Katerine Paterson’s children’s/young adult classic Bridge to Terabithia has been challenged frequently in the last half of the 20th century, and has been challenged in the 21st century as well. It was among the top ten most challenged books for 1991-1997; it was also among the top ten in 2003 (link to a PDF). I remember reading this book in 5th grade, and it was my second favorite that year, behind another frequently-banned classic, Lois Lowry’s The Giver. This book is about two outcasts, Jesse and Leslie, who find each other and create a magical imaginary world. I responded so well to the novel because I was an outcast all through my primary and secondary school years. I was teased and tormented, and this book gave me a lot of hope. It showed me that there were people in the world who, although few and far between, would not judge you, and with whom you could be yourself. I found this book at a time when I really needed it. 5th grade was the second-most socially unpleasant year of my life (second only to the unadulterated hell that was 7th grade). Bridge to Terabithia helped me get through it all. I can’t imagine what that year would have been like if someone at my school had sought to prevent me from reading it. And although it has been a number of years since I read it, the message stays with me. Perhaps the next time I stop by my public library, I’ll check out a copy and give it a read with fresh eyes.
That doesn’t mean that Bridge to Terabithia is fuzzy and happy. It has a tragic, horrifying ending, when Leslie drowns and Jesse therefore loses his best, and perhaps only, friend. Like I said, it has been years since I read the novel, and I still tear up thinking about the ending, because it really does break your heart. But even though it’s sad, there’s still that message of hope, that when the right person comes along, you can overcome the things that hold you back, and evolve.
According to Wikipedia, the book as been censored for a number of reasons: Leslie’s death, Jesse’s use of the word “lord” outside of prayer, accusations of sexual content, and the idea that the book promotes secular humanism, New Age religions, occultism, and satanism. A fantastic NCTE article by Kent L. Bryson also cites concerns about child abuse in the novel. First off: we need to shield are children from a book because the protagonist drowns? I can’t even believe that. Death is a reality, and sometimes children have to face it. I’ve had elderly and not-so-elderly relatives die in my lifetime. And sometimes, though its tragic, children do die from accidents or illness; kids lose their friends. Yes, art is often about escapism. But art is also often informed by reality, no matter how fantastic the plot. Furthermore, how do we expect children to be able to confront real-life tragedies if we attempt to shelter them at every turn? Yes, Leslie’s death makes everybody sad. But that sadness is integral to the entire work. How can we deny children access to a great work of art just because it might make them sad?
I have similar complaints about the allegation of child abuse. Paterson handles those situations respectfully and with maturity. And abuse is something kids should know about. If we shelter them from all knowledge of abuse, how can they help someone who is being abused? How can they get out of abusive situations if for some reason they find themselves in one? This goes back to the idea of a teachable moment. These scenes would definitely be useful for branching off into lessons about abuse and what to do about it.
As for Jesse’s using the word “lord” outside of prayer . . . well, I’m an atheist, so I don’t see anything wrong with a little blasphemy. LOL. All kidding aside, who cares? So Jesse is irreverent. If it bugs you that much, don’t read the book, and don’t let your kids read it. But don’t try to deny people who are not as religious as you, or who have entire different beliefs, the opportunity to read this book. Your religious views are your own; don’t try to impose your morality on others.
Accusations of sexual content . . . what?? Who really thinks this book has inappropriate sexual content? Oh, so Jesse develops a crush on his music teacher . . . so? I had a massive crush on my 6th grade English teacher. It happens. It’s not like Jesse’s teacher is a pedophile who takes advantage of him. I think Paterson does a good job handling the crush, because nothing inappropriate comes of it. Paterson writes about it without judgment; it’s something that happens to adolescents. And as long as students know how to channel that energy and not do something inappropriate, it’s fine.
Now, as far as the secular humanism/occultism/New Age spirituality/satanism . . . if you think that Leslie and Jessie practice satanism, you have not read even one word of the book. You have no clue what you’re talking about. Same with the occult accusations. Yes, there is a sort of spiritual aspect to Terabithia. It’s a fantasy world; it’s a place where magic exists. But it’s also a postive, life-affirming sort of magic and spirituality. And as for secular humanism . . . what, exactly, is wrong with secular humanism? Oh yeah, there’s no god involved. I’m going to stop there, or else this is going to turn into an atheist rant, and I already went on one of those at someone else’s blog this week. Once again, if your religion is so strict that you can’t even read a book where children engage in make-believe, or live “secular” lives, then don’t read it. But don’t inflict your spiritual views upon those who don’t share them and don’t wish to share them.
Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like.