February 4, 2007

Examining the challenges to Bridge to Terabithia

Posted in Censorship, Children and adolescents, Education, Literature at 11:18 pm by The Lizard Queen

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.

Language

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).

Works cited:

52 Comments »

  1. Mishka P said,

    Yay – excellent post. i love Patterson, i was obssessed with “The Great gilly Hopkins” and “Jacob I have Loved.” I am, however, deeply offended by the new movie. It reminds of the movie “My Girl” with Macauly Culkin – remember, it was presented with lot’s of good hearted summertime fun and then a miserable death by bees?!?

  2. luaphacim said,

    I really like what you have to say here, LQ! I, too, am a longtime Paterson fan. In fact, I’m thinking I might have a post of my own about her within a few days, if I can manage to neglect the mound of reading for my master’s exam. :-)

    I haven’t quite finished formulating my thoughts about her yet, but I can say that she is one of the writers I respect most — her work has a genuineness and an authenticity that few, if any, children’s authors ever manage to achieve.

  3. Terrell said,

    Well done. I sometime get the impression that a writer has decided that “cuss’n” is a prerequisite for sales in children’s lit: I wish he’d hold it down a bit. But good writing is good writing. These characters seem real and their language appropriate.

    It’s been at least 20 years since I read the book. Having seen a TV ad for the movie I am curious about how the movie treats the Terabithia fantasy.

  4. Carol said,

    Great timing. I have a group of fifth graders who just started reading BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA yesterday! Thanks for the information.

  5. […] I started reading The Bridge to Terabithia with a group of fifth graders, I was excited to see that The Lizard Queen wrote about the challenges of the book.  Talk about good […]

  6. Evil Bender said,

    Mishka P.:

    “Not the bees!”

    On a more serious note, I feel really bad for the children of those parents who think the way to prepare them for the world is to protect them from such dangers as reading and intense subjects. Yeah, that’ll work…

  7. I enjoyed reading your analysis of “Bridge to Terabithia.” I thought you did a very thorough job of looking at all of the reasons cited by people who would ban this book. I would like to add a link to your entry to the post on our page, if you don’t mind.

    If you and others who read your blog are avid readers (or even if you aren’t), I invite you to take the Banned Book Challenge. Feb. 25 is the beginning of Freedom to Read Week in Canada. I will post the details on the Pelham Library’s Web log (http://www.pelhamlibrary.blogspot.com), likely on Monday. In a nutshell, the idea is to set yourself a goal to read x number of banned or challenged books between Feb. 25 and June and to let us know on the page how you are doing.

  8. […] spike in readership: 153 views on 8 February 2007 (I submitted my Bridge to Terabithia post to the Carnival of […]

  9. Ashley stickney said,

    This book is about friendship. Two kid Jesse and Lesilie both come from two different back rounds. One is rich and the other is poor. That didint matter to them. Though out the book there friendship grows.Near the end of the book lesilie dies.At first Jesse doesnt understand. He is filled with anger and sadness. He starts to become stronger. In the end he tells his sister May Belle about the magical world that lesilie and him made. He teaches May belle how to use her imagination, the same way lesilie taught him.

  10. tony said,

    In a world where gastric emanation has become the comedy of elementary age kids, an occasional “damn” and “lord” is very refreshing.

  11. Floppy said,

    Uhmmm, this is a rediculous banning.
    It should be allowed for anyone in the middle school grades.
    Yupp, im right, your wronge. :P

  12. Sara F said,

    I’m in 8th grade,
    and we are doing a project on “banned books”
    and this being one of my favorites,
    i picked it!
    i didnt know why it was banned,
    or why it was challenged.

    but this website helped me a lot!
    thank you so so so so muchhh :)

  13. Michael L. said,

    I’m in 8th grade, and i think its so redicuous that this book is banned because of parents think little kids can’t read it. But it doesnt mean middle and high school kids can’t? Am I right?

