February 4, 2007
Examining the challenges to Bridge to Terabithia
Bridge to Terabithia was written by Katherine Paterson and published in 1977. It tells the story of two children, Jesse and Leslie, who are outsiders at school and even sometimes at home. The two become close friends after Leslie’s family moves to the area in rural Virginia to which Jesse is a native. They create an imaginary kingdom called Terabithia in the woods, which they access by swinging on a rope over a creek. Jesse grows a great deal as a person as a result of the time he spends with Leslie, as well as the time he spends coping with her loss once she is gone. The book won the Newbery medal, which is “awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published in English in the United States during the preceding year” (from the page detailing the terms and criteria for awarding the Newbery medal), for 1978.
There are three main categories into which the challenges to Bridge to Terabithia can be grouped: language, religious and/or social concerns, and the book’s ending.
Challengers in Nebraska, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Maine have objected to what they call profanity, vulgar language, offensive language, or swear words. In the Oskaloosa, Kansas, school district a challenge “led to the enactment of a new policy that requires teachers to examine their required material for profanities. Teachers will list each profanity and the number of times it was used in the book, and forward the list to parents, who will be asked to give written permission of their children to read the material.” (Hirsch 102).
As SparkNotes puts it, “Critics cite the use of profanity in the book, but in fact the profanity is mild and infrequent: in dialogue some of the characters might use the words ‘damn’ and ‘hell,’ but it is certainly not particularly pervasive.”
The idea that the book contains objectionable language is a less-than-compelling reason to keep the book away from children. As Karen Hirsch, an author of juvenile fiction, states, “[t]he language the characters use is authentic to the setting and to the characters that Paterson creates” (103). She goes on to quote Katherine Paterson herself:
Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jesse and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, but simply to care about them and understand them. (Hirsch 106) (The original quotation can be found here.)
It is my opinion that the same respect should be allowed to be extended freely from parents to their children, from librarians and library administrators to their patrons, and from teachers to their students.
Religious and/or social concerns
There are a number of issues rolled into one here. One relatively recent challenge alleged that the book “promote[s] witchcraft and violence.” Others “have said that the book would ‘give students negative views of life,’ ‘make reference to witchcraft,’ show ‘disrespect of adults,’ and promote an ‘elaborate fantasy world that they felt might lead to confusion’” (Hirsch 102-3). The above-linked Bookselling This Week article includes an explanation from Katherine Paterson as to why the book has been challenged and/or banned in the past:
Initially, it was challenged because it deals with a boy who lives in rural Virginia, and he uses the word ‘Lord’ a lot, and it’s not in prayer. Then there are more complicated reasons. The children build an imaginary kingdom, and there was the feeling that I was promoting the religion of secular humanism, and then New Age religion.
It seems as if there are a number of Christians out there who are all too ready to cry “witchcraft” when they encounter a book that doesn’t mesh with their belief system. In one librarian’s speculations as to reasons the book might have been challenged, two ideas relating to religion are mentioned: “Jess’ parents no longer attend church because they do not like the minister. They go to church only on special Sundays like Easter” and “Terabithia, Jess and Leslie decide, is a sacred place but also haunted — not by something bad but by something good. They pray to the spirits of the grove.” These seem plausible, but are easily dismissed as challenges: numerous Americans are nominally Christian but don’t attend church regularly, and the latter point seems to me more of a reflection of the children’s imagination than of any actual desire to buck Christian theology. (And if it did indeed reflect a desire to buck Christian theology, what of it? More on that idea in the next section.) By definition, “witchcraft” refers to the practice of magic, the use of spells, and so on. Unless one considers the magic of a child’s imagination to be literal magic, the claim that the book promotes witchcraft–or, indeed, any sort of faith system in particular–is an unfounded one.
As far as “disrespect of adults” goes, children don’t have to be exposed to any books at all to develop rude or disrespectful behavior. Indeed, “in real life, which Bridge to Terabithia reflects, kids are occasionally rude in their talk about adults,” and “contrary to the… censors, Bridge to Terabithia’s more powerful impression is that of Jesse’s growth from a kid making fun of his teacher to one who finds a new respect and understanding of another person” (Hirsch 105, author’s emphasis).
Finally, we have the claim that the book might “give students negative views of life,” which connects to the issue of the ending and is discussed below.
The ending [Warning: SPOILER]
Near the end of the book, Jesse goes on a trip to Washington, D.C. with his art teacher. While he’s gone Leslie tries to go to Terabithia by herself, but the rope breaks. She hits her head on a rock and drowns in the rain-swollen creek. As is the case with many readers, Leslie’s death is the detail from Bridge to Terabithia that really stuck with me in the nearly two decades that have passed since I read the book. I saw the trailer for the new movie and thought, “How can they be promoting that as such a happy, carefree story? Leslie dies!” I haven’t found any specific assertions that the book shouldn’t be read because of this tragedy or its implications, but as I’ve mentioned in a previous discussion of challenged books, the idea that a book is depressing or upsetting is often used as a rationale for wanting a book banned. However, Leslie’s death is one of the many events in the book that bring about a great deal of growth for Jesse. Furthermore, the death of a loved one is something that everyone must face, whether in childhood or later, and children can learn from Jesse’s grief, the ways in which he expresses it, and the ways in which he moves past it.
Another idea put forth by the author of the aforementioned SparkNotes article is that “true to Paterson’s upbringing, faith is shown to be fulfilling when divested of the strict, unforgiving dogma of the organized church. The ending, which reaffirms that God does not send good people to hell, essentially, is probably the reason that right-wing conservatives have come down on the book so strongly.” Of course, once children enter the real world, if you will, they will have to face the fact that there are people out there who may well hold different beliefs than those with which those children have been raised. I’m of the opinion that a belief system that never encounters challenges lacks true value, and so shielding children from theologies that differ from the one to which they’ve primarily been exposed is counterproductive.
In conclusion, the reasons challengers want to keep Bridge to Terabithia away from children are unconvincing in and of themselves, but even more so when compared to the book’s excellence. I agree wholeheartedly with Karen Hirsch when she states that Bridge to Terabithia “is ideal as a classroom novel for late elementary or early middle school students” (101).
- Hirsch, Karen. “Bridge to Terabithia: Too Good to Miss.” Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000. Ed. Nicholas J. Karolides. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002. 100-106.
- Website: Newbery Terms & Criteria
- Website: SparkNotes: Bridge to Terabithia: Context
- Website: Bookselling This Week: Connecticut Residents Seek to Ban Two Newbery Medal Winners from School
- Website: Farenheit 451: Banned Books: Bridge to Terabithia