This is, to the best of my reckoning, the greatest children's book ever written.* I suggest reading it no matter your age. If you have the opportunity to read it aloud to children, so much the better.
Katherine Paterson ripped out my heart and gave it back with a smile.
I was 31 when I read it to my seven year old son. At the point, 90% of the way through the book, when something bad happens, I was so consumed with emotion that I had to stop reading to regain my composure. My son was more concerned for his crying father than for the characters in the book. It hurt me and I loved it.
This book is universally effective in connecting the reader with the psyche of the protagonists. I have discussed the book with multiple readers from a variety of backgrounds and everyone is able to strongly empathize with Jess even though none of them have been small-town southern trailer trash. The connection to Leslie is similarly powerful though no one had such a colorfully juxtaposed origin. I think that Paterson is able to achieve this by painting with incredible depth -- real characters with complex and multifaceted personalities and experiences who are thrust into real and complex situations. We all know people (hell, we are people) who have some traits and experiences in common with these characters. Enough so that it works like a charm.
When these best friends -- who you grow to love as you read, are afflicted with a tragedy that separates them forever, you grieve as if you had lost genuine cherished friends. This isn’t just me. It appears to be a nearly universal response to the story. As I talked to people about the book, it was clear that virtually everyone suffered from the reading and came away enchanted. It’s strange that something so acutely painful ends up being championed by those most hurt, but that’s what I see.
Get it. Read it. Cry.
* I’m certainly not the end-all authority on all children’s literature, but this book won the 1978 Newbery Medal, is commonly cited by children’s librarians as a great work, and my experiences as: an early reader, a father of two, and the bearer of two degrees in education lend me the arrogance to make such a claim. :-)