  14. Idetrorce said,

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  15. […] post has gotten if the title is short enough.  So, I think my number-one post in terms of hits is my Bridge to Terabithia post, but I’m not certain.  If I’m right about that, then this post, a quick hit on the […]

  16. Jared said,

    The book is was brilliantly writen and is way better then the movie, but the movie still shows the lose of a loved one jst as much as the book .
    Your information was very helpful to me and my project.

  17. misslilperson said,

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’m citing you as a source for my Language Arts Project, and I was wondering if you could tell me your name for my citation. I can’t find it on your blog. Email me please at lilpoptart132@yahoo.com.

  18. abr'e said,

    I so think that “Bridge to Terabithia” is a very good book. It is a little harsh, but i think that kids can leaned from it, like things what not to do..
    and just under stand the realism in this story.

  19. alicia said,

    wow. ur all gayyyyyyyy. suck it!

    • Freddie Cougar said,

      fuck you. they are right, you are wrong. you stupid retard, no books should be banned.

  20. steph said,

    wow, alicia…such insightful, well-worded criticism. i’m almost humbled.

    not.

    why don’t you go ahead and suck it for us, ignorant beeeyotch. :P

  21. Jihann said,

    this is a childrens book and it is banned come on now. Do you really think your children will imiitate the things in the book. Come ON NOW

  22. torilyn said,

    I do declare, miss I Am The Lizard Queen, your information astounded me. I thank you for incorporating so much information into a nicely condensed blog. I have to do a ‘Banned Book Brochure’ for my English 10 Honors class, and you have certainly helped me, as I picked Bridge to Terabithia for the said project. Thank you for your time, and keep reading, of course!

    Sincerely,

    Torilyn

  23. torilyn said,

    Alicia,
    If you cannot respect the rights of people who wish to discuss a banned book without being incorrectly criticized, I believe you would do well to find someone else to bash who can slap you as you say it.

    May the Lord Bless you and Keep You,

    Torilyn

    p.s. Miss Lizard Queen, I apologize if I offended anyone else with my comments other than Alicia.

    • Freddie Cougar said,

      i totally agree. alicia is a total bitch

  24. cherrybom said,

    i have read the book and it shouldnt be banned cause i have the same religion that is in the book and u should all read it!!!!rock on!!!!!

  25. Haley said,

    I am doing a project on banned books and this blog helped me so much to understand why this book was banned and why those challenges make no sense. I read the book in 5th grade and i watched the movie and i dont understand why this book was challanged. i learned so much from this book, i even cried at the end when Leslie dies! This blog was awesome and i think it will help me so much for my project!!!

    Thanks

  26. Paul said,

    I read this book to my Tasmanian Year 5/6 students on a regular basis. I love reading and look forward to doing so again this year. I thought the movie was brilliant and when we came out of the theatre most of the class, including, had teary eyes. Life is not all sweetness and light. As I write this the news is dominated by the Victorian bushfires. Katherine Paterson rocks!

  27. […] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. A powerful book that explores friendship, life, and death, this book is often banned due to what some feel is offensive language and scenes of witchcraft which some believe promotes disobeying authority as well as anti-religious sentiments. Oddly, the theme of death, which is a major element in the novel, is also used as a reason to ban this book. […]

  28. […] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. A powerful book that explores friendship, life, and death, this book is often banned due to what some feel is offensive language and scenes of witchcraft which some believe promotes disobeying authority as well as anti-religious sentiments. Oddly, the theme of death, which is a major element in the novel, is also used as a reason to ban this book. […]

  29. Jan said,

    Hi!! So, I searching the web for anything that goes into detail as to why this book is being banned. And here we go! It took me forever though…

    I think you did a nice job. It’s going to help tons. I have a paper that I’m doing. It’s an argumentive essay, which i’m taking the side of why it should NOT be banned.

    So I’m wondering as to whether I could have your name please? I have to have a works cited piece, and that little bit of info is missing… Please?

