Here you will find a Bridge to Terabithia summary (Katherine Paterson's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.
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At the age of eleven, Jess Aarons resides in a southern rural region, where he nurtures a love for running. His aspiration is to outrun all his classmates when school reopens, hoping that this might serve as a way to distinguish him from his five sisters and perhaps make his often preoccupied father pay him some attention. Jess grapples with feelings of insecurity about his identity, especially since he enjoys painting – an activity that earns him the unwanted label of being effeminate. His family's struggle with poverty further compounds his ability to discover his true self. To combat this, Jess focuses on winning, which he sees as something he excels at without attracting negative attention. When a race is organized at school, a new neighbour, Leslie Burke, competes with the boys and wins, despite being a girl. Despite their awkward start, Jess and Leslie quickly become friends, creating a secret haven named Terabithia in the woods beyond the creek. In this world of their own, they escape the harsh realities of life, such as their school peers and Jess's dysfunctional family. The time they spend in Terabithia not only helps them cope with the hardships of life but also cultivates their creativity. Leslie introduces Jess to literature classics and supports his artistic endeavors. Their experiences in Terabithia also involve imaginative games involving territorial defense, pleas to imagined Grove Spirits to stop the rain, and other adventures. Their friendship extends beyond Terabithia, with the two friends seeing each other at school and even celebrating holidays together. They exchange gifts supportive of their personal interests, with Jess giving Leslie a puppy and Leslie gifting Jess an art set. Their bond remains strong despite the differing views on religion within their families. Tragedy strikes when Jess is invited to spend a day touring art galleries by his school music teacher, whom he admires. When he returns home, he learns that Leslie drowned while attempting to swing into Terabithia. Stricken with grief, Jess struggles with the loss of his friend and fears reverting back to his old self. However, he realizes he can keep Leslie’s memory alive by continuing their fantasy of Terabithia, crowning his little sister, May Belle, as the new queen.
Jess Aarons, a fifth-grade farm boy, is obsessed with an ambition to become the fastest runner amongst his peers in school. During the summer, he trains diligently in the cow pasture, fantasizing about the glory and recognition that victory would bring. His dream is interrupted by his mother's call to breakfast and the reality of his mundane existence. His daily life includes dealing with his four sisters and their constant bickering over trivialities. His eldest sisters, Ellie and Brenda, routinely pester their mother for money and squabble over chores, often leaving Jess with the bulk of the work. His younger sisters, May Belle and Joyce Ann, though a nuisance, are less bothersome with May Belle particularly fond of him. The chapter ends with May Belle informing Jess about newcomers moving into the neighboring farm, a piece of news he dismisses and carries on with his tasks.
Jess wraps up his duties with his mom, who's been busy canning beans in a hot kitchen all day, leaving her cranky and Jess tired. He manages to cook for his younger sisters before finding some time to practice his drawing, a skill highly admired by only one person - his school's music teacher, Miss Edmunds. Amidst the stifling environment of his school and home, Miss Edmunds shines as a gentle, beautiful, and kind-hearted figure. Although others mock her for her hippie-like demeanor, Jess is infatuated with her and cherishes the moments he can express himself freely during her music class. Miss Edmunds and Jess share a unique bond. She is the only one who appreciates his art, a sharp contrast from his father who dismissed it as a sign of weakness years ago. Miss Edmunds reassures Jess of his talent and volunteers to nurture it, recognizing him as a misfit who still shines bright in the otherwise dreary landscape of Lark Creek Elementary. To Jess, her attention and appreciation are a welcomed source of comfort and validation. Jess's mom interrupts his daydreaming with a call for help with the milking. As each family member returns home, he watches as his father showers affection on his sister, May Belle — something he's long desired but never received from his dad, who only remarks on his tardiness with the milking. The next day, Jess continues his morning jogging ritual until he's stopped by a stranger sitting on their fence who teases him about his fear of cows. Jess can't initially tell whether the stranger is a boy or a girl, but the newcomer, named Leslie Burke, soon reveals herself to be a girl. Although indifferent to her, he dismisses her and returns home to finish his work.
