From the Publisher
Review, NYTBR, October 14, 2007:
"This may sound too depressing for words, but it is only one indication of the inspired originality of Before I Die, by Jenny Downham, that the reader can finish its last pages feeling thrillingly alive ... I don't care how old you are. This book will not leave you."
—John Burnham Schwartz
Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2007
"Lucid language makes a painful journey bearable, beautiful and transcendent."
Starred Review, Publisher's Weekly, August 6, 2007
"The eloquent dying teen can seem a staple of the YA novel, but this British debut completely breaks the mold. Downham holds nothing back in her wrenching and exceptionally vibrant story."
Review, Entertainment Weekly, September 21, 2007
"Bound For Glory: This fall, five young authors deliver breakout books packed with razor-sharp writing."
Review, Entertainment Weekly, September 28, 2007
"In luminous prose that rings completely true, Downham earns every tear she wrings from her readers. I trust there will be many of them—many readers, and of course, many tears. A-"
This beautifully crafted, eloquent novel transforms what at first seems a depressing topic (a teenager dying from leukemia) into a life-affirming, uplifting portrait of a young woman determined to live her life as fully as she can in the short time that she has left. As the heroine, 16-year-old Tessa, sets out to complete a list of things she yearns to experience before dying, her actions are genuine, her emotions raw and powerful. She's a character teens can relate to, though her situation is one most of us can't fathom. This novel brilliantly addresses the subject of death with love, anger, humor, and honesty, and, through the experiences of its brave heroine, relates a powerful message that will resonate with readers.
John Burnham Schwartz
If it sometimes seems as though the world is killing itselfthe papers are full of spectacular evidencehere, between covers, is something to live for. Yes, a book, a first novel no less, about a 16-year-old girl dying of leukemia. This may sound too depressing for words, but it is only one indication of the inspired originality of Before I Die, by Jenny Downham, that the reader can finish its last pages feeling thrillingly alive…All the way through, Downham gives Tessa the power to tell her own truth, to represent her imperfect, all-too-human self, as well as the imperfect, all-too-human selves of those around her, without regard to the opinions and values of others. The result is as honest and indelible a portrait of a young adult at riskno, beyond riskas one is likely to find in recent literature. One of the more surprising revelations to be found in Before I Die is that it's a "young adult novel" only in the sense that readers Tessa's age are perhaps the ideal audience for a true story about death. I don't care how old you are. This book will not leave you.
The New York Times
Parry delivers a genuine, unflinching performance as Tessa, a terminally ill British teenager determined to cram all the living she can into her final days. Tessa's ultimate to-do list includes more acts of abandon than accomplishments: having sex, doing something illegal and falling in love. But Parry's skillful narration combined with debut novelist Downham's honest and direct writing style keep this from becoming a hokey caper or melodramatic "after-school special" listening experience. Parry laudably colors her reading with the broad range of raw emotion that Tessa experiences, from rage and fear to even a few moments of euphoria. She captures an authentic dynamic among the people in Tessa's inner circle, including her anxious, heartbroken father, exuberant best friend and steadfast, Scottish-sounding boyfriend. Most memorably, listeners hear Tessa's unspoken words-snippets of inner monologues, dreams and flashes of memories that drift into her fading consciousness as she lays dying. Strains of mournful, soulful music close the program; the result is both wrenching and cleansing. Ages 14-up. Simultaneous release with the Random/Fickling hardcover (Reviews, Aug. 6). (Sept.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Children's Literature - Vicki Foote
Sixteen-year-old Tessa is dying of cancer. She has only a few months to live. Written in the first person, this novel follows her inner thoughts as she confronts the fact that her life is almost over. She becomes angry and defiant and makes a list of things to do before she dies, including drugs and sex among other things. She accomplishes most of the things on her list even though she temporarily alienates some of the people who are closest to her. She eventually does find love, as well as an appreciation of life and her family that she had never experienced before. Believable characters and realistic reactions to the situations make the emotional ending a quiet tragedy. The good writing makes this difficult subject enlightening without being remorseful. It is an amazing and insightful look at how one family faces a heart-wrenching loss. Reviewer: Vicki Foote
Children's Literature - Carlee Hallman
