'Terabithia' Inspired by True Events The children's classic, The Bridge to Terabithia, is now a Disney film. Author Katherine Paterson and her son, screenwriter David Paterson, discuss the real-life events that the popular book is based on.

'Terabithia' Inspired by True Events

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The children's classic "The Bridge to Terabithia" debuted on the big screen this weekend. It's the story of Jesse Aarons, a fifth-grade boy who befriends the new girl in his rural Virginia County. They imagine a world where they could conquer their fears.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Bridge to Terabithia")

Ms. ANNA SOPHIA ROBB (Actress): (As Leslie Burke) We need a place, just for us.

Mr. JOSH HUTCHERSON (Actor): (As Jesse Aarons) Huh?

Ms. ROBB: (As Leslie Burke) You know, where there's no Janis Averies or Scott Hogarths.

Mr. HUTCHERSON: (As Jesse Aarons) When we go back to school, there they are, waiting.

Ms. ROBB: (As Leslie Burke) Yeah, but what if there is a magical kingdom that only we know about?

ELLIOTT: But after months of adventure, the story takes a tragic turn. "The Bridge to Terabithia" won the Newbery Medal in 1978 for its author, Katherine Paterson. Paterson's son David has written the screenplay for the new film. Katherine and David Paterson join us. Welcome.

Mr. DAVID PATERSON (Screenwriter, Producer): Thank you very much.

Ms. KATHERINE PATERSON (Author, "The Bridge to Terabithia"): Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Katherine Paterson, will you take us back to when you were writing "The Bridge to Terabithia" and why you wanted to write this book?

Ms. PATERSON: It grew out of a friendship which my son David had with a little girl named Lisa Hill. And they were wonderful friends for the second grade. And the summer after they both turned eight years old, Lisa was struck and killed by lightning. And it was out of those horrendous events that I began to try to make sense out of something that made no sense to me whatsoever.

And I know a story has to make sense. It has a beginning and a middle and an end, and when we get to the end, you've made the journey from chaos to order. You've come to some emotional understanding, even if you haven't come to any intellectual understanding.

ELLIOTT: This terrible thing had happened to your son, but you were also going through a trying time.

Ms. PATERSON: Well, I had had surgery for cancer in the spring so the children thought I was going to die and then when Lisa did die, it was a very, very traumatic experience for all of us, and especially for David, because she was his very best friend in the world.

ELLIOTT: David, what did you think about the book when it first came out? You had just suffered this lost of your childhood friend and then your mother is writing a book that also deals with the tragic death of a, you know, a young boy's friend. What did you think?

Mr. PATERSON: When the book first came out, I was a little ashamed because here's this notoriety from something that was very personal and painful. It's like someone saying you have a really cool scar. Maybe the scar does look cool, but they have absolutely no idea how you got it.

ELLIOTT: Did the two of you talked about it while Mrs. Paterson was writing the book?

Ms. PATERSON: Well, after I've written the first draft, I read it to him because I wanted him to be able to say that he did not want it published, because even if he wasn't Jesse Aarons, I knew all his friends would think he was. But the only thing he said at that point was that he wanted it to be dedicated to Lisa as well as to him. So I changed the dedication to reflect that.

Mr. PATERSON: "The Bridge to Terabithia" is a book of fiction. People always want to say that I am Jesse Aarons, but in all honesty, Jesse Aarons is my mother. It - her characters are her fears, her doubts, her hopes. And so when people say, you know, how close is the book to true life? Well, you can put as many comparisons as you want, but in the end it's a book my mother wrote.

ELLIOTT: So when did you decide that this was something you wanted to do in writing a screenplay and bringing this story to the big screen?

Mr. PATERSON: I have been trying to make this film for some 17 years, because of a lot of no's. And it wasn't no's from the other side. It was no's from me.

ELLIOTT: What did they want to do? What did they - how did they want it change it? Did they want to soften the ending?

Mr. PATERSON: Oh, I could tell you all the different approaches and thoughts that studios over the years had to fix the book and make it a marketable movie. And to be honest, it was never a priority for me to make a movie of "Bridge to Terabithia." If I was going to make it, it was going to be "The Bridge to Terabithia," the film.

ELLIOTT: Did you learn anything new about your mother during this process of writing the screenplay? Or even something new about the characters Jesse Aarons and Leslie Burke?

Mr. PATERSON: You know, I learn something from my mother on almost every visit I have with her. There's one more story that I hadn't heard.

Ms. PATERSON: Well, he's -

Mr. PATERSON: Go ahead, mom.

