Book Binge – Before I Die

book bingeBefore I Die by Jenny Downham was my fifth book out of the six on this year’s shortlist for the Sheffield Children’s Book Award*. I actually finished it a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been struggling to write about it.

Let’s get the easy bit over with: what’s it about? The book tells us the story of Tessa, a teenager suffering from terminal leukemia. She has a list (actually an ever changing list) of things that she wants to do before she dies. (You may have noticed a theme in the Book Award contenders this year: that’s five books out of five so far where Death is one of the main characters.)

When a child or young person dies it is always a tragedy, something this novel doesn’t spare us from. But not all young people who die are little angels and Tessa is a case in point: she is extremely selfish and self-centred (perhaps understandably) and she spends an awful lot of time being absolutely horrible to the people who love her.

Tessa may not be the nicest of heroines, but she is both real and tragic. As she ticks off items on her list (which includes sex, saying yes to everything for a day, taking illegal drugs and more), she takes us along on an emotional roller coaster ride.

There is no surprise as to how the book ends, the title tells us that, but Tessa’s desperation to live combined with her resignation to the inevitability of her fate is incredibly moving. I was crying buckets by the end.

All the other reviews of this book that I have read describe it as “life affirming.” I disagree. It is sad and tragic, but that’s not the same thing.

I am surprised that Before I Die has been nominated for a Children’s Book Award – the target audience is clearly more the ‘Young Adult’ market. In fact, my first encounter with the book was when one of my younger students (he is 13) demanded to know if I thought this was “suitable for children.” He showed me the opening paragraph, in which Tessa is imagining being seduced by an imaginary boyfriend. My poor student was mortified with embarrassment! I can’t imagine what he made of the rest of the book.

Before I Die is an incredibly powerful and moving book. Is it something that should win a Children’s Book Award? I don’t think so, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it for a Young Adult’s Book Award. Is it ‘life affirming’? No. Is it worth reading? You bet it is.

Jenny Downham talks about the book, but beware – the video plays automatically.

* This page is currently somewhat out of date. The shortlist of books that we’re reading for the 2008 award is here.

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