Jess is back to school and eager for the year's first race. He finds Leslie, the new girl, in his class, and she's already making herself a target for teasing due to her casual clothes. The morning drags as Jess anticipates the recess races. Recess finally rolls around, and the races are about to start. Jess watches Gary Fulcher take charge, but when his instructions become unfair, Jess confronts him. He insists on two tied boys both having a chance in the finals. When Gary mocks him about including a girl, Jess lets Leslie run in his heat. As the race starts, Jess is confident about his improved speed and imagines everyone's admiration. However, he's shocked when Leslie overtakes him and wins. Gary tries to exclude Leslie from the finals, but she insists on participating. Despite his embarrassment, Jess supports her. Under pressure, Gary allows her to race, and she triumphs again. After the race, Leslie attempts to make friends with Jess, claiming he's the "only kid in this durned school worth shooting," but he dismisses her with a sharp "So shoot me." He evades her for the rest of the day and when he spots her running home after school, he suppresses his admiration and heads home.
Jess struggles to adjust during the first week of school. Leslie's constant winning of the recess races disheartens the boys, leading to the cancellation of the races. Jess avoids Leslie, feeling embarrassed by his failures and her nonconformity in Lark Creek Elementary school. However, his mood lifts with Miss Edmunds's weekly visit to their school. They sing "Free To Be You and Me," triggering Jess's realization that he and Leslie could be good friends. After sharing a smile, they sit together on the bus ride home, where Jess learns about Leslie's affluent background and why her family moved to a more rural location. He also learns about her family's wealth, which he struggles to comprehend due to his own poverty-stricken life. An incident at school further emphasizes their differences. When Leslie declares she can't complete a TV-related assignment because she doesn't own one, the class ridicules her. She avoids Jess's comfort and retreats to the back of the bus. In an attempt to save her from school bully Janice Avery, Jess stands up to Janice and they return to their usual seats. Cheered up by Jess's bravery, Leslie proposes that they spend the afternoon together. Their afternoon is spent swinging on an old rope by the creek. It's here that Leslie introduces the idea of a secret land just for them, exciting Jess. They build this "castle stronghold" on the other side of the creek and name it Terabithia. Over the next few months, Jess and Leslie's bond strengthens, despite school harassment and teasing from Jess's sisters. Leslie also makes school more enjoyable for Jess with her mischievous tales. The only challenge is their discomfort at each other's homes. Instead, they find solace in Terabithia. Near the chapter's end, Jess, despite his fears, brings Leslie to the deep pine forest where she assures him it's a sacred place filled with beautiful spirits. This changes his perception of the forest.
One day, May Belle excitedly tells a friend on the bus about the Twinkies her father packed for her lunch. Predictably, this leads to Janice Avery snatching her Twinkies at lunch. Upset, May Belle approaches Jess, pressuring him to confront Janice, though he's reluctant due to her size. She insists he's too scared and a helpful sibling would challenge her. Leslie steps in, suggesting to May Belle that she and Jess will devise a different method of revenge on Janice, as Jess would be expelled if he's found fighting with a girl. Jess agrees with her. In their secret kingdom, Terabithia, they concoct a scheme: they pen a fake romantic note from Willard Hughes - a boy all seventh-grade girls are smitten with - to Janice. The letter conveys that Willard is deeply in love with Janice and wishes to walk her home the following day. The next day, Jess discreetly places it in her desk. As expected, Janice is fooled and ends up missing the bus and walking home alone when Willard doesn’t show up. Jess feels somewhat guilty, but believes they had no other choice. The following morning, Janice is livid, while May Belle is delighted about the lengths her brother went to for her.
As Christmas approaches, Jess struggles with finding a gift for Leslie due to financial constraints. He wants to give her something despite knowing she would understand if he didn't. His predicament is resolved when he spots an ad for free puppies. Leslie is thrilled with her new puppy, dubbed Prince Terrien, the ruler of Terabithia. However, its rambunctious nature soon prompts Leslie to demote him to a court jester, though his name remains the same. Leslie, in turn, presents Jess with a costly art kit, including 24 watercolors and a thick pad of art paper. On Christmas day, Jess exchanges presents with his family. His parents have managed to get him an electronic race-car set, a choice made by his father to bring him joy. But the toy malfunctions, causing tension between Jess and his father. Jess escapes the strained atmosphere by going out to milk the cows, where he finds Leslie and Prince Terrien. The earlier tension dissipates, and Jess feels the Christmas cheer again.
