Young adult literature is a genre growing in quality and quantity. A number of fantastic authors are writing specifically for children who are in the formative adolescent years of their life, and these authors are producing wonderful work that can speak to teenagers and adults. Before I Die is one of those moving pieces of writing that I highly recommend. Here are my thoughts as a teacher:
One aspect of this novel that makes it a good fit for adolescent readers is its fast pace. By nature of the topic (as I'm sure you can guess by the title), this book moves incredibly quickly, and Tessa experiences in only a few months what most individuals experience over a number of years. Although not from the action or adventure genre, the events in the book are thrilling and the anticipation is intense. This lends the text a sense of urgency, increasing interest level and encouraging readers to find out what happens next. This type of storytelling appeals to young readers because it reflects the powerful emotions of adolescence—love, romance, sex, horror, and fear in much the same way as the mass media. Furthermore, Downham writes in such a way as to exaggerate the poignancy of the situation, because she focuses so intently on only a few characters and plots. This technique of focusing only on Tessa’s immediate social circle effectively develops the drama of the plot and holds the attention of adolescent readers who may enjoy less complex plotlines. By writing in an episodic nature and involving a small number of characters, Downham effectively creates a fast-paced novel that appeals to most young adults’ reading preferences. Another reason this text is effective with young adults is its appeal as a modern problem novel because of its realistic portrayal of life. The most important elements of this book are a noble and respected protagonist, an inevitable opposing force, and a struggle that resolves the conflict. In Before I Die,Tessa struggles with her terminal illness and works to deal with her grief, while her death serves as a resolution. These particular elements create a story that is reflective of real life, allowing readers to connect with an honorable protagonist that faces struggles similar to those faced by contemporary young adults. Although many modern problem novels are tragedies, the purpose of such texts is not to provide readers with “happy” material, but rather to provide readers with more vicarious experiences than would be either desirable or possible in real life. Before I Dieaccomplishes that task, describing the life of a realistic and likable young woman who faces a very real and entirely possible illness. Downham’s writing emphasizes this reality, allowing readers to relate to the struggles of the protagonist. The realistic language and honesty of emotion in Before I Dieconnects with readers’ fears and feelings, allowing young adults to process difficult, but appropriate material through reading. The final, and most important, reason this text will appeal to young adults is that it is filled with content that is important and timely in the lives of young adults. Throughout the course of the novel, Tessa tackles improving her social skills, achieving a feminine sex role, accepting her body, finding emotional independence from her father, preparing for sex, developing her own ideology, and assuming membership in her own community, each a critical developmental task. As a result of tackling these major issues, the book is extremely timely for students sixteen to eighteen years old, and its inclusion of so many crucial developmental factors suggests that it will surely resonate with nearly every students on one topic or another. While I wholly support this novel for use in an upper-level high school classroom, a great deal of its content may be questionable and offensive to some students and, more likely, parents. Because of her impending death, Tessa engages in a number of dangerous behaviors and at times exercises poor judgment, from sex to driving without a license. Because of this, and the specific scenario created by the text that describes these activities as a sort of “living life to the fullest,” readers could view the text as presenting a poor model for adolescent behavior. However, with the right preparation of students and families, I think it is clear that the text offers incredibly unique opportunities for growth that outweigh the possible objections.