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The gifts of 'Terabithia'

SAN FRANCISCO - It's been more than 30 years since Lisa Hill, a spirited and beloved little girl by all accounts, was killed by lightning. During a remarkably ordinary moment - as she played at the beach - she suddenly was gone.

SAN FRANCISCO - It's been more than 30 years since Lisa Hill, a spirited and beloved little girl by all accounts, was killed by lightning. During a remarkably ordinary moment - as she played at the beach - she suddenly was gone.

And David Paterson lost his best friend.

His mother, a best-selling children's book author, wrote "Bridge to Terabithia" to help herself muddle through both the loss of her son's friend Lisa and her own almost simultaneous brush with cancer. Katherine Paterson's novel was published in 1977, three years after Lisa died, and won the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's literature.

Fast-forward to 2007: "Bridge to Terabithia" is now a Disney movie, produced by David Paterson, now 40 years old and a parent himself. He also wrote the screenplay with Jeff Stockwell.

"'Bridge to Terabithia' is loosely based on something that happened to me when I was 7," he says. "I had many similarities to the character Jess. I was a kind of awkward kid. I had no friends. I had just moved to a new school, so I knew no one, as did this girl Lisa Hill, who moved to town the same day. We became fast friends, and we were best friends for all of second grade. And then we were not."

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David Paterson was recently in San Francisco for a couple of days, staying at the Ritz-Carlton with his parents (his father, John, is a Presbyterian minister) and two of the movie's young stars. Josh Hutcherson, 14, plays Jess, and AnnaSophia Robb, 13, plays his best friend, Leslie.

In the movie as well as the book, Jess has four sisters, a mother overwhelmed with making ends meet, and a distant father (played by Robert Patrick). Jess is a quiet boy whose imagination spills out into his drawings. He has no friends until Leslie moves in down the road.

She absolutely sparkles. She is kind. She is fearless. She's the only kid who can beat him in the famed schoolyard sprints. She and Jess become inseparable and together create an imaginary magical kingdom called Terabithia deep in the nearby forest. They make a broken-down treehouse into their castle and battle evil forces that look an awfully lot like the bullies at school.

"People think my mother wrote 'Bridge to Terabithia' for me," David Paterson says, "but she wrote it for herself. She was trying to make sense of a senseless thing. It was a preposterous thing to happen. It was wrong and cruel, and she couldn't explain it to her son."

"That's how I make sense of things, is to write a story," Katherine Paterson says. "Life often doesn't make sense, but a story has to, because when you get to the end, you understand emotionally, if not intellectually, the journey that you've gone through. And so it was sort of cheaper than seeing a psychiatrist." She laughs.

What Katherine Paterson came to realize was that she had written a story about a friendship, about how Jess and Leslie transformed each other.

"And that's when Janice Avery entered the book," she says.

"From the dust of the playground at Calvin H. Wiley School in Winston-Salem, N.C., came this seventh-grade bully who had destroyed me when I was a scared little fourth-grader right off the boat from China. And I thought, 'Pansy, I'm gonna get my revenge. I'm gonna put you in this book.'"

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Janice Avery (played by Lauren Clinton) makes life hellish for younger students, charging $1 for bathroom entry and ruling the back seats on the school bus. Leslie, who also is one of Janice's victims, comes to understand why she picks on people.

Katherine Paterson, who was born in China to American missionaries, never knew why her schoolyard nemesis, Pansy, made her life miserable.

But as the writer, she had to know why Janice Avery was mean to the other kids. As she began to understand the fictional tormenter, she felt sorry for Janice Avery and even came to like her.

"It ruined my perfectly good revenge," Katherine Paterson says with a laugh.

She's written 10 novels for children, earning yet another Newbery Medal in 1981 for "Jacob Have I Loved." Several of her books, including "Bridge to Terabithia," have been adapted for television.

She is pleased that her son took this story, so painful and so personal to their family, and shepherded it all the way to the big screen.

David Paterson waited 16 years to make "Bridge to Terabithia" into a movie, until he was certain he would have enough control over the production to protect it.

"I am completely entranced in the last 20 minutes of the movie, because it's exactly the last 20 pages of the book," he says. "Movies are art by committee, but I said, 'Don't touch the last 20 pages.' I'm protecting my mom's work and honoring my friend."

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For a long time, David Paterson was uncomfortable being associated with Jess and Leslie's story. He was 10 when "Bridge to Terabithia" was published and, he says, he carried it like a burden.

He was angry that he got attention as the "original Jess" when it was trading on the tragic loss of his best friend.

"That's like people pointing out a scar and saying, 'That's a cool scar,' when they have no idea how you got it," he says. "For many years I was not proud of the book. I was embarrassed by it. Here we are 30 years later, and it took me quite literally half of that time to realize what a gift I had gotten from my friend and what a gift my mother gave to me."

Because it was David's story, Katherine Paterson was obliged to get her son's permission to publish the book.

"Putting your career in the hands of an 8-year-old is a little crazy," he says, laughing. "My sole request was that she had to dedicate it to Lisa.

"The book is over 30 years old now. It's timeless. I was hoping I could create something with this movie that is also timeless. That's all I needed to get on film, was my mother's story."

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