Leslie enjoys spending a great deal of time helping her father, Mr. Burke, refurbish their house. She expresses to Jess she's beginning to "understand" her dad, which confuses and upsets Jess as he feels he's being pushed aside and doesn't comprehend her bond with her father. When Leslie realizes how Jess feels, she invites him to join them in the renovation, restoring his sense of inclusion. Visiting the Burkes' house is a different experience for Jess. They ask him to call them by their first names and their intellectualism is intimidating. However, his practical knowledge is valued in the renovation process, particularly with the painting of the living room gold, making him feel like a vital part of the project. They continue to keep their fantasy kingdom, Terabithia, a secret. The narrative reveals a game in Terabithia where they must defend their kingdom from enemies after being absent due to the house renovation. Despite their contrasting language styles, both Jess and Leslie find satisfaction in the game. At school, Leslie discovers Janice Avery crying in the restroom due to her abusive father. Jess convinces Leslie they need to help Janice. Leslie reluctantly talks to Janice, offering advice on handling the situation and suggesting the school gossip will die down soon. This wins Janice's tentative friendship, which Leslie shares with Jess in Terabithia. The chapter concludes with May Belle revealing she followed Jess and Leslie to Terabithia. A worried Jess makes her swear not to reveal their secret place, deeply unsettled by trusting a six-year-old with this information.
As Easter approaches, Jess's family begins enthusiastic preparations. The occasion stands out as they only attend church on Easter, with Brenda and Ellie especially looking forward to flaunting new outfits. When Jess's father loses his job just before the holiday, it means no new clothes for the girls and amplifies tension in the household. Jess informs Leslie about their Easter church visit. To his surprise, Leslie, who has never attended church, is eager to join them. Despite his confusion over why Leslie would willingly go to church, Jess manages to convince his mother to allow Leslie to accompany them. Jess finds church tedious and uninteresting, gaining nothing from it. In contrast, Leslie is captivated, finding the story of Jesus enchanting, as if from a book. Jess explains to her that Jesus had to die because "we're all vile sinners". Leslie disagrees with this, shocking May Belle, who warns Leslie that not believing the Bible will send her to hell. Leslie dismisses this, asserting she doesn't believe God damns people to hell. Jess and Leslie reach a tentative agreement on the matter, but May Belle remains unconvinced.
For a week, it's been non-stop rain and Jess and Leslie are getting restless. Jess proposes that they visit Terabithia regardless of the weather, which Leslie accepts. Once they arrive, they're met with a significantly flooded creek. Despite his fear of water, Leslie convinces Jess to stay. As the rain continues and the creek level rises, Jess grows increasingly worried, losing sleep over it. He's too scared to share his fears with Leslie, and finds it more and more challenging to swing over the high creek each day. During one of their visits to Terabithia, Leslie claims that the relentless rain is the doing of malevolent spirits. She suggests they pray at the spirit grove for salvation. In this situation, Jess finds it hard to act king-like due to his fear and self-doubt, making it difficult to engage in their usual pretend-play. Sensing his discomfort, Leslie suggests they warm up and relax by watching TV at Jess's place, to which he readily agrees. However, the fear grips him again that night hearing the rain against the roof, realizing that Leslie is undeterred by the high creek and will insist on swinging across, no matter what.
