The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell

Leaf

In this incredibly beautiful book, we encounter seventeen-year-old Sora dealing with the fatal diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). Set in modern day Japan, the teen faces the deterioration of his body, a growing sense of isolation, and all the big philosophical questions we would expect. The grownups around him offer what help they can but they serve mostly to point out how society as a whole can’t face death. Sora finds some solace in the death poetry of Samurai warriors, but they are distant echoes from the past. Looking for friendship, and confined at home by the disease, he reaches out through the internet to find companionship. Even though the disease is progressing, Sora eventually risks meeting two of the friends he’s made online. Skittish at first, the friends have as much trouble dealing with death as the adults do, but they come together anyway.

This is a book about friendship, courage, and death. It doesn’t shy away from the unfairness of life. Because of that and some push back in reviews I’ve read, I guess this is one of those books best kept to a more mature teen audience. Some people are very concerned that a book about teen suicide was ever written. Really? And then, there’s the connection to disability and teen suicide! Nevertheless, it’s a great book for teens because all of this is difficult and there’s lots of room for discussion. On top of that there are the cultural differences between Japan and the US. What is expected of a teen in Japan is not necessarily what we would expect from a teen in the US. All of these themes make this a great jumping off point for deep thought and discussion. Recommended!

 

And We Stay (YA) by Jenny Hubbard

AndwestaySpoiler Alert

With this book we have an interesting case where it won numerous awards, but readers gave it mixed reviews (3.7/5 stars).

The book opens with Emily Beam starting second semester as a junior at Amherst School for Girls. Although there is a lot of speculation about the new girl, Emily does her best to keep her secrets locked safely inside. Almost immediately she turns to writing poetry and begins to feel an affinity with the town’s most famous former resident, Emily Dickinson. Slowly the reader finds out that Emily is dealing with the tragedy of her boyfriend’s suicide, an abortion, and adjusting to a new school with very little support. This is one of the best YAs I’ve read in a long time. It’s believable and written from the heart.

In scanning some of the reviews, I’m forced to think that the book exceeds the maturity of its intended audience. Several reviewers couldn’t relate to the third person perspective which is a very traditional form of novel writing. Others were unsatisfied not knowing a specific reason for the boyfriend’s suicide, failing to understand that in real life those who stay behind often lack concrete answers. Some reviewers also wanted Emily to be head over heels in love and less confused over the abortion. Again, in real life people are often ambivalent and uncertain about their choices. For me, not having everything tied up neatly made the novel more realistic and therefore memorable. Hubbard writes about tough topics with compassion, humility, and hope.