Jess Aarons, an eleven-year-old boy living on a country farm with his parents and four sisters, has nurtured one dream all summer long. When school opens, he longs to be the fastest runner in the third, fourth, and fifth grades. Each day at recess races are organized among those three grades, and now that Jess is in fifth grade and at the top of the ladder, he is confident that he can outrun them all. Bridge to Terabithia opens with his morning training run in the cow pasture. As he runs, he thinks excitedly of the race coming up, and basks in the idea of winning and distinguishing himself in front of everyone. He pictures the amazement of his schoolmates and the admiration of his family.
However, he is called sharply back to reality when his mother calls him in to breakfast, complaining that he has run too long and will have to milk the cow when he has finished breakfast. Coming into the house, he is heckled by his mother and whined at by his older sisters, Ellie (the oldest) and Brenda (the second oldest), who make nuisances of themselves in general by pestering their mother for money for school and bickering over the chores. We also meet May Belle, Jesse's six-year-old sister, who admires Jess a great deal and gets along better with him than do the others, and Joyce Ann, his four-year-old sister who is young enough to be simply a pain in the neck. Brenda and Ellie coax money out of their mother for back-to-school shopping, which leaves Jess to do all the chores, "as usual," he thinks grumpily.
At the end of the chapter, May Belle brings Jess the news that a new family is moving into the "old Perkins place", which is the farm next door to theirs. Jess shrugs off the news and carries on with the chores.
In the opening chapter of Bridge to Terabithia, several important themes are introduced breezily, themes which will be developed more fully throughout the course of the novel. One of the most telling scenes in the chapter comes when Jess imagines the reaction of his family and friends when he wins the races at school. Much of this is easily understandable, and almost generic: his sister bragging about him, and his competitors' stunned faces. But there is a particularly important detail is given when Jess imagines his father's pride in him. Jess imagines a perfect domestic scene in which his father forgets all about how tired he is from working all day and wrestles and plays with Jess, which is a wistfully imagined scene of father-son companionship and bonding. He finishes by saying "Old Dad would be surprised at how strong he'd gotten the last couple of years," clearly demonstrating that Jess has not shared such a scene with his father in quite awhile. As the novel progresses, we learn that Jess' father is often too preoccupied and tired to pay much attention to Jess, and when he does, he looks on him as a man to be relied upon and who ought to have put his childhood aside, not as a boy who needs close companionship and nurturing. All this is encapsulated in Jess's desire to win the race and show his father that he is at once a man capable of competing athletically and a boy deserving of praise.
The scene at the breakfast table likewise demonstrates the Aarons family dynamic at a glance. Pleasant conversation and companionship is nonexistent. Brenda and Ellie bicker the whole time and Jess's mother only takes notice of him to hound him about the chores. Jess hardly seems to exist for his family and he is never been able to find a true niche where he can be happy, or been able to explore his own identity. Everyone in the family is too wrapped up in his or her own problems and concerns. Jess is shown to be somewhat adrift, searching for his own identity as he approaches puberty, but unable to find himself amid the concerns and annoyances thrust upon him by his family. This is Jess's situation before meeting Leslie; ironically, he pays little attention to the arrival of her family in the house next door, but her advent will provide the solution to many of Jess's problems.