Coping With Loss in Literature for Young Term Paper

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Coping With Loss in Literature for Young Adults: Bridge to Terabithia

The use of 'realism' and 'realistic' characters in a young adult text about death

Dealing with the death of a friend while one is still a child can be one of the most difficult things for a student to cope with in his or her young life. The medium of young adult literature, however, though such realistic though fictive examples as Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia (1978) provides an outlet for students to explore this thorny issue, hopefully before it happens in their own existences. The text is especially effective because the death of Jess Aarons' best friend Leslie Burke does not only revolve around the girl's death. The girl, although a strikingly intelligent and unusual child, does not strike the reader as 'star crossed' from birth, destined for an early, mythical demise. Rather, Leslie seems both ordinary yet destined for a promising and imaginative future.

Thus, by creating a realistic fictional world about two prepubescent children weaving a fantasy community of their own called Terabithia (the creation of fantasy worlds being, in and of itself, a very common occurrence and practice in children's imaginative lives) the reader feels for the main characters, and the author creates realistic characters that the young reader can identify with, fallible human beings as well as simply people who confront death too soon.

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Term Paper on Coping With Loss in Literature for Young Assignment

In some ways, the two characters meet more as future adversaries than friends. Jess Aarons is aspiring to be the fastest runner at Lark Creek Elementary School but the 'new girl' Leslie Burke (a girl with an androgynous name) beats him at the one thing that gives him confidence in his social world. But Leslie and Jess become friends because they are both 'outsiders,' Jess because he is shy, and Leslie because she is new and the daughter of 'hippie' parents in a conservative community. Together, the two children create Terabithia, a secret kingdom in the woods where they reign as powerful rulers. This fantasy world, a world without human death, is a heightened view of the children's own self-conception as immortal, an immortality reflected in Leslie's decision to attempt to enter the kingdom during a rainstorm later in the book, when she accidentally falls.

However, the lesson of the book is not simplistically cautionary, that one must be careful about danger, for Leslie's death is fairly ordinary -- like pretending to be rulers, it is merely part of a childhood rite of passage and play, only in the case of Leslie's death, a bit of play gone horribly wrong. She does not die because she disobeys some omniscient adult will, but because she herself exercises poor judgment and experiences an accident. The book thus teaches that death is not a punishment, but is a sadness that occurs without blame by refusing to frame the girl's death as a morality tale, or as something that occurs with a great deal of narrative foreshadowing.

Thus, the children are encouraged to identify with the realistic characters, and to understand that when bad things happen in fiction and in life, it is not necessarily a way that the universe is apportioning out blame. "Children try to emulate characters they like and take in the lessons these characters learn in the books." (Lambarski, 2005, p.1) Even though Jess' initial theological framework from his conservative rural background may encourage him to apportionate out blame to himself and others, the book does not endorse this viewpoint. This marks a decided departure from traditional characterizations of young people in children's literature in the era before the book was written: "In the vast majority of pre-twentieth-century children's literature, child characters are used as models for young readers. They are virtuous beyond measure, good and kind, pious, obedient and humble. In many cases, as we read these texts today, the characters seem either ridiculous or hopelessly sentimental," in contrast to the male and female protagonists of Paterson's text. (Nikolajeva, 2001, p.2)

Statement of Importance: How it enhances the text

Leslie's fearlessness is seen as admirable in the book. She is not merely physically fearless, as is evidenced in her running prowess, and the remote location of Terabithia, which must be crossed by a precarious footbridge of a branch. She is unafraid to admit to her family's eccentrics, such as not possessing a television. Because of Leslie's fearlessness, Jess learns from the girl, and forges ahead in his own exploration of art, something he would not have done, in defiance of family and societal convention, had he never met Leslie. Leslie provides a teaching tool for Jess and for the entire community. "By this definition, all characters in children's fiction...naturally lack experience and knowledge and are therefore inferior to adults. But even a brief glance at a number of classical and contemporary children's novels demonstrates that this is not the case. Characters in children's novels are empowered in a variety of ways," even compared to adults, in their world, when they are shown dealing with realistic crisises in an engaging and evolved way. (Nikolajeva, 2001, p. 1)

At first, it seems as if their environment rewards the two children's talent for creativity. "Lord, what he wouldn't give for a new pad of real art paper and a set of those marking pens-color pouring out onto the page as fast as you could think it," thinks Jess at the beginning of the book. (Paterson, 1978, p.15) Later, he is given a "Prince Terrien box of watercolors with twenty-four tubes of color and three brushes and a pad of heavy art paper. 'Lord,' he said. 'Thank you.' He tried to think of a better way to say it, but he couldn't. (Paterson, 1978, p.62) but this easy reward and punishment dynamic for Jess' creativity is not obeyed consistently throughout the narrative -- Jess goes to the museum with his teacher for the first time, Leslie dies, but although the two events at first seem related in his mind, the event is not a punishment, he comes to understand.

Explanation of literary element and author's use

The book replicates in a realistic fashion a child's way of morally assigning meaning to the external world in a black and white way of reward and punishment, and then deflates it. "It has taken children's fiction a long time to venture into the ironic mode and depict characters that in addition to being inferior to their parents and other adults, are weaker, physically and spiritually, than their peers. Unlike fairy-tale heroes, these characters are not empowered at the end of the story." (Nikolajeva, 2001, p.3) Jess does become empowered, but not in a way that can 'save' Leslie, even though the girl does not 'deserve' to die.

At first, Terabithia provides a safe place where the children can be themselves, where none of the real enemies of their real lives in school and outside of school such as their teacher Monster Mouth Meyers, their schoolmates Gary Fulcher and Janice Avery, Jess's four sisters, can impinge upon their self-esteem. The kingdom provides an important bridge between that adolescent bridge time of development between childhood and adolescence, a bridge symbolized by the bridge between the real world and the kingdom, the bridge into the next stage of life that is arbitrarily broken for Leslie but not for Jess.

Appropriate examples

Ultimately, the children's everyday problems do not stop at the castle walls of Terabithia, and real life soon invades the imaginary kingdom even before Leslie's death. Leslie is mocked because her family does not have a television set at home. She becomes jealous of Jess' increasingly close relationship with his music teacher Miss Edmunds. She feels abandoned, as she did before when Leslie's family relocated against her wishes to Appalachia. At first, she missed her old, more urban environment and its greater cultural opportunities, before she met Jess. Now, these are opportunities that Jess accesses in a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with one of his teachers.

But again, these visits of 'real life' into the children's relationship and kingdom occur without a clear moral dynamic of right and wrong -- it is not wrong that Leslie feels jealous of Miss Edmunds and misses her old home, nor did her move to Virginia occur as a punishment Leslie's father and mother experience guilt at the move, after their daughter's death, just as Jess in his childlike fashion, mourns: "Trying to profit for himself from Leslie's death. I wanted to be the best -- the fastest runner in the school -and now I am. Lord, he made himself sick." (Paterson, 1978, p.124) This realistic gut reaction is exposed, then dealt with in the book as both normal and inaccurate as a response to grief at a friend's death.

Analysis and Conclusion

The economic differences between the families and the final 'coming together' of both different families, after Leslie's death give further realistic depth to the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Coping With Loss in Literature for Young.  (2005, June 3).  Retrieved May 27, 2020, from

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"Coping With Loss in Literature for Young."  June 3, 2005.  Accessed May 27, 2020.