Leslie and Jess seem to balance one another out perfectly, blending seamlessly into one harmonious friendship. What is it that makes these two so compatible? What does their friendship say about each of them, and what does their friendship specifically say about friendship in general?
Jess at one point explains his friendship with Leslie by saying that "if there had been anyone else at that durned school," she would not have had to bother with him. In fact, the reader can see that Jess is doing himself an injustice in saying this. Both Jess and Leslie have individual characteristics that the other person responds to. Leslie is well read, imaginative, courageous, and self-assured. Jess is intelligent, but not particularly well educated, practical, kind, and compassionate. There is an overlap between them—this is not to say that Leslie is unkind, or Jess is unimaginative—but these are the main traits which distinguish each of them. Together, they make a perfect pair.
This says a lot about the need to appreciate one's own contribution to a friendship, as well as the other person's. Jess feels so strongly that Leslie is an amazing person that he forgets that he himself must be rather special in order to maintain a true friendship with her. In reading Bridge to Terabithia, since Leslie is so extraordinary and so unique, and Jess is less flamboyantly so, one might be tempted to chalk most of the magic of the friendship up to Leslie. However, Jess's contribution is just as important, and ultimately he is just as special. Bridge to Terabithia is a tribute to the wonder and magic that is possible in a true friendship, and it emphasizes clearly that this wonder and magic are always tied up intimately with both friends, not dependent on just one.
What is the treatment of gender roles in Bridge to Terabithia?
Katherine Paterson addresses the theme of gender and cross-gender friendships with sensitivity and insight in Bridge to Terabithia. Jess lives in a world where gender roles are very clearly defined: women seem to be expected to stay at home and take care of the house, and men are expected to shoulder most of the responsibility. Certainly most of the females depicted in Bridge to Terabithia, Jess's sisters and female classmates in particular, are shallow and vain. Jess's father, on the other hand, from whom we see the most insistence on Jess's conformity to the masculine gender role, is worn by the many cares of his household, preoccupied with material concerns, and awkwardly undemonstrative with Jess. Jess is led to believe that he must live up to this masculine ideal, and that his love for painting is a betrayal of the "true man" his father expects him to be.
When Leslie comes along, all this is challenged. As is mentioned in the chapter analyses, Leslie's original appearance of androgyny is crucial to Jess's immediate perception of her. It places her outside this system that constrains and confuses Jess. A friendship between a boy and a girl would have been rather taboo in the atmosphere of Lark Creek Elementary and the Aarons' home, but the gender difference doesn't matter to Jess or Leslie. Seemingly all their classmates and acquaintances assume automatically that their relationship must be that of boyfriend and girlfriend, therefore relegating it to a socially accepted niche. However, there is never any romantic or sexual tension in their friendship, simply comradeship and affection. There are plenty of differences between the two, but virtually none of them are gender-specific. It is from Leslie that Jess learns that he must be his own person, not merely his own man.
Discuss the portrayal of religion in Bridge to Terabithia. Is it presented in a positive, negative, or indifferent light? In particular, what does Paterson's take seem to be on organized religion?
Katherine Paterson's depiction of religion in Bridge to Terabithia is, no doubt, one of the main reasons that the book has been embroiled in a censorship debate for decades. Certainly her views are not engineered to satisfy orthodoxy. Neither the Aarons family nor the Burke family attends church with any regularity; the Aaronses go once a year, out of a sense of tradition rather than any spiritual desire, and the Burkes never attend at all. None of the characters in the book except for Leslie find any true meaning or value in religion. The subject simply frightens and confuses Jess and May Belle, instilling in them a vague sense of guilt and anxiety, and the rest of the family sees church as just another social gathering—epitomized in the vanity of Ellie and Brenda, who go to church simply to show off their new clothes.
Leslie does find meaning in the experience, but her fascination is an intensely personal one. Leslie is not at all constrained by doctrine or stern Church teachings and dictates. She finds the central story of Christ's redemptive death and resurrection to be beautiful and moving, but she disdains the harsher teachings concerning damnation and penalties for not accepting organized religion. It is implied that Leslie's faith is faith as it should be, or at least the germ of such a faith. She is able to find true spiritual meaning within herself by interacting with Church teachings and deciding for herself what to believe and what to discount. Jess and May Belle, who are far more orthodox, receive little or no spiritual nourishment from their so-called "faith," because they have never reexamined it thoughtfully and tried to determine what belief system would make the most sense to them and help them to grow the most spiritually. Ironically, Leslie's agnostic upbringing is actually far better soil to encourage the sprouting of true spiritualism than is the Aarons's lackadaisical insistence on dry doctrine. Leslie has been brought up to consider the world with an intellectual curiosity and to be alive to all the implications of the things that she encounters. Although this has never specifically included religion, her upbringing serves her well when it comes to pondering and assimilating religion. Jess has never been taught to look at things from such an angle, and without this angle, all that's left of religion is a set of rules, a longish ceremony, and hard pews and kneelers. Paterson is certainly not attacking religion in Bridge to Terabithia, although some fundamentalists might believe that. Instead, she advocates delving into oneself to find the true meaning of faith and spirituality, resulting in a deeper and more sincere belief.
Discuss the difference between the Burke family and the rest of the families in Lark Creek—specifically, the Aaronses. Can all the differences between them be traced back to education and economic comfort, or is there something more? Is there an essential difference between the Burkes and the Aaronses, or are the differences merely external?
Discuss the theme of fear in the novel. Is Leslie's relative fearlessness a virtue or is it a reckless lack of caution that ultimately gets her killed? Or is it both? Do you think that utter fearlessness should be honored as a virtue, or should it be tempered with a healthy sense of danger? Which character is more admirable in this regard, Jess or Leslie?
What is the role of the family in Bridge to Terabithia? Does Jess and Leslie's friendship suggest that ties of blood are not as important as those forged by choice between friends? Is there something in the bonds that a family shares that can't be replicated in a friendship, or does all affection work the same way on its recipients? Cite examples from the text to support your answer.
Discuss the figure of Miss Edmunds. What is it about her that appeals to Jess so strongly? Is her unique appeal tied in to her liberal, "hippie" leanings, or is that simply peripheral? Is what Jess feels simply knee-jerk infatuation, or does it run deeper than that?
Trace the evolution of Jess's character throughout the novel. Are all the changes in him attributable to Leslie, or are some of them the inevitable effects of growing up? Is the Jess of the last chapter noticeably different from the Jess of the first chapter, or are the changes subtler than that?
The novel's use of profanity has been the ostensible reason for most of the censorship requests. What does this colloquial feel add to the novel? How would the novel be different if Paterson had censored her own language, or changed the writing style entirely to something more descriptive and academic? Do you feel the complaints of those who call for censorship are justified?