Bridge to Terabithia centers around fifth grader Jesse (Jess) Aarons, an artistic but poor boy living on this family’s farm with his parents and four sisters. The book opens with Jess training to become his classroom’s fastest runner. However, Leslie Burke, a new girl who earns the approval of teachers, ends up winning the race. Jess’s initial dislike of Leslie for this reason soon disappears, though, as Leslie’s intelligence and individuality bring out his fondness for her, and the two become fast friends.
Jess and Leslie swing over a creek on a rope and decide to call the land beyond Terabithia. The two of them become Terabithia’s king and queen, build themselves a castle, and use their new land as a refuge from life at school. Leslie, more well read than Jess, teaches him the appropriate words and behaviors of a king, and lends him a set of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books to read. When Jess brings Leslie a puppy for Christmas, the two name him Prince Terrien and make him guardian of Terabithia.
One day, as May Belle (Jess’s younger sister) is riding the bus, she makes the mistake of loudly announcing that she has Twinkies. As expected. seventh grader Janice Avery, the overweight school bully, steals them from her. May Belle demands that Jess exact revenge by beating Janice up, but Leslie explains that a smarter route must be taken to avoid punishment. In Terabithia, Leslie dictates a “love letter from Willard Hughes,” who all the seventh grade girls have a crush on, and Jess writes it and plants it in Janice’s desk. Janice falls for the letter, which states that Willard wants to walk her home, and she ends up having to walk home alone, much to her embarrassment. May Belle ends up delighted with this form of revenge.
Later, when Janice is found crying in the girls’ bathroom, Leslie goes to comfort her, finds out that Janice’s father abuses her and that Janice’s friends-turned-betrayers told the entire school about it, and befriends Janice.
Leslie’s family is wealthy and they begin remodeling their home, and Jess feels abandoned and jealous until Leslie suggests that he help with the remodeling. Jess is introduced to a new world through his experiences with the Burkes, as both of the parents are well educated writers and very modern minded (ie they ask Jess to call them Bill and Judy) Jess’s main contribution to the project is his practical knowledge. When Jess and Leslie return to Terabithia after their absence, they fight off invading evil spirits and go to a pine grove to give their thanks.
Leslie is not religious, and when she attends church with Jess’s family for Easter. May Belle, Jess’s younger sister, is shocked by Leslie’s lack of faith in the Bible and repeatedly asks Leslie, “What if you die?” This foreshadows Leslie’s eventual death.
Jess is elated when his favorite teacher, music teacher Miss Edmunds, invites him to take a trip to Washington DC and visit the Smithsonian with her. He enjoys his day out, only feeling a pang of guilt when he realizes that he could’ve asked if Leslie could accompany them. When he gets back home, his family meets him petrified with fear and Brenda, his shallow older sister, informs him that Leslie has died. Jess cannot believe or process this information at first, but he slowly accepts it. The Burkes return to their former home, and take Prince Terrien with them.
Bridge to Terabithia closes with May Belle attempting to reach Terabithia using a fallen tree as a bridge and Jess helping her cross, making her the new queen of Terabithia.