The story is set in a fictional town called Lark Creek, between 1975 and 1977 in a rural area in the state of Virginia in the United States.
Jesse Aarons lives during this time in Lark Creek with his family consisting of seven family members. He is the only son growing up with five females. Jesse’s two older sisters hardly pay attention to him and when they do it normally involves negativity. His father isn’t at home most of the time and therefore his mother is busy keeping a household of seven people together with very little income. Jesse is shy and often lonely. He hides his biggest passion for drawing from his family and classmates.
His life changes when Leslie Burke moves from Arlington to Lark Creek, next door to Jesse and joins his fifth-grade class. Leslie is in some ways the complete opposite of Jesse, outgoing and embraces her creativity. Eventually they become very close friends and through the positive influence of Leslie, their friendship becomes a very life changing experience for Jesse, notably his self-confidence. In order to escape the difficulties that daily life presents them both, they build themselves an imaginary kingdom in the local woods, and they name it Terabithia.
The two friends profit from each other and from the fantasy world that they have created where their individuality and creativity can shine through. Jesse’s artistic passion flourishes and they both grow in self confidence at school, particularly in the face of bullies.
One day, however, tragedy strikes. During a particularly rainy season, Leslie decides to go to Terabithia with Jesse, who is on a field trip for the day. The river levels have risen substantially and when Leslie tries to cross the river, her rope breaks and she falls into the water to her death.
Jesse is in shock and cannot believe nor accept the death of his friend. He runs away and feels very lost in a world without his friend Leslie. He eventually gathers his strength to return to Terabithia. This strength comes from his family’s support, his teacher’s support, but also the influence and impact that Leslie left on his life. Upon returning to Terabithia, Jesse’s sister, May Belle follows Jesse but gets stuck half way. Jesse helps her across. The next morning Leslie’s parents move away, but just before they leave, Jesse asks whether he can take some wood from the farm. He uses this wood to build a stable bridge to Terabithia and crowns May Belle there as the new queen. And so the imaginary kingdom and the memory of Leslie live on.