BookBrowse Reviews Before I Die by Jenny Downham

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Before I Die

by Jenny Downham

Before I Die by Jenny Downham X
Before I Die by Jenny Downham
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2007, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2009, 336 pages

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A life-affirming showstopper for teens and many adults

Tessa is sixteen-years-old. She's been living with and fighting leukemia for much of her life, and now her body is failing. Precipitated by her illness her parent's marriage has fallen apart - her father is in denial, her mother is absent from her life most of the time, and her younger brother swings from loving her obsessively to just wishing she'd hurry up and die. Meanwhile, Tessa's got some living to do, and at the top of her Top-10 "Before I Die" list is to have sex, followed by try drugs; and who better to lead her through her list than her fast-living best friend, Zoey who exhorts Tessa to "live fast, die young" and have "a good-looking corpse".

During the first few chapters of Before I Die, adult readers will probably be asking themselves if this is really a book for them. After all, haven't we done our time with teenage angst already and do we really want to experience it from the viewpoint of a perceptive, witty, but not always likable dying teenager? Many of those who stick through the sometimes disjointed opening chapters (disjointed because the author is channeling a teenage voice) to reach the heart of the novel will answer with a resounding yes, and all but the most hardened of cynics will be reaching for the Kleenex by the final chapters.

Before I Die was one of the first books offered to BookBrowse members to review as part of our First Impressions program. It scored an overall rating of 4 out of 5, which is impressive considering that all the reviewers were adults, some years distanced from the age of the book's core target audience. This indicates that Before I Die does have genuine crossover appeal for both teens and adults.

Many reviewers expressed an opinion on the age-range that they thought Before I Die was suitable for, with some feeling that it should be for older teens and up. In deciding whether this is a book to recommend to a teenager in your life, the determiner is likely not the topic of death itself but the way Tessa handles her impending demise.  I have no problem with our 12-year-old daughter reading a book about somebody dying, but I am not convinced that she has the maturity to relate to all of Tessa's motivations, and therefore some of the book's impact might be lost. However, a slightly older teen will not only be able to relate to Tessa but will also be able to learn from her mistakes, just as Tessa does - because, lest you be in any doubt, without being overtly moralistic, Before I Die has a strong moral undercurrent offering many lessons in how to live life well. It will be appreciated by many adults but, put into the hands of the right teen at the right time, it will be a life-affirming show stopper.

Childhood Leukemia
According to the American Cancer Society, leukemia is the most common cancer in children and adolescents accounting for about one in three cases but, overall, childhood leukemia is a rare disease. Of the estimated 3,800 USA children aged 0-19 who develop leukemia in a given year about three quarters are diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) - cancer effecting the white blood cells. Most of the remaining cases are acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) - cancer of the bone marrow. ALL is most common in early childhood, peaking between 2 and 4 years of age. Cases of AML are more spread out but are more common during the first 2 years of life and during the teenage years. The 5-year survival rate for children with ALL is now over 80%, and 50% for AML.

This review was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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