A Bridge Too Far — But Why?
For the past decade, I have been involved in the issue of book-banning in the public schools, the students’ right to read, teachers’ right to teach, parents’ control over text choice, and so on. During those years, I have been making an honest attempt to understand what is in the minds of those U.S. citizens who make such fervent attacks on certain literary selections, selections which were once widely accepted as an appropriate focus of classroom study.
I have been particularly concerned about frequent, uncompromising attacks on several young adult novels. For many years, this genre was considered "safe" for use by middle school/junior high teachers as they attempted to introduce their early adolescent students to the nature and value of serious literature in general, and long fiction in particular. Since the mid-1970s, however, the attacks on a growing number of YA novels have increased dramatically, and there seems to be no reasonable hope for any let-up on the challenges to the works of Robert Cormier, Judy, Blume, Alice Childress, Paula Danziger, Lois Lowry, Shel Silverstein, et al.
In my concern for increasing this understanding, I have become a dues-paying member of People for the American Way and wait expectantly each October for the annual publication of Attacks on the Freedom to Learn, PFAW’s state-by-state annotated summary of those censorship cases reported during the previous school year. It is widely believed, however, that only 15 to 25% of all national cases are reported. Included in the report’s Appendices is a "Top Ten" listing of books and authors challenged during that year and over the previous (roughly) 15-year period. Throughout this decade, YA novels and authors have appeared on the list with regularity. In the 1994-95 listings, for example, Lois Lowry’s quite recent novel, The Giver, has vaulted into second place, topped only by Maya Angelou’s long-time shocker, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Strong supporters of Quayleian family values have raised serious objections to Lowry’s latter-day successor to Brave New World.
While I don’t sympathize with them, I do recognize the reasons behind the opposition to The Giver. I can also understand the high place of Blume’s Forever (four explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse); Cormier’s The Chocolate War (sadism, masturbation, evil adult authorities), Childress’ A Hero Ain’t Nothing But a Sandwich (drug abuse, violence, live-in boyfriends); and The Outsiders (gang violence, murder, alcohol abuse). The attacks that have persisted on two YA novels, however, have confounded me. I’ve just finished writing a piece for a Scribners’ anthology on one of them: Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die, a novel certainly undeserving of censorship attacks. But even more puzzling is the appearance of the second, Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia.
For the record, this Paterson novel has been on PFAW’s most wanted list four times in this decade: 7th in 91-92, 6th in 92-93, 8th in 94-95, and 10th in 95-96. On the long-range hit list, it’s placed 8th or 9th each year since 92-93. My overall assessment is that Bridge to Terabithia, winner of the 1978 Newbery Medal, offers a sensitive, imaginative, and eminently teachable story of the lives of two innocent ten-year-olds who come from vastly different walks of life but whose friendship is credible, delightful — and ultimately tragic. When I first read the novel, I found myself taken over by a great desire to share the text with a middle school or junior high class.
A quick synopsis: Jess Aarons is a 10-year-old who lives in impoverished surroundings in rural northern Virginia. As his fifth-grade year begins, he meets a new classmate/neighbor, one Leslie Burke, who does the unthinkable on that opening day by defeating all the boys in a traditional foot race. Leslie is the daughter of an affluent, intellectual Washington, D.C., couple, who have left the fast lane to contemplate their next career moves. Jess and Leslie soon become close friends. Leslie, exceptionally literate and otherwise unbefriended, suggests that she and Jess find a remote haven in the wooded area near their homes, one which they can call their own. They discover such a place and name their secret kingdom "Terabethia." There they reign as King and Queen, administer its affairs, and recruit a sentinel, a puppy given to Leslie by Jess as a Christmas gift. In the seclusion of Terabethia, they create a happy existence that raises them above the humdrum of their rural, structured lives. On a spring vacation day, however, while Jess is visiting Washington art galleries with a friendly art/music teacher, Leslie is killed when the rope they used to swing across the creek (separating the "Kingdom" from the "mainland") breaks. After going through a period of intense denial and anger, Jess begins to live with the death of his close friend and fellow "ruler." He is aided through this ordeal by a heretofore indifferent (and unemployed) father and a teacher he formerly despised. The novel ends with Jess continuing to cope with his loss.
Briefly, I’d like to add my feelings of admiration to the accolades already heaped on Bridge to Terabithia. The book provides an incisive picture of two drastically different pre-teenagers and the wholly credible bond that develops between them. It also offers a realistic reflection on a family that remains loving and proud through overpowering financial difficulties. It treats rural pre-teens in a "limited" school environment in a manner that is wholly believable and, most of all, it demonstrates the degree to which the human imagination can elevate young people above a lack-luster, emotionally barren existence to one of joy and fulfillment (and therein may lie the rub).