Jess is busy with his morning task of milking Miss Bessie when May Belle interrupts with news of a phone call. Miss Edmunds is on the other end, inviting him to a day trip to Washington to visit the National Gallery. Unsure if his mother would approve, he wakes her just enough to gain her sleepy approval. Soon, he is on his way to Washington with Miss Edmunds. Their day is filled with awe and enjoyment. The art gallery leaves Jess amazed, and Miss Edmunds is delighted to introduce him to such spectacular artwork. He is captivated by a three-dimensional buffalo hunt painting. Despite feeling uneasy when Miss Edmunds pays for his lunch, he doesn't voice his discomfort due to lack of funds. On their way home, they have ice cream. As she drops him off, Miss Edmunds thanks him for the "a beautiful day" leaving Jess elated. However, as Jess steps into the kitchen, he detects an unusual vibe. His family is ominously quiet until his mother breaks into tears. Brenda informs him in a sullen tone of Leslie's death, before he can even ask what happened.
Jess's dad reveals the tragic details of Leslie's accident. She tried to swing into Terabithia, fell, hit her head and drowned. Jess refuses to believe this harsh reality, arguing with his dad and comforting his scared sister, May Belle, before sprinting off. As he runs, reality begins to sink in, but he fights it by running even faster. His dad chases after him in his truck, eventually catching and bringing him home. A sort of detachment takes over Jess and he retreats to his bed. Awakening in the middle of the night, Jess is still in denial, insisting that Leslie couldn't have died. He distracts himself by imagining future adventures in Terabithia with her. He replays his day with Miss Edmunds, using the memory as a barrier against the painful truth. Eventually, he falls asleep. In the morning, he's surprised to find his dad has done the milking. His mother treats him gently, making him pancakes, which he enjoys despite his sister Brenda's insensitive criticism. His dad attempts to discuss Leslie's death with him again and suggests visiting the Burkes' to pay their condolences. Jess, still not fully grasping the situation, numbly agrees and they set off for the Burke's home.
Jess and his family visit the Burkes' home, filled with grieving people. Initially, Jess copes with Leslie's death with detachment, considering the changes it will bring in his life, like sympathy from classmates and his parents asking his sisters to be kind to him. This sense of detachment shatters when Leslie's father, Bill, thanks Jess for being a good friend to Leslie. Jess tries to distance himself by imagining it as a scene from a TV show. However, when Bill reveals they chose to cremate Leslie, Jess can't hold onto his indifference. He had hoped to see Leslie one last time, but now this won't happen, so he flees the house. Back home, Jess's emotions explode. His sister, May Belle, asks if he saw Leslie's body, but he angrily hits her. He then retrieves his Christmas gift from Leslie, a paint set, and tosses it in the creek. Jess's father finds him crying and screaming, comforts him, and calls his act foolish. Once calm, Jess asks his father if non-Christians go to hell. His father assures him that God wouldn't damn a little girl like Leslie, which comforts Jess. Returning home, Jess feels more like himself, despite being overwhelmed with grief and exhaustion. His thoughts are clearer and he's more present. Later, Bill asks Jess to look after Prince Terrien, Leslie's dog, while he and his wife travel to Pennsylvania. Jess accepts and finds comfort in the dog's company that night.
Jess visits the creek intending to find his paints, but instead heads to Terabithia. Upon reaching, he is unsure of his next move and fears that Leslie's death and the broken rope have diminished the magic of the place. He struggles to navigate the magical kingdom without Leslie, who always had an innate sense of magic. He tries to keep the magic alive by making a funeral wreath. The wreath makes Jess feel more like a king, and he delivers a funeral speech in the grove. Suddenly, he hears May Belle screaming; she's stuck halfway across the creek. He helps her across, and she admits she wanted to help him feel less lonely. They return home together. At school, Leslie's desk is gone, making Jess feel like his classmates never cared for her. He feels detached until his teacher, Mrs. Myers, shares her condolences and tells him she can relate to his loss. Her words provide comfort, making him see her differently and accept that he will never forget Leslie. Jess decides to maintain Terabithia in honor of Leslie. He acknowledges that while it was a part of his childhood, he needs to move on to the real world. He commits to preserving Terabithia until then. Soon, the Burkes leave their house, gifting Jess Leslie's books and watercolors. They also offer him any leftover items, and he asks for some lumber. He uses it to construct a bridge across the creek, introducing May Belle to Terabithia and hinting she could be the new queen.