“Before I Die” by Jenny Downham

20 Dec


I recently read Chris Crutcher's "Deadline" (reviewed below), which tells the alternately funny and touching story of a dying teen's last year on Earth, during which he triumphs, finds love, and struggles to accept his fate. How strange, then, to find another "teen dies of fatal illness" novel published mere months after "Deadline," one which also follows the same general plot line. Is this the new wave in teen fiction?

It's unfortunate to have to compare the two books, but it's natural — isn't it? — to measure one slowly fading teen's story against another. Essentially, "Before I Die" is "Deadline" set in England with a female lead character and an overall harder, more abrasive edge. Tessa is dying of leukemia, and when this fact becomes clear, she embarks on a somewhat misguided effort to fulfill a list of things to do before she dies. Tessa has a very authentic voice, and she acts, sounds, and talks like a real teenager. This means that Tessa can be petty, spoiled, petulant, and selfish. As such, this also means that Tessa can be a tough character to like and support at times. Her behavior is often so self-destructive (sex with a stranger, diving into a filthy river on a whim, shoplifting, fleeing a hospital stay, etc.), that, while you may in theory want to support a character who is trying to squeeze all life's experiences into a short window of time, you can't help but be annoyed at her antics. Even worse, Tessa's dad is portrayed as so steady, caring, and long suffering that it's difficult to separate Tessa's desire to live and create memories from the awful effects of her behavior on poor dad.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews recently named "Before I Die" one of the best teen books of 2007, and it's easy to see why. Author Jenny Downham has a lovely writing style, and she's able to nicely intersperse descriptions and observations that feel like bits of poetry into Tessa's account of her final year. I thought the second half of the novel, after Tessa opens herself up to her neighbor Adam, loses and regains love, and watches angrily as her health rapidly declines, was quite beautiful to read. Downham is able to create real emotion at Tessa's end, but not in a saccharine or falsely sympathetic way.

Most likely, girls will be drawn to Tessa's story, and I have no problem recommending it to high school readers. There is an abundance of serious subject matter here — death, sex, drugs, crime, teen pregnancy — so it's definitely a story for older teens. If you give it a try, let us know what you think.


Posted by on December 20, 2007 in Uncategorized


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3 responses to ““Before I Die” by Jenny Downham

  1. aprilhenry

    December 20, 2007 at 7:48 pm

    I get a lot of books to review, so I pile them up and let my 12 year old have at ’em. It wasn’t until after she read it I figured it had some stuff for older teens. She did seem to enjoy it. I kind of felt like a bad mommy. Just a little.

    • mel1317

      December 26, 2007 at 6:36 pm

      As I’m sure you well know, there’s no hard and fast age rule for YA novels. So much depends on a given tween/teen’s maturity level as well as the availability of responsible folks (parents, teachers, older siblings, etc.) those teens can turn to if they want to discuss something they read. There’s no need to make yourself feel even a little bit guilty about it. Besides, there are far worse things a 12 year old could be doing than reading! 🙂

      • aprilhenry

        December 26, 2007 at 6:44 pm

        I myself, at her age or younger, followed Heinlein and Silverburg from the kids’ section to the adult section (no real YA back then). It was eye-opening, to say the least, to go from boys in space with slide rules to threesomes!


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