This story takes place in England and uses some unfamiliar British words. Diagnosed four years ago, Tessa now rebels against her fate of dying from cancer of the blood (leukemia) at fifteen. She has a list of ten things she wants to do before she dies. For the first one, she and her girlfriend Zoey go out and find strangers to have sex with. The second thing is trying drugs. She becomes friends with the boy next door, Adam, who has recently lost his father. He takes her for a motorcycle ride. Next Tessa shoplifts, is caught, and is remanded to her father. She takes her dad's car without telling him and drives forty miles to a seaside resort her family stayed in when she was a child. She has no license and barely knows how to drive as witnessed by her friend Zoey who is pregnant. Her dad has taken off four years from work to look after Tessa and her now ten-year-old brother, Cal, because Mother took off with another man. Mom has difficulty facing things. The father and brother are absolutely kind and supportive, which seems unrealistic. Adam becomes a true love and sticks by her to the end. Some will be attracted by the explicit sex at the beginning and near the end. The ending shows more and more blank spaces on the page as Tessa approaches death. Beautiful descriptions of nature lighten the heavy subject matter. Reviewer: Carlee Hallman
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up
Tessa has a list of things to do before she dies. Her chemotherapy is no longer working and her four-year struggle with leukemia will soon end. Sometimes angry and rebellious, other times exhausted and forlorn, the 16-year-old Brit in Jenny Downhom's novel (David Fickling Books, 2007) crams sex, drugs, and a few illegal acts into the few months she has left. Best friend Zoë abets her outrageous acts until Zoë's pregnancy test comes out positive. Tessa's dad is steadfast and patient, her little brother is often torn between deep concern and jealous frustration, and her once runaway mom is loving, but occasionally distant. Adam, Tessa's new boyfriend, is helping his emotionally-fragile mother after his father's recent death, but in her last days, he's her constant, comforting companion. Told from Tessa's viewpoint, even in her last moments, the story draws listeners into a gut-wrenching range of real emotions. Narrator Charlotte Porrus is both ethereal and passionate as she conveys all these feelings. With its uncompromising reflections on the harsh realities of terminal illness and straightforward descriptions of sex and drugs, this title is most appropriate for a mature teen audience. For public libraries and high school libraries with liberal collection development policies.
Barbara WysockiCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
With only months left to live, 16-year-old Tessa makes a list of things she must experience: sex, petty crime, fame, drugs and true love. Downham's wrenching work features a girl desperate for a few thrilling moments before leukemia takes her away. Although Tessa remains ardently committed to her list, both she and the reader find comfort in the quiet resonance of the natural world. Tessa's soul mate, Adam, gardens next door; a bird benignly rots in grass; psychedelic mushrooms provide escape; an apple tree brings comfort; and her best friend, Zoey, ripens in the final months of pregnancy. Downham's lithe, facile writing creates a chiaroscuro of life and death, of organic growth and decay. Although Tessa begins to see herself within the natural continuum, she still feels furious with her lot. She lashes out and behaves cruelly at times, making her believable to teen readers. Because her experience feels so palpable, readers will believe that the novel's final pages might offer a crystalline vision of death. Lucid language makes a painful journey bearable, beautiful and transcendent. (Fiction. YA)First printing of 100,000
Read an Excerpt
I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He’d wear white pants and he’d be so gorgeous I’d almost faint. He’d take my clothes off too. He’d whisper, ‘Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You’re beautiful’ – exactly those words – as he undressed me.
I sit up and switch on the bedside light. There’s a pen, but no paper, so on the wall behind me I write, I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me. Then I lie back down and look out at the sky. It’s gone a funny colour – red and charcoal all at once, like the day is bleeding out.
I can smell sausages. Saturday night is always sausages. There’ll be mash and cabbage and onion gravy too. Dad’ll have the lottery ticket and Cal will have chosen the numbers and they’ll sit in front of the TV and eat dinner from trays on their laps. They’ll watch The X Factor, then they’ll watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? After that, Cal will have a bath and go to bed and Dad’ll drink beer and smoke until it’s late enough for him to sleep.
He came up to see me earlier. He walked over to the window and opened the curtains. ‘Look at that!’ he said as light flooded the room. There was the afternoon, the tops of the trees, the sky. He stood silhouetted against the window, his hands on his hips. He looked like a Power Ranger.
‘If you won’t talk about it, how can I help you?’ he said, and he came over and sat on the edge of my bed. I held my breath. If you do it for long enough, white lights dance in front of your eyes. He reached over and stroked my head, his fingers gently massaging my scalp.
‘Breathe, Tessa,’ he whispered.
Instead, I grabbed my hat from the bedside table and yanked it on right over my eyes. He went away then.
