As summer comes to an end, 10-year-old Jesse Oliver Aarons, Jr.—or Jess, as he likes to be called—spends every morning running through the fields behind his house in the rural town of Lark Creek, Virginia, determined to win the title of fastest runner in the fifth grade when school resumes. Running is an escape for Jess—there’s a lot for him to contend with at home. His frazzled mother, Mrs. Aarons, nags him constantly about his chores, while his distant, unaffectionate, and overworked father, Mr. Aarons, who commutes daily to a job in Washington, D.C., seems to dislike the person Jess is growing into. Jess also has four sisters—Joyce Ann, May Belle, Ellie, and Brenda—who annoy and antagonize him in various ways. When a new family moves into the shabby old farmhouse across the street, Jess’s sister May Belle hopes there will be a girl her age she can play with, but Jess soon realizes that the family’s child is a girl his own age. Her name is Leslie Burke, and she is a shabby, nosy tomboy. Jess despairs when he realizes Leslie is in his class on the first day of school—and becomes even more annoyed with her when she demands to race alongside the boys at recess (and wins). Even as Leslie’s disregard for social norms is off-putting to Jess, he finds that there is something beautiful in the way Leslie runs, free as a wild bird.
Jess finds himself hating fifth grade—the only bright spot in his week is music class with Miss Edmunds, a beautiful hippie who encourages Jess’s secret talent: drawing. Jess believes that he and Miss Edmunds are “in love.” During music class, as Leslie and Jess sing together, Jess finds himself softening toward the eccentric girl. That afternoon they sit together on the bus, and Leslie explains that her parents—wealthy writers and intellectuals whom she calls by their first names, Bill and Judy—have moved to the countryside to escape the pressures of city life in Washington, D.C. Leslie is hopeful that life in the country will be full of adventure. As the days go by, Leslie continues to draw the ridicule and ire of her classmates due to her bumbling social graces; she dresses in undershirts and cutoffs, states plainly that her family doesn’t have a television, and talks about strange hobbies like scuba diving. Jess and Leslie also have to contend with the school bully, Janice Avery, a large seventh-grade girl who terrorizes anyone in her path. As an escape from it all, Jess and Leslie sneak off to the woods one afternoon to do some exploring. Leslie says she wants to create a “whole secret country” of which she and Jess are the rulers. After swinging across the creek behind Leslie’s house on a rope swing and reaching the woods on the other side, Leslie and Jess name the place they’ve found Terabithia. Over the next several weeks, they build a castle out of scrap metal and furnish the place with provisions. Jess and Leslie spend all their time at school together—and every afternoon playing in Terabithia and the “sacred” pine groves beyond.
As the months go by, Terabithia becomes more and more of a refuge from the pressures of school and daily life. Jess and Leslie retreat to Terabithia when they need to strategize—such as when they must come up with a plan to get Janice Avery back for tormenting May Belle—and when they need to escape the cloying constraints of their families. For Christmas, Jess and Leslie have a small celebration of their own in Terabithia—Leslie gives Jess a set of paints, and Jess gives Leslie a puppy, whom they name Prince Terrien and appoint the “guardian” of Terabithia. As Jess finds himself less and less happy at home, where something is always being demanded of him (even as his sisters receive preferential treatment from their parents), he begins spending more time at the Burkes’, where Leslie and Bill are fixing up the house and painting the living room gold. Jess learns to feel more at ease around the smart, artistic Burkes, and is proud that he’s able to make himself useful and work hard. One afternoon, after the golden living room is complete, Leslie and Jess return to Terabithia for the first time in weeks. Later, as Jess falls asleep in his bed, his sister May Belle whispers to him that she’s followed him and Leslie to their secret hideout—she knows where they’ve been spending their afternoons. Jess warns May Belle not to tell anyone about Terabithia.
