Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Nicholls, Sally. Ways to Live Forever (3 stars out of 4).
As much as we hate to talk about it or think about it sometimes, death is a part of our school lives as well as our personal lives. Many of us have witnessed counselors flooding into a building after a student death, and we have consoled our students when they were overwhelmed by either the death of a friend or of a relative. A mature understanding of death is often born in the middler years, and difficult as it is, this issue must be discussed. Ironically, since death is a universal experience, its dark tendrils touch all of us, and it has the capacity to bring us closer together. In this spirit, Ways to Live Forever by new British author Sally Nicholls delves into the life of one dying young person to gain insight into how the rest of us should live.
Sam McQueen is eleven and he is dying of leukemia with little or no chance of survival. Sam and his fellow terminally-ill friend Felix spend most days at home, visited by a tutor and closely monitored by Sam’s overprotective mum (remember, it’s a British novel). Dad works frequently to support the family’s medical bills, and he is mostly in denial that his son will die. Sam does not like uncertainty in his life; he wants to know things, and he feels science can provide some answers: “If I grow up, I’m going to be a scientist . . . I’m going to find out the answers to all the questions that nobody answers” (9-10). To explain the universe available to him and to come to terms with his impossibly difficult situation, Sam begins a book to explore the unknown, but cynical Felix insists on the inclusion of the dark side of their lives. While asking why God makes kids ill, Felix insists that either God does not exist or that God is evil. Sam suggests instead that cancer is a lesson that God imparts to teach us how to live and that there are nice reasons why God would make kids sick, but Felix resists this idea: “‘There aren’t any nice ones,’ said Felix. ‘How can there be? Someone gives kids cancer, they don’t do it to be nice’” (42). Instead of getting more depressed over their plights, Sam and Felix decide to make a “bucket list” of things to do before they die. One of the items on the list is to watch an adult horror movie, and they “borrow” a copy of The Exorcist from Felix’s brother. However, to Sam, the movie became a metaphor of his plight: “There was something about the idea of something living in your body and making you do creepy stuff that I didn’t like” (51). As time marches on and Sam approaches the end of his journey, he, his little sister Ella, and his family must come to terms with the ending of this chapter of their lives.
I distinctly remember reading Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata because my eyes are still puffy two years later. Although 23-year-old Sally Nicholls is no Kadohata, and this book does not delve into the parallel themes of racism, prejudice, and unfair treatment of ethnic groups, she writes in an authentic voice that touches the reader right where she cries. Young people often do not know where to turn when death enters their lives, and running away does not work; the person is still gone when he or she returns. With Ways to Live Forever, Ms. Nicholls has given young people a valuable tool to use in order to try and understand their universe. Readers may appreciate the irony that the more Sam gets what he wants, the more he wants to be just like everyone else. The author effectively uses date subheadings at the beginning of each chapter so readers can “feel” Sam getting weaker (with occasional bursts of energy) throughout the novel. There are no easy answers to life’s biggest questions, but middlers can only come to terms with these issues if they think, wonder, and dream about them. It is not always comfortable, but comfort was not promised in life’s rich pageant.


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