in Terabithia to hide from the adults. His dad reveals that of course he and the Burkes knew that Jess and Leslie were using the rope to get across the river in the shared backyard.
  • First Love: In this Tearjerker of a novel, this trope is subtly implied with the friendship between Jess and his friend Leslie, a girl who introduces him to the titular Terabithia, and this variety of the "special, sweet, innocent" type of first love, on both Jess and Leslie's parts.
  • Five Stages of Grief: Jesse suffers these in alternating waves after Leslie dies in a very realistic sense. First there's denial, in the book because as he mentions that Leslie is a good swimmer. Then he runs out in anger and kicks his wardrobe before going to bed. For a long time he talks as if Leslie is alive which doubles as bargaining, and lashes out at Maybelle for following him across the log in the movie; in the book he's more relieved she's okay. He only breaks down into depression when his emotions catch up to him in the woods, as does his father and finally comes to accept what happens.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Leslie's poem about scuba-diving. Foreshadowing that she dies by drowning (one of the lines is even "Above me, there's nothing but shimmery light, the place where I've come from, and will go back to when I am done here.") and Jess coming to terms with her death ("I don't have as much time as I need to see everything, but that is what makes it so special.").
    • At one point, Jess is afraid Prince Terrien (the dog) may fall down during crossing and drown.
    • Pretty blatantly at the Easter service, when May Belle asks Leslie "But what if you die, Leslie? What if you die?"
  • Gendered Insult: Brenda insults Leslie this way, saying that, "Nobody with any sense would call that stick a girl."
  • Graceful Loser: Despite Leslie being faster than him, Jesse hides his bitterness about it because she thanks him for letting her race. They end up becoming friends.
  • Hidden Depths: Revealed about a lot of characters Jess doesn't get on with.
    • Janice Avery The Bully has an abusive father.
    • Ms Myers the Stern Teacher lost her husband.
    • Jess's family don't hate him, and are just overworked and stressed with their busy lives.
  • It's All My Fault: Jesse doesn't invite Leslie to the museum in order to have some alone time with Ms. Edmunds; Leslie dies crossing the rope swing to Terabithia alone the same day.
  • Imagine Spot:
    • Jesse's Changeling Fantasy, in which he imagines that he washed up in the creek and comes from a bookish family.
    • After Leslie's death, Jesse imagines conversations with her about his trip to the museum.
  • Japanese Mythology: Ms. Edmunds references the Japanese myth of the sun (Amaterasu) hiding in a cave.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jesse's father, Jesse Sr. He is very strict towards his son, and even harsh at times, but it's understandable given the family's level of poverty. He's also shown to be a good parent in spite of it all, and the scene where he comforts his son after Leslie's death is one of the more poignant moments, especially in the film.
  • Language Drift: Most notably, at the time the book was written, girlfriend was two words.
  • Longing For Fiction Land: The main two characters create a fictional world called Terabithia to deal with their school troubles. They are aware that it is a fantasy and wish it were real, although this doesn't stop them for having fun.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Leslie fits the character type in that she's full of quirks, dresses oddly, as well as livening up Jess's world, though it's downplayed in that fact that the two do not get romantically involved.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Jess gets a pretty bad deal out of this trope, since he's not only the very-middle child out of five, he's also the only boy. Not to mention his older sisters bully him and the youngest daughter is a particularly bratty baby; the only one who really likes him is Maybelle, and even she gets annoying because she always wants to be around him, whether he wants it or not. Oh, and he's a "Well Done, Son!" Guy to boot.
  • Mistaken for Gay: One of the plot points, and conflict between Jesse and his dad, revolved around this trope. Set in the 70s, Jesse was into art and only had a girl for a friend, so his parents were quite uncomfortable with him spending so much time with Leslie. This is Adapted Out in the 2007 film adaptation.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Jess and Leslie befriend, they bond through their imagination to form the fantastical world of Terabithia. Then Leslie dies.
  • My Greatest Second Chance: Jess blames himself for not being there when Leslie fell. He admits he didn't want her to join her at the art museum. When Maybelle gets trapped on a fallen log, in the book Jess is scared about her falling into the river the way Leslie did. He quickly pulls her to safety, and is relieved she wasn't hurt. This convinces him to introduce Maybelle to Terabithia.
  • The Namesake: The titular "bridge" finally appears in the last chapter, when Jesse builds it.
  • New Transfer Student: Leslie shows up the first day of fifth grade, her parents having moved to Lark Creek from Arlington.