As Easter approaches, nonstop rain falls over Lark Creek. Mr. Aarons is laid off from his job, creating even more tension and desperation in Jess’s family. Jess asks his mother if Leslie can come to church with them for Easter—she’s curious about church, never having been—and Mrs. Aarons agrees to bring her along. Leslie is fascinated by the service but admits afterward that she doesn’t believe anything that was said. May Belle warns Leslie that if she doesn’t believe the Bible, she’ll be damned to hell when she dies. Leslie and Jess laugh off young May Belle’s worries. The rain continues, and each time Jess and Leslie go to Terabithia, they find that the water in the normally dry creek bed is rising higher and higher. One afternoon, it is so high and rushing so swiftly that Jess is afraid to cross it. He begins dreading visits to Terabithia—a fact he feels deeply guilty about, and which makes him worry that he’s unfit to be its king. Leslie has no qualms about crossing over to Terabithia in the rain, so Jess is afraid to tell her about his own nervousness.
One stormy morning during Easter break, the phone rings at the Aaronses’ house—Miss Edmunds is on the other end. She asks Jess if he would like to come with her to D.C. for the day to visit an art museum. Jess excitedly accepts her invitation—but does not invite Leslie along, craving some alone time with the beautiful Miss Edmunds. The day is a magical one, and Jess, who has never been to an art museum before, takes in all the magnificent paintings with a somber joy. Jess returns home happier than he’s been in a long time, excited to tell Leslie all about his adventure. When he walks in the door of his house, though, he finds his family sitting in silence around the kitchen table. They inform him that Leslie is dead—she fell, hit her head, and drowned while swinging across the creek and into Terabithia. The devastated Jess leaves the house, running down the town’s back roads until his muscles scream. Mr. Aarons drives after Jess in his pickup truck, and, eventually, Jesse lets his father catch up with him, scoop him up in his arms, and bring him home.
Jess sleeps for hours—when he wakes, he believes that hearing about Leslie’s death was simply a bad dream. He goes back to sleep looking forward to playing with Leslie the next day. In the morning, however, Jess’s father reminds him solemnly that Leslie’s death is real and that Jess needs to find a way to cope with the loss. Jess accompanies his parents across the street to the Burkes’ house to pay their respects to Bill and Judy. Jess is off-put by how emotional and expressive Leslie’s adult family members are and experiences anger, fright, and denial as he watches them cry over his best friend, whom he believes “belonged to him.” Jess flees the gathering, runs home, and collects the paints Leslie gave him for Christmas. He runs to the creek and throws the paints in. Again, Jess soon realizes that his father has followed him. He allows his father to hold him as he shakes and cries. The next morning, Jess wakes up early to do his chores, which he’s fallen behind on since Leslie’s death. He goes out to the creek to try to retrieve some of his paints, but finds they’ve all washed away. Noticing that a large log has washed up on the bank, he uses it to construct a makeshift bridge over the creek, whose waters are calm but still high. In Terabithia, Jess constructs a funeral wreath for Leslie, his “queen”—but soon hears May Belle’s anguished cries somewhere nearby. Jess runs to the creek to find that May Belle is stuck on the log, terrified of moving forward or going backward. Jess coaches her back to the other side.
Jess continues to mourn Leslie. Returning to school is difficult—all of his classmates whisper about him and refuse to meet his eye, knowing he’s been touched by tragedy. Jess’s imposing homeroom teacher Mrs. Myers, whom he and Leslie used to make fun of ruthlessly behind her back, pulls Jess aside to tell him it’s okay to grieve, and to admit that she is still mourning the loss of her husband. Jess feels guilty about making fun of Mrs. Myers, and, as thoughts of Leslie and her goodness eat at him throughout the day, resolves to destroy Terabithia. He believes that without Leslie, he can’t make its magic happen. While helping the Burkes load their possessions into a U-Haul—they are preparing to leave Lark Creek, having moved here for Leslie’s sake—Jess gets an idea. He asks if he can use some of the lumber from the woodpile behind their house, and they tell him he’s welcome to it before offering Jess a teary goodbye. Bill admits that though he’d wanted to leave Prince Terrien with Jess, he can’t—he wants to keep the dog himself as a reminder of his daughter. The next day, Jess begins hauling pieces of lumber to the creek to build a real, functioning bridge to Terabithia. As Jess is finishing the bridge, May Belle appears at the creek and asks him what he’s doing. Jess places flowers in May Belle’s hair and instructs her to walk across it—as she does, Jess points out all the Terabithians who have gathered to mark the arrival of “the queen they’ve been waiting for.”