Before I Die by Jenny Downham

If I knew I was going to die soon, I would want to travel. Though I consider myself a homebody, there are things I’ve heard about and seen pictures of that I hope, one day, to see for myself. Mike says that if he knew he didn’t have much time left, he’d try to talk the university into letting him graduate. Everyone has a different answer to that scenario, a different way to approach the question of life and death and our time here on earth. In this book, Tessa, who is 16 and has leukemia, has a list. Her list includes things you’d expect, like sex and drugs and breaking the law, but it also includes things like being famous, making a mark, falling in love. The things we all secretly hope for, that our lives mean something and that we will be remembered in some way, that people will be changed from having known us. This is the story of Tessa’s quest to make sure that she really lived her life, even as she is dying.

I got a copy of this book back in the summer, and I knew it would be too hard for me to read. It was still hard, harder than I thought it would be. I thought a lot about the things my dad never got to do, how he must have felt as his body gave out on him. I felt sorry for Tessa, and I felt like she was a realistic character with realistic responses, but, for me, this book was filtered through the experience of my dad’s illness. I did cry, but it was more for the words left unsaid, the things that might have been. I cried for the people Tessa was leaving behind, because I am still learning how to sort all of that out for myself.

This is a book for older teens who, like Tessa, are thinking about those big questions of what life means, how to make a mark, and whether they are going to die without ever having had sex. The premise sounds a bit overwrought, but it works because Tessa is a likeable (though narcissistic) character, and because we all face the question of mortality. (Besides, what teenager who only has a few months to live wouldn’t be narcissistic?) I have seen Before I Die reviewed in several places, and it seems to be generating a fair amount of buzz. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that celebrating life shouldn’t just be for the dying.

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