Warning: It is impossible to really comment on this book without major spoilers.
I remembered this book being a lot more powerful than it is. When I read as a child that Leslie drowns, I was floored--a book I had thought was one way turned out to be very much different. This is a difficult trick to pull off because the very nature of popular media is to reveal secrets before you read the book or watch the movie--how many of had some jerk tell you the ending of The Sixth Sense before you saw it? Even trickier, I think, is when the game-changer occurs in the middle of the work, like Coetzee's Disgrace or the film In the Bedroom.
I grew up respecting Bridge to Terabithia because I thought it reflected accurately what the death of a young friend is like--it is sudden, unexpected, and changes the way you experience things from then on and the things that you experienced before. And so I was prepared to sing the praises of this book even though the writing was stilted, the characters severely underwritten, and the key scenes of the book--where Jesse and Leslie pretend to be the King and Queen of Terabithia--to be lacking in focus and imagination. But I think this is the first time that I changed my mind about a book because of one sentence--Jesse is shocked that Leslie does not really believe in God and says, "But Leslie, what if you die?"
Blergh! I hope that when I teach my students about foreshadowing they understand it better than I did, because when I read it for the first time I must have elided right over that big freaking Nostradamus right there. The uppercut I respected really turned out to be a pulled punch; Paterson makes sure that to a careful reader Leslie's death is anything but a surprise and therefore loses all the power of its unexpectedness.
To compound matters, the patness of the ending--in which Jesse finds consolation by making his little sister Queen of Terabithia--seems, as in Tuck Everlasting, to dismiss the longevity of grief and humanity's long-standing fear of death. Is this desirable in a children's book? I don't know; you might argue that readers of this age have too much to worry about without being made to understand the severity and profundity of death. On the other hand, do these books really provide a map for recovery when a child faces the death of a loved one? Or might they be fundamentally dishonest, and cause a child to wonder what's wrong with him or her, for whom it is such a struggle?
Without the perspective of a child to rely on, I find these difficult questions to answer. Can you think of a book for kids that approaches death more honestly?