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Before I Die Hardcover – September 25, 2007

4.3 out of 5 stars 170 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


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-"

From the Back Cover

It's really going to happen. They said it would, but this is quicker than anyone thought.

Everyone has to die. We all know it.

With only a few months of life left, sixteen-year-old Tessa knows it better than most.

She's made a list though - ten things she wants to do before she dies. Number one is sex. Starting tonight.

But getting what you want isn't easy. And getting what youwant doesn't always give you what you need. And sometimes the most unexpected things become important.

Uplifting, life-affirming, joyous - this extraordinary novel celebrates what it is to be alive by confronting what it's really like to die. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: David Fickling Books; Later Printing edition (September 25, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385751559
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385751551
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (170 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,936,858 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jenny Downham (born 1964) was an actress for many years before concentrating on her writing full-time. She lives in London with her two sons.

Her book Before I Die was critically acclaimed and was short listed for the 2007 Guardian Award and the 2008 Lancashire Children's Book of the Year, nominated for the 2008 Carnegie Medal and the 2008 Booktrust Teenage Prize, and won the 2008 Branford Boase Award.

Photography (c) Rolf Marriott, 2007

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Before I Die by Jenny Downham was the most difficult book I've ever had to read. Ever harder to review. I finished it a month ago, but it's taken me this much time to allow some of the ache to go away before I could get it down. It's the story of Tessa, who is 17 and dying of cancer. She lives with her father and younger brother and occasionally sees her estranged mother. Tessa has made of a list of the things that she wants to do before she dies. Many of the things on the list are stereotypical of the average teen: have sex, try drugs. Others are deeper: fall in love, not say no to anyone for an entire day. She completes much of her list, but the ramifications of some of them aren't what she hoped for. Sex with someone she doesn't know or love doesn't fulfill her; drugs are strange and take away what little happiness she has in life. Tessa's father struggles with his daughter's impending death. He feeds her organic food and vitamins in the unspoken hope that somehow, something will change. He and Tessa fight each other as she tries to live what little life she has left to the fullest and he tries to protect her. How do you put limits on or ground a teenager who is going to die? How can you keep her from experiences when all she wants is to feel? She swoops in and out of depression, refusing the leave the bed for days, then suddenly wanting adventure. Her best friend gets pregnant, her parents start moving closer to each other, she falls in love with the boy next door; all sorts of exciting experiences show themselves just as she can't be there to see how any of it turns out. I was shocked to find out that the author of this book was a middle-aged woman; she speaks so authentically as a teenage girl. This book is heartbreaking and uplifting all at once.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Before I Die will truly knock the breath out of you. Tess, the heroine, is dying of leukemia. Rather than spending her final days in bed, she makes a list of things she wants to do before she dies and sets about to accomplish them.

Such a simple premise, such a complicated book. Making a resolution to say "yes" to everything is hard work, Tess finds-- it brings priorities like friends and family into conflict. It does require some suspension of disbelief to believe that the boy who will love her just so happens to be the boy she doesn't know who lives next door, but, given his character, I'll take the suspension and run with it. This is truly a "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" book, except Tess does realize how valuable the people around her are-- they are the last voices she hears as she drifts off into the inevitable end.

Oddly, the male characters are better drawn than the female supporting characters. One wouldn't expect such a sharp dichotomy, but it seems as if the author poured all of her narrative energies into Tess and didn't have enough for the other women: Tess' mom makes rare appearances, and the character of her best friend, Zoey, is rather flat. Zoey in particular should be drawn more strongly because she represents vitality and life but also consequences; she is a person living life chaotically, without a list, so to speak.

The novel is heartbreaking (even to my rather gruff heart), but it doesn't bog you in depression; rather, it makes you want to find something to do and just do it. The spareness of Tess' life, made so by her illness, allows her to enrich her remaining time with meaning and fulfillment. In her final moments, we know that her plan worked.
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Format: Hardcover
Tessa is 16 and dying of cancer. She knows that she has only months to live and she creates a list of things she wants to experience before she dies: having sex, trying drugs and falling in love being just three of them. This is not your usual teen lit fare. It is a very moving book that feels like a realistic account of a teenager struggling to come to terms with the fact that her life will be over almost before it's begun. Sometimes Tessa is self-pitying, angry or apathetic - but she is also real and brave and you care about her.

This is a quick book to read - it took me a day. It's fairly predictable and aside from Tessa, the characters are pretty sketchy. However its simplicity also makes it feels more genuine, as if it really was penned by a 16 year old. It makes you think about and appreciate your own friends, your family - your very life.

Despite the subject matter it doesn't endorse casual sex (indeed, the potential consequences are very clear!) nor drug use. I wouldn't hesitate to give it to a teenager to read, although I would probably hand over a large box of tissues along with it. It's the kind of book that touches your heart.
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Format: Hardcover
We know three pages into "Before I Die" that sixteen-year-old Tessa won't survive her leukemia--and that there's plenty she still wants from life. So she makes a list and vows to do everything on it before she dies.

Like most teenagers, Tessa is at odds with her parents and angsty about how life's shortchanged her. At first her ranting and left-field demands seem too adolescent. Isn't the looming presence of death supposed to mature her beyond her years?

But that's precisely the kind of "dying-young" trope that Downham admirably resists throughout the novel. Tessa burns up a maddening number of days moping when we think she should be fulfilling her dreams. She finally pushes herself to face facts: "I have two choices--stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living."

Downham escapes the common shortcoming of many young adult novels in which the only character that ever really matters to us is the speaker. In this novel, Tessa's relationships are so dynamic that we ache with her at the thought of losing them. Throughout the book, their interactions thrum with tension and tenderness.

There's Cal, the tactless younger brother who helpfully explains the process of decomposition. And Zoe, the careless best friend who has her own troubles to wake her up to life. There's Dad in denial, determined to save Tessa through organic foods and fierce hugs. Mom, who cut out about the time of Tessa's diagnosis and who remains slightly outside of the helping circle (without becoming a monster). And there's Adam, the blessing of love and vulnerability that lands next door to Tessa at the crucial time.
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