9 Memorable Facts About ‘Bridge to Terabithia’

Katherine Paterson’s celebrated 1977 children's book about friendship and loss was based on a true story.
The cover of ‘Bridge to Terabithia.’
The cover of ‘Bridge to Terabithia.’ / HarperCollins/Amazon (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

There’s a genre of children’s literature in which the young heroes discover—or create—a fantasy world in order to cope with their real-life problems. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis might be among the most renowned. But for others, author Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel Bridge to Terabithia is the ultimate escape in escapist fiction.

In an effort to avoid the realities of fifth grade in their rural Virginia community, best friends Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke head for Terabithia, an enchanted world deep in the forest and conjured by Leslie. The experience not only deepens their friendship but prepares them for unexpected tragedy to come—one that still surprises readers to this day. (Spoilers will follow.)

For more on Bridge to Terabithia, including Paterson’s inspiration and her status as a Living Legend, keep reading.

Before writing Bridge to Terabithia, Katherine Paterson wanted to be a missionary in China.

Paterson’s road to becoming an author took a lot of detours. She was born in 1932 in China, where her parents were missionaries. The family was forced to move back to the United States during World War II, eventually ending up in Winchester, Virginia. Paterson attended King University (then King College) in Tennessee and taught for a year at a rural school in Virginia, where she once said many of her students were as irrepressible as Jesse Aarons.

After graduate school, Paterson wanted to head to China but, in 1957, the borders were closed. She headed to Japan to teach, returned to the U.S. after four years, and met and married a Presbyterian minister in 1962. The church wanted some curriculum ideas from Paterson, so she began to write—and never stopped. Historical novels about Japan were followed by her young adult fiction like The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) and Bridge to Terabithia.

Bridge to Terabithia was inspired by a real-life incident.

When Paterson’s son David was just 8 years old, he had a best friend named Lisa Hill. The two frequently hung out near a creek bed in Takoma Park, Maryland. Tragically, Lisa died after being struck by lightning.

The next year, Paterson went to a meeting of the Children’s Book Guild of Washington; when someone asked how her kids were, “Instead of saying they were fine, I began to blubber out everything that was not fine. When I finally ran out of steam, there was this dead silence.”

Eventually, one of the other members told her that she needed to write the story, with the caveat that “the child can't die by lightning because no editor would ever believe that.” Patterson recalled, “I went back to my house that day, and I thought, ‘I can’t make sense of Lisa’s death, but the story has to make sense. So I’m going to try to write the story.’”

In Bridge to Terabithia, friends Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke enjoy a strong bond before one of them meets an untimely end; the book is dedicated to David and Lisa. (David later wrote the 2007 film adaptation of the novel.) A maple tree was planted in 2005 near their elementary school to honor Hill.

The name Terabithia came from another book.

“I thought I’d made up ‘Terabithia,’” Paterson wrote on her website. “I realized when the book was nearly done, that there is an island in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis called ‘Terebinthia.’ I’m sure I borrowed that unconsciously, but, then, so would Leslie who loved the Chronicles of Narnia. And, by the way, Lewis got Terebinthia from the biblical terebinth tree, so it wasn’t original with him either.”

Paterson thought Bridge to Terabithia would be “too personal” to succeed ...

Though the novel meant a lot to Paterson personally, she didn’t feel as though it would resonate with the rest of the world. “I thought it was such a private book that my editor probably wouldn't want to publish it; and if he wanted to publish it, I thought nobody would read it; and if they read it, [I thought] nobody would understand it,” she told Christianity Today in 2007. “I was shocked to realize that teachers were reading it out loud in schools. It just seemed like a very, very private, personal story.”

... And her son found it hard to read.

“David still, now with two little boys of his own, finds Bridge a very difficult book to read,” Paterson writes in her website FAQ. “It’s too close to the bone. Any therapeutic value the book had was for me, facing not only Lisa’s death but my own mortality call. I had cancer that year and was hearing the bell toll.”

Bridge to Terabithia is a highly controversial book.

The climax to Bridge to Terabithia—in which Leslie falls to her death while swinging from a tree to cross the creek bed and enter Terabithia—is something Paterson once called “emotional practice” for grief in life. But it’s also unsparing enough to have invited criticism over the years. The book often lands on the American Library Association’s list of banned library books and was fixed in ninth place of the list’s top 100 between 1990 and 2000.

There won’t be a sequel.

Readers often ask Paterson if she’ll revisit Terabithia, specifically to tell more of Jesse’s story. Paterson answered frankly on her website: “No. I feel strongly that Jesse has earned his privacy.”

Bridge to Terabithia has been adapted twice.

While you might be most familiar with the 2007 film starring Josh Hutcherson (2012’s The Hunger Games) and AnnaSophia Robb (2011’s Soul Surfer), there was actually a made-for-television version of Bridge to Terabithia produced in 1985 for PBS. Julian Coutts and Julie Beaulieu co-starred; Annette O’Toole played teacher Ms. Edmunds.

Paterson is a certified Living Legend.

Paterson’s accolades for her body of work have been considerable. She’s won two Newbery Medals and one Newbery Honor Award, two National Book Awards, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2000. That award, which recognizes creative contributions to American life, also acknowledged Judy Blume, Maurice Sendak, and Steven Spielberg, among others.

Read More Articles About Children’s Books:


A version of this story ran in 2021; it has been updated for 2024.