Jesse Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a fifth-grade aspiring artist living with his financially-struggling family in Lark Creek, Virginia. He rides the bus to school with his little sister May Belle (Bailee Madison), where he avoids the school bully, Janice Avery (Lauren Clinton). In class, Jesse is teased by classmates Scott Hoager (Cameron Wakefield) and Gary Fulcher (Elliot Lawless), and meets a new student his age by the name Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb). At recess, Jesse enters a running event, for which he had been training at home. Leslie also enters and manages to beat all the boys, much to Jesse's irritation. On the way home, Jesse and Leslie learn that they are next-door neighbors.