  • Outdoorsy Gal: Leslie invites Jess to swing over the riverbed to discover the land of Terabithia.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: By the end, Leslie’s parents are attending her funeral.
  • Outnumbered Sibling: Jesse, with his four sisters.
  • Passionate Sports Girl: Leslie is better at running than the boys and is teased for it, but makes a friend in the main character, who got her the chance to run.
  • Pet the Dog: How Jesse's father treats him after Leslie dies, and Mrs. Myers comforting him about it.
  • Precocious Crush: Jesse has a crush on his music teacher, Ms. Edmunds.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: There's the music teacher Miss Edmunds who is described as having long swishy black hair and blue, blue eyes. Lord, she was gorgeous.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The real-life inspiration for Leslie was Katherine Paterson's son's childhood friend, Lisa Hill who was killed by a lightning strike on a sunny day while climbing some rocks on a beach. The author originally intended to finish off Leslie the same way but ultimately changed it to a drowning because her editor felt it would be more believable. Probably right, but ironic.
  • Savvy Guy, Energetic Girl: Jesse is an introverted artist, Leslie is outgoing and imaginative.
  • Secret Message Wink:
    • Jess' baby sister Joyce Ann bursts into tears, worried Santa won't know how to bring gifts to their chimney-less house. As Jess reassures her that Santa knows the way, he winks at his wiser sister May Belle to tell her that he bought all their Christmas gifts.
    • When Jess helps Leslie and her parents redo a room, Leslie calls the room "worthy of..." Jess looks up, fearing she'll let the secret of Terabithia slip, but she finishes with "...of a palace." She looks over to Jess and winks, reassuring him that Terabithia is still their secret.
  • She Is Not My Girlfriend: Understated. Neither Leslie nor Jesse say this trope out loud, but there are points that Elle's and Brenda's innuendo about the two of them makes them both uncomfortable. Of course, from Jesse's point of view, having a girlfriend entails being Sickening Sweethearts.
  • Survivor's Guilt: Jesse doesn't invite Leslie to the museum and she dies as a result. Jesse is understandably broken up over it.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Leslie is a ray of sunshine in Jess's dreary life, becoming his Only Friend. She dies suddenly towards the end.
  • Too Happy to Live: Leslie is eternally optimistic and the most cheerful character in the story. Of course she's going to die.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Ms. Edmunds invites Jesse to come to the art museum with her, and Jesse doesn't invite Leslie, sealing her fate. Jesse knows this and regrets it. Although technically if she hadn't invited Jess, there's the possibility he could have died with Leslie.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Jesse's relationship with his father.
  • Wham Line: "Your girl friend's dead, and Momma thought you was dead too." Driven home further when the next chapter is simply titled “No!”
  • Worth It: Jesse thinks his "perfect day" with Miss Edmunds will be worth whatever punishment he gets from his parents. Unfortunately, punishment is the least of his problems.

The movie contains examples of the following tropes

  • Adaptation Distillation: In the film, the setting is changed to the present day, so there's less focus on Jesse wanting to be an artist, which was the main conflict between him and his father in the book. It also doesn't make a big deal about Leslie being a Tomboy.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Mildly. What the kids imagined about Terabithia was mostly implied in the books. But of course the film gets to show some of their imagined adventures.
  • Adaptation-Induced Plot Hole: Subverted. In the book, Jess goes to the museum without telling his parents. Having this happen in the film would be unusual in a 2000s setting, so Miss Edmunds calls the house to ask for permission, and Jess's mother gives it while still half asleep in bed - thus making it believable that she'd forget where Jess is and assume he died with Leslie.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Jesse's father is Jesse Sr. in the novels, but changed into Jack in the films, probably to avoid the One Steve Limit.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Well she was Innocently Insensitive at worst but May Belle asked what Leslie's corpse looked like in the book and Jesse hit her for it. In the film, their argument is over her following him into the woods because she was worried, and he only pushes her.
  • Adapted Out: May Belle excitedly asking Jess if he saw Leslie's corpse at the service is removed.
  • Adult Fear: When Jesse returns home from his day with Miss Edmunds, everyone in his family is waiting for him. His mother runs towards him and hugs him tightly, asking worriedly where he's been, while his father asks the same thing angrily. Jesse is confused. They then reveal that Leslie died, and since he was missing all day they thought he was dead as well.
  • Age Lift: Minor example, with Jess and Leslie going from ten in the book to twelve in the movie. Word of God says this was done to emphasize that their feelings for each other were more than platonic.
  • Aloof Dark-Haired Girl: The aforementioned aloof big sisters are brunettes, at least in the 2007 version.
