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Bridge to Terabithia | Study Guide

Katherine Paterson

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Bridge to Terabithia | Themes



Friendship is a prevailing theme in Bridge to Terabithia. At the beginning of the story Jess and Leslie are both at loose ends; neither character has a real friend to turn to or to share life's experiences with. Although they are thrown together by circumstance, both choose to become friends. Leslie is open to friendship immediately, whereas Jess needs some time to allow Leslie into his life. Jess makes the decision during music class to do this when they share a moment of delight in song. He realizes this moment is the start of "a new season in his life, and he chose deliberately to make it so." Jess has been afraid to make friends with Leslie because of what his classmates would think, but now he abandons that line of thinking. It is significant that the song ends with the line "Free to be you and me," for this is exactly what Jess and Leslie provide for each other. Their friendship is a safe haven where they can be themselves.

Jess and Leslie demonstrate some of the most important qualities of friendship. They are loyal to and support one another. Jess sticks up for Leslie when Gary Fulcher doesn't want her to run with the boys, and Leslie helps Jess plot revenge against bully Janice Avery. The two friends build a strong foundation of trust through keeping the secret of Terabithia between themselves. They also experience delight and joy together, especially in Terabithia, where Leslie helps Jess develop courage, self-esteem, and imagination. Jess helps Leslie grow and learn, too, when he brings her to church, awakening a spirituality in her, and when he encourages her to befriend their common 'enemy,' Janice Avery.

Their friendship is notable, as well, in the gifts they give each other for Christmas, representing their understanding of what each has and what each needs. With money not a problem for Leslie, she buys Jess a gift he has been denied because of his family's finances and preconceptions. He treasures the art supplies, which he has dreamed of owning, for they allow him to create and be who he is. Jess's gift to Leslie causes greater difficulties. With no money, he can afford nothing. However, his creative mind leads him to find the perfect—and enduring—gift for his friend—something she does not have and which her parents most likely would not have thought to give her.

Jess and Leslie prove friendship can run deeper than family ties. Jess is disturbed that mean-spirited, self-absorbed Brenda is "his blood sister, and that ... he and Leslie were not related at all," despite the closeness of their friendship. Leslie's father confirms this deep relationship when he tells Jess "She loved you, you know ... Thank you for being such a wonderful friend to her."


Jess constantly berates himself for lack of courage. He is afraid to associate with Leslie because of what his classmates might say. He is afraid of water because he doesn't know how to swim. He even feels afraid just listening to Leslie's description of scuba diving: "Lord, he was such a coward ... He was worse a baby than Joyce Ann." Jess is ashamed of his fear, particularly because he feels he needs to "be a man" to live up to his father's expectations.

Yet Jess has many moments of courage throughout the story, and they are often related to Leslie. He stands up to Gary Fulcher so Leslie can run with the boys, and together Jess and Leslie pull off a daring revenge plot against Janice Avery. Jess digs deep for his reserves of courage because he wants to live up to the fearless example Leslie sets. In one scene Leslie's bravery encourages him in crossing the rain-swollen stream to Terabithia: "Leslie never seemed to hesitate, so Jess could not hang back."

However, Jess's fear at times is both sensible and self-preserving; what he considers cowardice is in fact a mature realization of the consequence of rash, thoughtless action, or recklessness. Jess is rightly apprehensive about the dangerous stream, and he sensibly decides not to cross it. Leslie's bravery, on the other hand, verges on recklessness, and she crosses without a second thought, despite the obvious danger. Jess defines the boundaries of courage for himself by considering common sense and necessity. When an action is truly dangerous, and unnecessary, Jess uses his common sense and chooses not to act. But when an action is necessary, even if dangerous, Jess rises to the occasion and musters his courage without hesitation.

Such is the case in Jess's rescue of May Belle when she gets stuck trying to cross the stream. Jess is terrified, for his sister easily could drown, as Leslie did, but he speaks calmly to her with that "quiet, assuring voice of the paramedics on Emergency" even though "his heart was bongoing against his chest." Once May Belle is safe, Jess reassures her "Everybody gets scared sometimes ... You don't have to be ashamed." This, too, is a lesson Leslie has taught him. Even fearless Leslie was reluctant to approach Janice Avery—and it was Jess who gave her the courage to do so.


Lark Creek is a small town, and its citizens are expected to fit in. Those who don't conform to expectations stick out and are often shunned. Little leeway is given to individuality of any sort. As long as people stay within boundaries, they are fine. People like Miss Edmunds, with her peace-loving "hippie" ways, and Leslie, with her freethinking ideas and habits of dress and behavior, are viewed with skepticism and often mocked.

The Burkes certainly behave differently from the other families of Lark Creek. Leslie explains to Jess that her parents "are reassessing their value structures ... They decided they were too hooked on money and success," so they moved to the farm. Yet money and success are what the people around them want, so their "back to nature" choice seems baffling or even stupid, not to mention insulting to those who cannot earn enough to live on, are not writers, and have no money in the bank. Although Lark Creek residents all may have televisions and see the world through them, the actual appearance of people outside their limited sphere is something they find difficult to deal with.

The Burkes also parent differently. Bill and Judy speak to Leslie as if she were an adult, respect her opinions and wishes, and allow her considerable autonomy in daily life. Their family interactions are very different from the Aarons family's, where the parents are the clear authority figures and the children are expected to obey. The Aaronses conform to the accepted family model in Lark Creek, whereas the Burkes with their broader views do not.

These differences cause difficulties for Leslie. Because she has been raised in an accepting, open environment, she openly accepts others and assumes they will do the same for her. It is a rude awakening for her to discover Lark Creek is not liberal minded, and her classmates' judgment hurts her deeply. When Leslie reveals her family doesn't have a television, the entire class is shocked. "The hissing sounds of disbelief were already building into a rumbling of contempt," the narrator writes of her classmates, who then mercilessly tease her. Leslie never betrays herself, though; she remains firmly who she is and does not change herself to try to fit in. This is the main reason Jess is her only friend in town; he is the only one who accepts her just as she is, even if she doesn't conform to social expectations.

Conformity also is an issue when it comes to gender roles. Neither Leslie nor Miss Edmunds is viewed as a "proper" female because neither dresses the part. They wear pants or cutoff shorts instead of dresses, and Miss Edmunds does not wear traditional makeup. Their characters contrast with those of Brenda and Ellie, who fall into line with traditional feminine roles. Brenda and Ellie care about traditional accepted clothes, makeup, and boys, all of which are seen as appropriate for girls in Lark Creek. Similarly Jess has trouble living up to traditional masculine roles. He despises himself for his lack of courage because being afraid isn't "manly." Jess also has to hide his talent and love of art, of which his father strongly disapproves and sees as a basically feminine and threatening pastime.

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