Monday, May 21, 2018

Review - Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia
by Katherine Paterson
Date: 1977
Publisher: HarperCollins
Reading level: MG
Book type: prose novel
Pages: 163
Format: e-book

Jess Aarons has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, outpaces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie's house, where they invent an enchanted land called Terabithia. One morning, Leslie goes to Terabithia without Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his family and the strength that Leslie has given him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

(synopsis from Goodreads)

I don't even know how to start reviewing this book. I didn't like it. It's hard when you read a beloved book and you just don't see what everyone else saw. Maybe this book's time has passed. I don't know. But I found it to be woefully dated, and problematic as a result.

Okay, I get that we're supposed to see that Jess and Leslie don't conform to gender norms. The problem? It's based on 1970s ideas of what gender should be. Which means that things that wouldn't make people bat an eye today were emphasized as a huge deal. Jess likes to draw. He's girly! Leslie rarely wears dresses and likes to run. She's boyish! The music teacher wears jeans and no lipstick. *gasp* What's wrong with her?! To make matters worse, when characters were portrayed as sticking to traditional gender norms, it was implied that it was a negative thing (you could see this especially with Jess's older sisters).

Then there was the sexism. Oh, boy. I know it was written in 1977, but it was still so grating. One of the worst parts was when the teacher talked about scuba diving as being an unusual hobby... for a girl. Combined with the misogyny that the little boys were throwing around on the playground, it made for an uncomfortable read.

Some aspects of the story and characters just don't work anymore. One of the ways (one of the only ways, really) that the author seemed to be able to think of to indicate that a character was bad was to make them fat... and then have others comment on it. Seriously, pretty much every insult was about someone's weight. The school bully (more on her in a moment) got called a cow and a hippo, and commentary was made about the size of her butt. Jess's sister Brenda got the same treatment, even having her weight commented on at one point by her six-year-old sister. (Full disclosure: I've never been overweight in my life. In fact, I've been skinny. So I've never had to deal with fat comments. If the amount of fat-shaming in this book was making me uncomfortable, I can't imagine how it would read to someone who struggles with their weight.)

There were also some things that just read as inappropriate. For example, I was totally weirded out when Jess's little sister accused him of staring at her when she was in her underwear... because he follows up with what's basically a pedophilic incest joke. (Why would an eleven-year-old boy know enough about that to joke about it? Yeesh.) Then there was the trip he took with his teacher. Alone. To another city. Where she buys him lunch and ice cream. Oh, yeah... and he had a terrible crush on her. I understand that this was written before the Mary Kay Letourneau era, but it's just one more thing that's going to have to be explained to younger readers as being not okay. Yes, in this instance, it was innocent. But there have been real-life cases where it wasn't. And then there was the scene where Jess shot milk straight into Leslie's mouth with no warning (other than a command to open her mouth) and no consent. This wouldn't fly in an era of food allergies, for one thing... but the whole scene was just gross. If I'd opened up the book and randomly stumbled across that page, based on the word choices and actions, I would've assumed it was erotica:

“Here,” he said. “Open your mouth.”
“Just open your mouth.” For once she obeyed. He sent a stream of warm milk straight into it.
“Jess Aarons!” The name was garbled and the milk dribbled down her chin as she spoke.
“Don’t open your mouth now. You’re wasting good milk.”
Leslie started to giggle, choking and coughing.
“Now if I could just learn to pitch a baseball that straight. Lemme try again.”
Leslie controlled her giggle, closed her eyes, and solemnly opened her mouth.
But now Jess was giggling, so that he couldn’t keep his hand steady.
“You dunce! You got me right in the ear.”

The bully (if you can call her that; bullying was apparently pretty tame in the 1970s and seemed to involve stealing hopscotch rocks and Twinkies) was also handled in an appalling way. We find out that she's a nasty girl because her father beats her. But then--and I don't know if I've ever been so disgusted with a book's message--it's implied that she did something wrong because the secret got out. It was shameful. It was supposed to stay hidden. In fact, the advice to this poor girl? Ignore the taunting from the other kids and they'll forget about it and everything will go back to normal. (Except she'll still be beaten at home... but that's okay, I guess.) The author even reiterated this advice in her author's note, as she recounted hearing from children who'd been "helped" by the book:

There was the child who found her family’s dark secrets were suddenly the gossip of all her classmates and only got through the most horrible time of her life by remembering Leslie’s advice to Janice Avery—to pretend she didn’t know what anybody had said or where they’d got such a crazy story and that everybody would forget about it in a week.

Yeah. "Such a crazy story" definitely needed to be forgotten so the bully's father could go back to beating her without having to worry about a visit from child services. What... the... hell?

I know this book was used in schools, and while at one time it probably brought up some interesting discussions about death and grief, I think it might be too fraught with other issues for today's teachers to be able to get through all the ensuing discussions in a reasonable amount of time. I don't think I'd want my kids reading it without some real discussion about the problematic bits... and there are plenty.

Premise: 3/5
Plot: 2/5
Characters: 2/5
Pace: 3/5
Writing: 2/5
Editing: 3/5
Originality: 3/5
Enjoyment: 1/5

Overall Rating: 2.38 out of 5 ladybugs