  • Alternative Foreign Theme Song: The Japanese theme song for the 2007 film adaptation is "To Be in Love" by MISIA.
  • Arc Words: "Close your eyes, and keep your mind wide open."
  • Aww Look They Really Do Love Each Other: Unlike in the book where Brenda was more matter-of-fact in saying their mother thought Jesse was dead, she says rather angrily, "We thought you were dead!" when Jesse gets home from the museum.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: The reason Janice beats up Scott for accosting Jesse. While he was never nice to her, he was friends with Leslie who was nice to her.
  • Big Sister Instinct: Despite the fact that Ellie and Brenda treat Jesse as their Annoying Younger Sibling, they both are worried when Leslie dies and no one can find their little brother.
  • The Cast Show Off: One of the reasons for casting Zooey Deschanel as the music teacher is that she can actually sing.
  • Cheerful Child:
    • Leslie in the 2007 film seems to be cheery in every scene, even when Janice is picking on her.
    • May Belle as well, given that she has endless amounts of optimism. She's only truly sad after Jess pushes her.
  • Dark Reprise: In music class, "Someday" is first performed as an upbeat sequence with Leslie and Jess having a Held Gaze (and their friendship blossoming). A much more sombre version is performed after Leslie's death, with Jess mourning her.
  • Decomposite Character: Gary Fulcher is split into two characters — himself and Scott Hoager. The latter seems to take the primary antagonistic role in the film.
  • "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: The film had "Keep Your Mind Wide Open", sung by AnnaSophia Robb, who plays Leslie.
  • Dude, Not Funny!: Invoked that the teacher doesn't even chew out Jesse for punching Scott Hoager when the latter jokes that, with Leslie dead, Jesse is the fastest kid in school.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • After getting antagonised by Janice on the bus, Leslie almost mockingly waves goodbye to her as it drives away, leaving the bully momentarily confused. Foreshadowing that Leslie will befriend Janice and bring about her Heel–Face Turn.
    • There was a scene in the film where the camera focuses on Jesse's arm becoming robotic and Jesse punching a Squoager. Near the last half of the film, Jesse confronts the Squoager's real life counterpart and punches him. Complete with the camera focusing on the arm, as if Jesse was pretending that it would become robotic.
    • There's also lots of shots of the water rising and the rope close to breaking.
    • Leslie's essay is entitled "Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus", depicts her fictional life as a scuba-diver, and the last few lines talk about how wonderful life is because of how short it is. All foreshadowing her untimely death, as if she knew the whole time.
    • If you listen closely while Jess is looking around at the funeral after Leslie's dad talks to him, Leslie's dad tells Jess's parents that he and his wife are moving back to their old home to put Leslie to rest.
    • When Jess and Leslie talk about what their parents do for a living, Leslie asks Jess in response to him saying that it makes sense that her parents are writers that if he's good at hardware because his dad works at a hardware store. Jess answers no, but the end of the movie where he constructs a literal bridge to Terabithia proves otherwise.
  • Gendered Insult: Jess is called a "girl" a lot by other boys because he likes art, plus only being friends with a girl (Leslie) as well.
  • Happy Rain: A bittersweet example. Leslie and Jess's final moment together is happily waving goodbye in the rain.
  • Hate Sink: Scott and Gary. Their purpose is to give the audience someone to hate. Scott especially since he taunts Jess about Leslie's death.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Jesse's father may have been harsh, but he is absolutely right in scolding his son for releasing a pest that was endangering the family greenhouse, and for thinking that he could reason with a wild animal.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Exaggerated in the 2007 film where the two bullies continue to taunt Jess after Leslie's death. Of course it's subverted with Janice Avery, who has a Heel–Face Turn afterwards.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl:
    • Funnily enough, the film casts MPDG queen Zooey Deschanel as Ms. Edmunds. The character she plays is one of her few roles not of this type. She comes off that way to Jesse, though, compared with the other adults in his life, hence his infatuation with her.
    • Leslie fills something of a platonic version of this trope - especially with her Adaptational Attractiveness and Girliness Upgrade. It's her influence that gives Jess the courage to stand up to bullies, encourage his imagination and die tragically, leaving him with Character Development. But unlike completely straight examples, Leslie learns things from Jess too (he encourages her to comfort Janice) and she seeks him out because she wants a friend.
  • Megaton Punch: When Gary crosses the line by mocking a grieving Jess about Leslie's death, the latter gives him a well-deserved punch that sent the bully flying into the classroom wall.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The animal freed from the greenhouse was meant to be a Virginia opossum, but a common brushtail possum was substituted because of New Zealand's very strict prohibitions on importing non-native wildlife.