Now he’s downstairs frying sausages. I can hear the fat spitting, the slosh of gravy in the pan. I’m not sure I should be able to hear that from all the way upstairs, but nothing surprises me any more. I can hear Cal unzipping his coat now, back from buying mustard. Ten minutes ago he was given a pound and told, ‘Don’t talk to anyone weird.’ While he was gone, Dad stood on the back step and smoked a fag. I could hear the whisper of leaves hitting the grass at his feet. Autumn invading.
‘Hang your coat up and go and see if Tess wants anything,’ Dad says. ‘There’s plenty of blackberries. Make them sound interesting.’
Cal has his trainers on; the air in the soles sighs as he leaps up the stairs and through my bedroom door. I pretend to be asleep, which doesn’t stop him. He leans right over and whispers, ‘I don’t care even if you never speak to me again.’ I open one eye and find two blue ones. ‘Knew you were faking,’ he says, and he grins wide and lovely. ‘Dad says, do you want blackberries?’
‘What shall I tell him?’
‘Tell him I want a baby elephant.’
He laughs. ‘I’m gonna miss you,’ he says, and he leaves me with an open door and the draught from the stairs.
Zoey doesn’t even knock, just comes in and plonks herself down on the end of the bed. She looks at me strangely, as if she hadn’t expected to find me here.
‘What’re you doing?’ she says.
‘Don’t you go downstairs any more?’
‘Did my dad phone you up?’
‘Are you in pain?’
She gives me a suspicious look, then stands up and takes off her coat. She’s wearing a very short red dress. It matches the handbag she’s dumped on my floor.
‘Are you going out?’ I ask her. ‘Have you got a date?’
She shrugs, goes over to the window and looks down at the garden. She circles a finger on the glass, then she says, ‘Maybe you should try and believe in God.’
‘Yeah, maybe we all should. The whole human race.’
‘I don’t think so. I think he might be dead.’
She turns round to look at me. Her face is pale, like winter. Behind her shoulder, an aeroplane winks its way across the sky.
She says, ‘What’s that you’ve written on the wall?’
I don’t know why I let her read it. I guess I want something to happen. It’s in black ink. With Zoey looking, all the words writhe like spiders. She reads it over and over. I hate it how sorry she can be for me.
She speaks very softly. ‘It’s not exactly Disneyland, is it?’
‘Did I say it was?’
‘I thought that was the idea.’
‘I think your dad’s expecting you to ask for a pony, not a boyfriend.’
It’s amazing, the sound of us laughing. Even though it hurts, I love it. Laughing with Zoey is absolutely one of my favourite things, because I know we’ve both got the same stupid pictures in our heads. She only has to say, ‘Maybe a stud farm might be the answer,’ and we’re both in hysterics.
Zoey says, ‘Are you crying?’
I’m not sure. I think I am. I sound like those women on the telly when their entire family gets wiped out. I sound like an animal gnawing its own foot off. Everything just floods in all at once – like how my fingers are just bones and my skin is practically see-through. Inside my left lung I can feel cells multiplying, stacking up, like ash slowly filling a vase. Soon I won’t be able to breathe.
‘It’s OK if you’re afraid,’ Zoey says.
‘Of course it is. Whatever you feel is fine.’
‘Imagine it, Zoey – being terrified all the time.’
But she can’t. How can she possibly, when she has her whole life left? I hide under my hat again, just for a bit, because I’m going to miss breathing. And talking. And windows. I’m going to miss cake. And fish. I like fish. I like their little mouths going, open, shut, open.
And where I’m going, you can’t take anything with you.
Zoey watches me wipe my eyes with the corner of the duvet.
‘Do it with me,’ I say.
She looks startled. ‘Do what?’
‘It’s on bits of paper everywhere. I’ll write it out properly and you can make me do it.’
‘Make you do what? The thing you wrote on the wall?’
‘Other stuff too, but the boy thing first. You’ve had sex loads of times, Zoey, and I’ve never even been kissed.’
I watch my words fall into her. They land somewhere very deep.
‘Not loads of times,’ she says eventually.
‘Please, Zoey. Even if I beg you not to, even if I’m horrible to you, you must make me do it. I’ve got a whole long list of things I want to do.’
When she says, ‘OK,’ she makes it sound easy, as if I only asked her to visit me more often.
‘You mean it?’
‘I said so, didn’t I?’
I wonder if she knows what she’s letting herself in for.