Happy Banned Books Week! I’ve always been a huge fan of celebrating banned books, partly to stick it to the ridiculous censorship-loving administration, but mostly because I find that the books that people don’t want you to read can often offer you the most. This book is definitely a part of that list. I absolutely LOVE it. My first experience came from the movie, but I was immediately enthralled. For the last ten years I have adored the movie and the book. It is actually one of the inspirations behind my own decision to move forward with my desire to be an author.
One of the greatest things about this novel, for me, is the fact that it points to the total liberation of mankind via the imagination. Being written in the 70’s, it was kind of published in that time when kids were first being encouraged to let their imaginations guide them through portions of their lives, and this book captures the cusp of that idea. Jess’s family and fellow students represent those who feel imagination is not something to be given in to. Jess’s parents, consistently burdened with the challenge of feeding the children and running the farm in the fragile economy they live in, can be seen as the old style of shunning imagination and things that aren’t ‘real,’ where others – Leslie in particular – represent the new and liberating views of allowing imagination its place in life.
Leslie’s introduction into Jess’s life really allows him to open up and be who he is meant to be. She doesn’t act or think like the rest of the kids, or even the adults (with the exception of Ms. Edmunds) that he is used to, and that makes him feel more free than he ever imagined. When Jess and Leslie create Terabithia I truly resonated with his description of the mythical magic of the place. He allows Leslie to bring him into this magical realm, but he still has his doubts. Many times he says that he can’t do it without Leslie, or can’t think of it the same as her. His love for Leslie and Ms. Edmunds is what allows him to embrace the creative side of his own life. After Leslie’s death Jess is obviously devastated, particularly considering the fact that his day had been spent further embracing his own love of art and imagination.
I love the way Paterson brings Jess to reality while allowing him to avoid everything involving Leslie’s death. He adamantly denies that she is gone, so much so that after he runs away and is brought home he wakes up almost completely convinced that it was all a guilt-ridden nightmare because he didn’t invite her to the museum. When he is forced to confront the fact of her death he reacts in much the way a child would, destroying memories of her in anger. Once he calms down he begins to instantly doubt himself again. The inspiration and freedom that Leslie brought him threatens to leave. When considering Terabithia he is terrified that he won’t be able to make the magic happen without Leslie, even worries that the make-believe kingdom won’t be there if he goes without her.
The fact that he is able to make the magic happen is, to me, a testament to the amazing power of love and imagination and creativity. Jess is able to keep the magic he and Leslie created, is even able to be in touch with her memory as he reflects on his friendship with her. I love that. I feel like it is a huge representation of the strength we all possess, even in the midst of a tragedy that threatens everything we hold dear.
Another thing I loved about this book is the way Paterson makes Leslie and Ms. Edmunds strong female figures who refuse to fall into the social norms. The feminist themes that offer these two strong female characters a whole other kind of freedom were both embraced and feared when this book was published (and still are today). I find it very important that there is so much emphasis on Leslie and Ms. Edmunds breaking the norms and being their own women, without holding to social construct or listening to “girls can’t do that.” It is a huge testament to the nature of the piece and its deep running themes of freedom and exceptional behavior.
Of course, this is one of the things that has lead to the book being challenged. The language and the obviously difficult ending are two others. The fact that Paterson wrote such a strong and impactful book 40 years ago, that still stands the test of time today, says a lot about the topics and her own prowess as a writer. Putting my own hatred of literary censorship aside, I find these reasons to be abhorrent for shunning such an awesome work of literature. When children can pick up a book and see that their creativity and imagination should be embraced, find out that it is OK to be different, even see someone their own age faced with and learning how to handle death, that book is a treasure. To push it out of libraries, schools and off of reading lists is a real travesty and I shudder to think there are parents out there who think otherwise.
But I’ll get off my soapbox. I don’t have many faults with this book. I would like a little more explanation of why Jess’s father doesn’t show affection to him the way he does the girls. Granted, this was 40 years ago and many people, particularly in rural America, were still under the impression that showing too much love to boys made them ‘soft,’ I think that knowledge is lost on a lot of youth and they may come away with the impression that the father is just a jerk. Which is harmful to an overall interpretation of the text, I think.
Overall, this book will always have a huge place in my heart. Aside from being a piece of YA literature that truly has the means to empower kids, it is an easy-to-read work that is educational about real-life issues. I love it. I hope you all enjoyed it as well. But what are your thoughts? Do you agree with its challenged/banned status? Tell me your thoughts! And be sure to give me your ideas for the best horror novel we can cover in October!!