  • Mocking the Mourner: Jerk Jock bully Scott Hoager decides to joke about Leslie's death while Jesse is heavily in mourning, only to get punched in the face and sent flying by him. Gary Fulcher decides to do the same and is met with a bloody nose from Janice Avery.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Quite possibly one of the most baffling cases in modern movie history. The trailer for the 2007 film made it seem like a Narnia-esque fantasy movie where Terabithia was real. Apparently, the filmmakers were none too pleased with the way the movie was marketed, either. Especially since the key screenwriter was David Paterson, the son of the original author and on whom Jesse is based. This also led to confusion with fans who hadn't read the book, as they watched the movie waiting for Terabithia to "become real" only to realize it doesn't.
  • OOC Is Serious Business:
    • Mr. and Mrs. Aarons tell Jesse he needs to help out more with the chores after his dad needs to take more shifts. Normally Jesse would fuss about this. Instead, he smiles and quotes what Leslie's parents said while they painted the living room. This baffles his mother and father.
    • Mr. Aarons is hard on his son for most of the movie, expecting him to be the responsible sibling while Maybelle is allowed to do what she wants and his older sisters don't have to help with the chores. When Leslie dies, and they realize Jesse doesn't know, Mr. Aarons looks sober and softens his tone about Jesse being away all day. He spends the rest of the movie doing Jesse's chores, not punishing him for shoving Maybelle down in a fit of anger, and giving him a Cooldown Hug when his son has a breakdown in the woods.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: After Jess acts out in school through punching a kid who'd joked that he's the fastest kid as Leslie's dead, the teacher talks to him about grieving the loss of a loved one when it appears he's about to be punished. A similar thing happens in the book, only instead of punching a kid, Jesse didn't stand for the national anthem.
  • Setting Update: Instead of the 1970's (when the book was published), the movie takes place in the then-present day of the mid-2000's. This doesn't really affect anything other than the fashion, the updated values, the presence of electronics (the Aarons are too poor to afford anything electronic beyond a small television and a landline, Mrs. Myers has a ban on electronics and two kids are seen hiding their gaming devices — presumably GameBoys — and will give detention for plagiarizing off the Internet, and the Burkes don't have a TV in belief that it's bad for your brain), and a couple of pop culture/contemporary references (like Twinkies). The filmmakers wanted to go for a timeless feel, and avoided using too much modern technology as a result.
  • Silence of Sadness: Jess Aarons is noticeably more quiet in the final scenes of the Disney adaptation, returning to school after his friend Leslie's funeral. He doesn't say a word when Kenny the bus driver offers him a few words of condolences, doesn't even flinch when giving the class bully Scott a well-deserved punch for making a tasteless joke over the death, keeps completely silent when his class teacher Miss Myers tries consoling him, and is completely voiceless, preferring to bury his head in his hands during Miss Edmunds' music class.
  • Tomboy with a Girly Streak: Leslie, who likes sports, including both running and running, plus having boyish short hair while wearing less "feminine" clothing usually. She prefers the outdoors, and leads Jess into the woods on many adventures. On the other hand, she also has Barbies she'd played with in the past and is still "girlish" in her mannerisms.
  • Tragic Keepsake: May Belle can be seen playing with the Barbies she got from Leslie in a scene after her death.
  • Two Decades Behind: As in the book, Leslie is unable to watch a program on TV for a homework assignment, so the teacher says that she can do an alternative assignment. By 2007, it's more likely that the teacher would have a DVD or VHS of the program and play it in class.
  • Wham Line: "We thought you were dead!", quickly followed by the much more wham-ish "Your friend Leslie is dead."
  • Wham Shot: The Aarons' reactions once Jesse comes home from the museum. Instead of silently acknowledging he came home, his mother hugs him in worry, with both parents asking where he's been. Jesse asks what's wrong, knowing this is unusual.
  • Write Who You Know: An in-universe example the 2007 film. Jess and Leslie base the creatures and inhabitants of their imaginary world off of people they know. In particular, the Squoagers and Hairy Vultures are monsters based off the bullies Scott Hoager and Gary Fulcher and even resemble them to a degree. The troll is based off Janice Avery, and does a Heel–Face Turn after Leslie comforts her, while the Dark Master is based off Jess's father, and disappears at the end, when the two of them finally understand one another. The wish-fulfillment of this arguably helps them both — but Jess in particular — to grow stronger in Real Life as well.

Alternative Title(s): Bridge To Terabithia

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