Ms. PATERSON: Oh, I don't want to stop you if you're going to say something nice about me. But I was just going to say, he's adapted several of my books for the stage. So we've done this kind of work together before and that's why I totally can trust him.

Mr. PATERSON: And I know I can never improve on the story and that was never my objective.

ELLIOTT: You know, what's interesting about this book is that it repeatedly shows up on the most challenged with, meaning that there are a lot of school systems that -

Ms. PATERSON: I was afraid you'd bring that up.

ELLIOTT: Yeah. There are school systems who don't want this used in the classroom because of -

Ms. PATERSON: Right.

ELLIOTT: - its themes and language. You know, there are a few -

Ms. PATERSON: Right.

ELLIOTT: - cursed words in it. And as we've noted, it deals straight ahead with death and some other difficult themes like child abuse. How do you know just what your readers can and can't handle?

Ms. PATERSON: Well, I don't know. And when I wrote the book, I wasn't even sure my editor would want to publish it. And when it was published, I wasn't sure anyone was going to read it, and when people began to read it, I wasn't sure anybody was going to understand it, if it wasn't named Paterson. So it's been absolutely miraculous to me over the years, that people have not only read the book but they have loved it.

ELLIOTT: And I would think this would also be a first encounter with grief for many young people who read this book.

Ms. PATERSON: I would hope so. I've often felt that books that you read in childhood are wonderful rehearsals for things that you will need to meet in life later on. So I hope that children read it before they need it and not afterwards.

ELLIOTT: Katherine Paterson, you were born in China to missionary parents and you grew up with a very, you know, traditional Christian education and background. And it's often times Christian groups that attack your book as not fit for children. Does that put you in an awkward position?

Ms. PATERSON: Yes. It makes me very sad too, because my job as a writer is to tell the truth. And so often what people want me to do is to be nice. And I don't think God is honored by lies. So when I'm writing a story, I have to be true to the characters of the story and I have to let them be who they are, speak as they would speak. And of course because I am a Christian and I do care, I believe so strongly in grace, and I'm a person of great hope, and I think this book, despite its heavy -

Mr. PATERSON: Content.

Ms. PATERSON: - content, is a book of grace and hope.

ELLIOTT: I've read that you feel closest to God when you were writing. Why is that?

Ms. PATERSON: I'm totally outside myself when I'm working. And it's a wonderful, mystical kind of thing. You're not concentrating on what you look like or what you're thinking or what you're going to cook for supper or anything like that. You're living a life outside your self and in a sense of life for others. First, the others are in the story you are creating, but then those others will be your readers.

ELLIOTT: You know, the characters in "Terabithia" and some of your other novels confront danger and I'm wondering as a child, during World War II in China, did you witness some scary things that helped create this?

Ms. PATERSON: Yeah. I had sort of a scary life. Well, until I was almost five, I have an idyllic life. We lived in a huge Chinese city and we lived in a Chinese house, behind the gate. And everybody else behind the gate was Chinese. And so I was loved in two languages and really cared for. And then when the summer, just before I turned five, the Japanese began to bomb and the war began in earnest then, from that time on life was pretty scary.

I mean I was in the yard when the Japanese soldiers who had occupied the city were practicing maneuvers on the beach and came running through the yard where I was standing with my little sister. And I had to grab her hand and try to get to the house before the bayonet-bearing soldiers got there.


Ms. PATERSON: So, yes, I had some very frightening events in my childhood.

ELLIOTT: But you don't shy away from danger or scary notions in you book.

Ms. PATERSON: Well, one thing I learned in my childhood is that children feel very deeply and that you have to respect those feelings when you write for them and not gloss over them or pretend that they're not there. And I think that's one reason I'm criticized by adults and loved by children, because they recognized that I recognize how they really are and how they really feel.

Mr. PATERSON: What I found fascinating over the years is despite my mother's success in children's literature, people would ask her when are you going to write a real book, and a book for adults.

Ms. PATERSON: What some people don't realize is that I have the best readers in the world, because you got a good fifth or sixth grader who loves reading and they will read your book very intensively, and very carefully. And they'll re-read it. I have kids telling they've read my book 17 times. I don't know a lot of adult writers who have that kind of readers.

ELLIOTT: Katherine Paterson is the author of "The Bridge to Terabithia," "Jacob Have I Loved," and several other children's classics. Her son David Paterson is the writer and producer of the film, "The Bridge to Terabithia."

Thank you both for being with us today.

Mr. PATERSON: It was a pleasure.

Ms. PATERSON: Oh, thank you, Debbie. It was such a pleasure.

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