Book Review: Young Adult: Before I Die by Jenny Downham


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.

Title: Before I Die
Author: Jenny Downham
Category: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication Date: July 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages
ISBN-10: 0385751559
ISBN-13: 9780385751551

Series or Standalone: Standalone

Literary Awards:
Branford Bose Award 2008
ALA Teens’ Top Ten 2008

Themes: Terminal Illness
Person: First
Tense: Present

Reviewer: Nick Morgan


Before I Die by Jenny Downham belongs to the “sick-lit” trend in YA contemp novels. It stars Tessa Scott, a 16-year-old girl with leukemia. Despite for years of chemotherapy, her cancer has become terminal. Desperate to truly live in the time she has left, Tessa makes a list of ten things to do before she dies.

#1 on her list: Have sex. Enlisting the help of her friend Zoey, she heads to a club where they find two cute stoner boys to hook up with. Her first sexual experience is less than fantastic, but it doesn’t dim her enthusiasm for the rest of the list.

Like many other sick-lit novels–The Fault In Our Stars, Sing Me To Sleep (though it precedes both by several years)–Before I Die is about a person dying too young and how that person and those around them cope with the inevitability. Something important to note is that the story never comes across as preachy, or teaching life lessons. Nor is it emotionally manipulative. Every event follows reasonably from the basic premise and the characters’ actions and feelings are realistic. But like other such novels in YA, it does put a bit too much weight on love and romance as the cure to all ills. Tessa’s neighbor Adam is a fairly standard YA Love interest: he’s cute, has a bike and a car, and despite having some issues of his own, is much more mature than the average teenage boy. I actually found Tessa’s one-night-stand to be more realistic. Adam does get better later in the story, and the portrayal of the awkwardness of teenage sex is spot-on, as is his reaction to relationship commitment.

One thing I disagreed with many other reviewers on was the emotional impact of the book. It was decently-written, and the premise was executed well, but both The Fault In Our Stars and Sing Me to Sleep had much more emotional impact for me. It can be very difficult to write a terminal main character well, especially for that part of the audience with little personal experience in that area, and Downham doesn’t quite manage it for me. I understood Tessa’s motivations and how she wasn’t defined by her disease, and I loved that she went for the naughty side of the bucket-list concept, but I’ve seen much better portrayals of terminal kids.

What Downham does do a good job of is exploring the emotions of the supporting characters. Tessa’s dad is a classic (in a good way) terminal kid parent, reeling off the various treatments and doctor schedules, and his concern for his daughter’s health, emotional well-being, and slightly smothering/letter-of-the-law approach to running her life is spot-on. Her brother Cal is exactly like a normal little brother, despite his sister’s condition: self-centered, understandably jealous of the attention she gets, and still loving her. Her mother is completely clueless, since her parents are divorced and her mother lives elsewhere, and her feelings of inadequacy in dealing with her daughter’s condition are honest. Finally, Tessa’s best friend Zoey, the only on to stick by her during her cancer, who despite having her own serious issues mid-way through the book gives up a lot of her own time to help Tessa cope.

I also thought she did a good job describing the setting. There was a nice sense of place, and it felt distinct from Contemp YA-Land.

Overall, I have to say this book was worth reading, but it’s not one of my favorite books, or even my favorite sick-lit books.

Conclusion: 72/100 (Not a classic, but would recommend)
Premise: 6/10 (Seen it before, but well-executed)
Plot: 7/10 (Somewhat predictable, but no major plot-holes)
Setting: 8/10 (Fairly different from what I’m used to)
Main Character: 6/10 (Pretty standard, could have been better, but could have been worse)
Love Interest: 6/10 (Pretty cliche, but gets better)
Romantic Sub-plot: 6/10 (Not fantastic, bu didn’t overpower the rest of the story)
Supporting Characters: 9/10 (Very well done)
Writing: 8/10 (Not brilliant, but above average)
Themes: 7/10 (No strong thematic arcs, but nothing preachy, either)
Resolution: 9/10 (The fading towards the end is something I’ve not seen before, but was well-done)

Maybe get this one from the library, especially since it’s a few years old, but a decent read if you like sick-lit

Similar Books:
Sing Me To Sleep
The Fault In Our Stars
My Sister’s Keeper

Other Reviews:
Out of the Blue
Once Upon a Bookcase
The Guardian
Teen Reads
Kirkus Reviews
Pure Imagination

Buy Links:
Barnes and Noble

Kindle UK
Kindle US
Google Play


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