So how did this exquisite novel wind up on PFAW’s hit list year after year? I reviewed the usual reasons one by one. Sexual intimacy? No way; these two kids offer not even the most subtle sense of sexual attraction. Profane language? Give me a break. Yes, Jess’ father does use "damn" on three occasions, and Jess’ little sister May Belle does express her concern that Leslie’s being unchurched may condemn her to hell. These transgressions are minor indeed and, in fact, you have to read very carefully to note their presence. What about the sudden death of a ten-year-old? Maybe, but remember that deaths occur in such accepted YA novels as The Pig Man, The Outsiders, Home Before Dark, Sounder, I Am the Cheese, Stotan! Hatchet, and Somewhere in the Darkness, to name a representative few. There are also deaths central to the story lines in Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Red Badge of Courage, and A Separate Peace, each of which features young people as protagonists and is widely taught in U.S. high schools.
I came to the ultimate conclusion that two elements within the novel, one underdeveloped, the other of fundamental importance, may be largely responsible for the complaints and challenges that have been lodged against it. The minor one: Leslie displays inherent kindness, generosity, maturity, and joie de vivre, all despite the fact that she does not participate in traditional, i.e., Christian, religious activity. When it is revealed late in the novel that she’s never been to church, some readers, or more probably the parents of those readers, may have been shocked and thus galvanized into protest. They also learn that she doesn’t even know how to dress for church. This fundamental and angry question: How could a kid get to be so good without Jesus? Their answer: She couldn’t. Their conclusion: Bad role model.
My inference of the major objectionable element in this novel is its wholesale embracing of the imaginative world as created by Jess and Leslie. When the two children discover their remote location and dress it in the garb of a fairy tale Kingdom, they place the human imagination (italics mine) in a role of central importance in their lives. Many of the chief protesters from the Christian Fundamentalist Right want none of that, especially in schools that their hard earned tax dollars support. That’s probably a major reason why Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret took such intense criticism in earlier years. The creation of imaginary worlds, so appealing to young people, seems to be anathema to the angry observers from that gentry. It was Norma Gabler (that renowned literary scholar and social critic) who decried on numerous occasions anything in public schools that in any way fostered children’s imaginations. It has been Christian Coalition leaders who have demanded that the schools stick to factual knowledge in preparing their curricular frameworks. It has been the Citizens for Excellence in Education cell groups across the nation that have exhorted schools to stick to the 3R’s and to leave anything that even hinted of the extra-terrestrial to Stephen Spielberg et al. It seems ironic indeed that, even as they condemn imaginative classroom activities, so many of these self-righteous, ultra-suspicious parents save their money in the cookie jar to underwrite their kids’ vacation to the Magic Kingdom or Orlando’s Disney World.
If the centrality of the imagination in Bridge to Terabithia is most responsible for its ongoing place on PFAW’s Top Ten List, wouldn’t it be reasonable to predict that many texts and authors considered heretofore "standard" in English curricula 6-12 could well be the next to go? For starters, they’ll throw out The Wizard of Oz, all fairy tales, myths, folk tales, and legends. Next, they’ll pitch just about all of Poe, Irving, Hawthorne, Mary Shelley, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, P. B. Shelley. Close behind, they’ll see to it that much of E. A. Robinson, Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, Swift, Twain, Jonathan Edwards, Joel Chandler Harris, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Spenser, Sir Walter Scott, Byron, Lewis Carroll, the Rossettis, the Brownings, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and all the rest of that disgusting science fiction crowd disappear. The list goes on endlessly. The few authors and works left won’t take up much room. (Hey, if they ditch all the writers of imaginative literature, nobody will have to lug around those fat anthologies! In English classes, kids could just do grammar worksheets and surf the Net.)
On a more serious note, causing Bridge to Terabithia to be excluded from the literary bill of fare for young adults would do much more than simply allow the censors to ban a high-quality novel. It may sound a frighteningly clear clarion call for a full-scale attack on imaginative literature throughout U.S. programs of study. And now, an equally serious, closing question: Are we who are in the business of educating young people going to stand on the sidelines, shrug our shoulders, and let the Juggernaut roll on?
John Simmons is Professor of English Education at Florida State University. He was the guest editor of the censorship issue of The ALAN Review (Winter 1993).
Copyright 1998. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.
Reference Citation: Simmons, John. (1998). "A Bridge Too Far – But Why?" The ALAN Review, Volume 25, Number 2, 21-22.