Last week I promised that I’d post the critical essay that I used to apply (and get accepted) to graduate school for Writing for Children and Young Adults. The entire essay is below. As you will see, it’s not a spectacular piece of essay writing.
Artwork as Foreshadowing in Bridge to Terabithia
Even though Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia was published in 1977, ten years before I was born, it was one of the books that I could relate to most easily when I was a child. Like the characters in the book, I lived in a small farming and ranching community on the outskirts of a large city that my father worked in every day, but I had never visited. Like the characters in the book, my friends and I spent a lot of time sitting in overcrowded classrooms and running around in cow fields. We also loved to play in the forest of giant cottonwoods down by the creek. Katherine Paterson got the details of rural life—right down to the underfunded schools, the overworked parents, and the community’s reluctance to embrace change—so correct that I was immediately drawn into the story. As a child, I had never read about characters who were so similar to me. Bridge to Terabithia remains one of my favorite books to this day.
Bridge to Terabithia is about two ten-year-old friends, Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke, who create Terabithia, an imaginary kingdom in the woods that they rule as king and queen. The only way to enter Terabithia is to swing across the creek using an old rope hanging from the branch of a crabapple tree. At the end of the book, while Jesse is on his first-ever trip to Washington D.C., Leslie tries to swing into Terabithia alone. The rope breaks, she falls, hits her head on a rock, and drowns in the creek. As a child who had not read many novels, Leslie’s death completely blindsided me. As an adult with much more reading experience, I am impressed with the massive amount of subtle foreshadowing that the book contains. One of the most interesting ways that Leslie’s death is foreshadowed is by references to two pieces of artwork.
The first piece of artwork is described right before Jesse meets his new neighbor, Leslie. One of Jesse’s hobbies is drawing funny pictures of animals in strange predicaments. Minutes before he meets Leslie, he draws this:
“This one was a hippopotamus just leaving the edge of a cliff, turning over and over—you could tell by the curving lines—in the air toward the sea below where surprised fish were leaping goggle-eyed out of the water. There was a balloon over the hippopotamus—where his head should have been but his bottom actually was—‘Oh!’ it was saying. ‘I seem to have forgot my glasses’” (Paterson 10).
The image of the drawing is still in the mind of the reader when Jesse meets Leslie. It stays in the back of the reader’s mind all through the book because Leslie is one of the few people who support Jesse’s love of drawing. Jesse’s hippopotamus drawing is evoked again at the end of the book when he is visiting the art museum in Washington D.C. without Leslie:
“There they came upon a display case holding a miniature scene of Indians disguised in buffalo skins scaring a herd of buffalo into stampeding over a cliff to their death with more Indians waiting below to butcher and skin them. It was a three-dimensional nightmare version of some of his own drawings. He felt a frightening sense of kinship with it . . . . To himself he said, I don’t think I like it, but he could hardly pull himself away” (Paterson 100).
This passage about the buffalo hunt artwork increases the tension in the story and darkens the mood. Jesse is having fun before this passage. When he sees the buffalo hunt, he becomes uneasy, which makes the reader uneasy. Leslie dies while Jesse is visiting the art museum, but neither Jesse nor the reader learn about her death until he gets home. Several times during his trip to the museum, he wishes that he had invited Leslie to come with him because she loves art as much as he does. He cannot wait to get home and tell her about everything he saw. The increased tension caused by this passage very subtly lets the reader know that something bad is about to happen, and it will probably involve falling and death.
Jesse’s reaction to the buffalo hunt artwork is similar to his reaction to Leslie the first time he meets her. He feels a sense of kinship with her because her individuality makes her an outsider in the community. Jesse’s love of drawing makes him an outsider in his no-nonsense family. This kinship keeps pulling Jesse to Leslie despite the fact that he originally does not like her because she is the fastest runner in the fifth grade—a title that Jesse trained all summer to earn. Like Leslie herself, Jesse’s drawing of the hippo is imaginative and light-hearted. Like Leslie’s death, the buffalo hunt was a real event. After seeing the buffalo hunt, the reader knows that Jesse and Leslie are not in their imaginary Terabithia anymore. They are in the real world, and scary things are not as easily dealt with in the real world as they are in Terabithia. Because Jesse is drawn to artwork that involves falling, it is as if he feels such a strong kinship to Leslie that he is able to subconsciously predict that this imaginative girl will fall to her death.
It is not a coincidence that Jesse draws a hippo—a water creature—falling into the sea. Leslie’s death is also foreshadowed with dozens of references to falling, water, death, bad luck, the breakup of relationships and kingdoms, religion and spirituality, fear and fearlessness, and Jesse’s sense that his entire life “was delicate as a dandelion” (Paterson 77). I was most impressed by Katherine Paterson using artwork to foreshadow Leslie’s death because it fits with the book’s message about the importance of imagination. Before Jesse met Leslie, he had been “a nothing—a stupid, weird little kid who drew funny pictures and chased around a cow field trying to act big” (Paterson 126). Leslie had “tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world . . . . It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned to him in vision and strength” (Paterson 126). Jesse learns that his imagination and silly drawings are valuable, even if his family and classmates do not see the value in them. Leslie taught him that he can use his creativity to make the world a better place. Using artwork to foreshadow Leslie’s death is perfect because imagination is such an important part of the characters’ lives and the message of the story.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. First Harper Trophy Edition. New York, New York:
HarperCollins Children's Books, 1977. Print.