    ~Jan

  30. Eden said,

    Thank you so much lizard queen. This was soooooo helpful. See I’m writing a paper about censorship and a banned book. I choose Bridge to Terabithia. It shouldn’t be that hard thanks to you.

  31. dat boi lilton said,

    get money… this book is so raw all yall whi is hatin can lck da gucce,
    cuz foreal all yall is bogish for yall comments on dis jock

    • Freddie Cougar said,

      what the fuck are you saying. no one can read what you are writing

  32. dat boi lilton said,

    im back a again reppin da east ville. yall west siders cant even get on dis level of swag.
    bridge to terabithia aint even dat raw of a book….so alicia quit trippin on a stunt.
    and you can suck it folk. you aint no1

  33. ben said,

    who ever thinks any book should be banned is an idiot. its a book!!!

    • Freddie Cougar said,

      double thumbs up

  34. Susan Williams said,

    I heartily disagree. This book derogates Jesus Christ and parents, is vulgar and anti-social, and its main “teaching point” — how to handle the accidental death of a young child who is your friend — is so aberrant, it renders the book worthless.

    Check your state statistics: how many children under age 12 died in accidents last year, vs. your state’s overall population of children? It’s statistically insignificant to the point of ridiculousness. There’s no need preparing children to handle something which happens .00000001 percent of the time.

    On the other hand, how many children in your state need to have positive, constructive, uplifting role models for living? They aren’t in this book. But the kinds of values lessons that children and youth really need to learn are those that they can get from classic books — not for politicized, contemporary trash like this book.

    There are 1,000 books written throughout the centuries more constructive for kids to read than this one. It’s really sad that educators aren’t aware of them, but it does show their own fairly lousy educations, both K-12 and in our lousy teachers’ colleges, which deny the existence of quality children’s literature.

    Parents like me are being forced to pay confiscatory taxes for overpriced, underperforming public schools, and then check good books out at the library and have their children read them at home, since the school-assigned literature is generally so junky. The more we spend on public school, the worse the curriculum and results are getting.

    And what’s sad is that the vast majority of parents don’t realize this, and aren’t supplementing their own children’s educations out of necessity. So our future is going to be with intellectually degraded citizens who are functionally illiterate and have nihilistic core values. Niiiiiiice.

    The only reason educators pick “Terabithia” is that the curriculum, discussion questions, tests, etc., are “pre-canned” by the publisher and they don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to think, or teach. That’s probably the saddest thing of all, considering what we spend in tax support for public education today.

    If you can drive up to a Burger King and order what you want off a menu, why can’t parents and students pre-select what books they will study during the course of a school year in advance of that school year? Parents who don’t care can have their kids read junk like “Terabithia.” Why shouldn’t it be a menu system, with parental input? Good Lord, public school costs upwards of $10,000 per student per year. You’d think those of us who are paying for that would get as much freedom of choice as when we spend $5 at Burger King. !!!!! :>)

    • Mike Tabor said,

      Wow. I would say “wrong on so many levels” but then , everyone is entitled to their own opinions…even the idiot who said Stephanie Myers was a better writer with her Twilight series…yikes.

      I discovered “Bridge…” in the 7th grade (26 years ago), after having seen the 80’s telefilm , I sought out the source material. I don’t know how you could site the book as trash…the author wasn’t trying to create role models , she was being true to the characters she created in the story she was telling , simple as that. And some kids do die in accidents as mundane as the death depicted in the book , and their friends are left behind to grieve. I thought this book and the ideas and characters were handled poignantly and true. Thankfully , you are not my parent because I would be ashamed if you were in any way responsible for banning this wonderful story from my school.
      -Mike Tabor

    • Lisa P. said,

      So let me get this straight…. preparing a child for the death of a loved one or friend is ridiculous? Must I assume, therefore, that you belong to a family of immortals? Are all of your friends immortal as well? For the rest of us mortals, death is an inevitability and something that we, as parents, have a duty to prepare our children for. Life isn’t always positive; it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Sometimes, it’s hard, scary, sad, and tragic. Every child should be prepared for that. I’m not saying you have to shove it down their throats everyday but there should be a balance.

      Also, which classics are you referring to? I can think of a number of literary classics that, if you find Bridge to Terabithia offensive, would probably send you into hysterics.

      I also fail to see how letting children read this (and other banned or controversial books) is going to lead to our children becoming ” intellectually degraded citizens who are functionally illiterate and have nihilistic core values.” That… makes no sense to me whatsoever. I don’t know about anyone else here, but I don’t rely on my daughters’ teachers to be their moral compasses. I take care of that at home.

      You need to let the teachers do their job and you do yours.

    • Freddie Cougar said,

      are you fucking kidding me.

      “This book derogates Jesus Christ and parents, is vulgar and anti-social, and its main “teaching point”
      — how to handle the accidental death of a young child who is your friend
      — is so aberrant, it renders the book worthless.”

      this is complete bullshit

  35. DIANA said,

    SHE SUX STEPANIE MYER IS WAYYYYYY BETTER THAN HER YOU SHOULD READ HER “TWILIGHT SERIES” AND HER OTHER BOOK “THE HOST” THOSE ARE THE BEST STORIES I HAVE EVER READ!!!!!!!!!! :)

    • ERIKA said,

      I AGREE WITH YOU!!!!!!!!!!! :)

    • Katy said,

      Actually, Katherine Paterson is and amazing author so she doesn’t suck. Looking at your grammer, I can easily tell that you only like the Twilight Saga because of the fact of the movie, or because all your friends read it. I’m pretty sure you either haven’t even read the books, or you read them after the movie came out. Stephenie Meyer is a good author, but not even close to being the best. I also think she wouldn’t appreciate you spelling her name wrong. On that note, I think you shouldn’t talk smack about someone when you don’t have stuff to back it up. Good day.

    • Freddie Cougar said,

      go fuck yourself. she is a great author. stepanie myer just writes about a fucking vampire and a werewolf, arguing over a depressing girl. how is that better?

  36. […] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. A powerful book that explores friendship, life, and death, this book is often banned due to what some feel is offensive language and scenes of witchcraft which some believe promotes disobeying authority as well as anti-religious sentiments. Oddly, the theme of death, which is a major element in the novel, is also used as a reason to ban this book. […]

  37. […] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. A powerful book that explores friendship, life, and death, this book is often banned due to what some feel is offensive language and scenes of witchcraft which some believe promotes disobeying authority as well as anti-religious sentiments. Oddly, the theme of death, which is a major element in the novel, is also used as a reason to ban this book. […]

  38. […] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. This book explores friendship, life, and death. It is often banned due to what some feel is offensive language and scenes of witchcraft, which some believe promotes disobeying authority as well as anti-religious sentiments. Oddly, the theme of death is also used as a reason to ban this book. […]

  39. Angelina Smeragulioulo said,

    I feel that if you think you have good parenting on your child then you should be able to rely on that to know that your children will not imatate the acts in this story

  40. […] 2. Bridge to Terabithia – Katherine Paterson Katherine Paterson’s classic about two friends and the world that they create for themselves – I had a place that I used to go and hang out with, luckily none of my friends ever died like in the book. But there was something so innocent about Jess and Leslie’s relationship. I didn’t realize that this was on the banned/challenges list until last year when I was doing some reading on Banned Books week – cited reasons include the promotion of the use of vulgar language (because damn and hell is said); the showing disrespect to adults and then the ultimate death of a main character. Here is a link to a really good blog detailing some of the challenges to the book – Bridge to Terabithia […]

  41. […] Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. A powerful book that explores friendship, life, and death, this book is often banned due to what some feel is offensive language and scenes of witchcraft which some believe promotes disobeying authority as well as anti-religious sentiments. Oddly, the theme of death, which is a major element in the novel, is also used as a reason to ban this book. […]


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