Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Age: High School or Upper Middle School (but the topics are definitely high school-rated)
I don’t really have a good parenting story for Before I Fall because I have toddler boys instead of teenage girls (says a small prayer of thanks). Toddler boys have their issues, but high school popularity contests, alcohol, sex, and suicide are not among them.
I realize that’s a lot of weighty issues, but don’t let them turn you away from this book. Before I Fall is weighty, but not in a preachy way. And not in an over-the-top way. Just in a very real, very honest way. It’s a very good story with very good writing, which at the end of the day, is a great way to spend some time.
After not really liking the first chapter (I was thinking, is anyone really THIS shallow?), I got into the book until it had such a hold on me I couldn’t put it down even though the baby has been keeping me up and I really needed to sleep. Here’s my two cents, and I think this would be a GREAT book for any teenage girl and her mom to read together. Even if you are at the point in your relationship where this main character is and you don’t talk much, just the shared reading experience would be great. As a mom (or a dad!) you would be sending the message to your daughter, that yes, you are up for topics like this, that you are willing to read about them and even talk about them, that you were a teenager once, too.
(Although please do not ask your child to read it and then give them any high-road morality lectures about alcohol or driving or sex. Trust me, the book speaks for itself. That is the beauty of it. If you have a close relationship with your kid, treasure that and talk to them about the characters, their lives, and their decisions. Let your teen lead the way with the discussion. Don’t push it.)
This book is really well-written. Told from the point of view of a popular high school girl who dies in a car crash and has to relive her last day over and over, it’s a beautiful story about life and the way we live it. It’s a great story about the lessons we learn along the way, by one girl who learned those lessons way too late. I was a little worried it was going to be too predictable–she starts out so shallow and obviously she is going to learn, change. But it wasn’t like that at all. For one, she learns lessons in a really honest, believable way. For two, what seems so shallow at first is explained so well in later chapters that depth is added to her character and she becomes so alive. Which is only somewhat ironic, given that she’s dead.
I think teenage girls would really relate to this book, even if they’ve never stepped into the popular circle or touched a cup of beer to their lips. This book is about growing up. It’s about finding out what’s important. It’s about the changes we make on purpose and the ones we don’t realize we’ve made until they are already a part of us. It really makes you think about how you live your life. In a good way.
From a parent perspective, here are two of my favorite observations, which you could talk about (or not) with your kids:
For page references purposes, I had a library-bound hardcover.
Page 225: "It’s the weirdest thing. I’m popular–really popular–but I don’t have that many friends. What’s even weirder is that it’s the first time I’ve noticed."
Page 194: "Here’s one of the things I learned that morning: if you cross a line and nothing happens, the line loses meaning. It’s like that old riddle about a tree falling in a forest and whether it makes a sound if there’s no one around to hear it. / You keep drawing a line farther and farther away, crossing it every time. That’s how people end up stepping off the edge of the earth. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to bust out of orbit, to spin out to a place where no one can touch you."
That second passage is a really good reminder for parents. It can be so hard to draw that line–and once drawn, to keep its meaning. When I worked as a principal, I saw so many parents struggling with it. But it’s so important, and this is why. Kids WANT that line, they crave that line, even if they could never, ever express it for themselves. I used to tell parents that, and they wouldn’t always believe me.
I remember hearing an NPR interview a long time ago with a woman who had once worked as a dominatrix. I don’t remember what she had turned herself into that landed her later on NPR, as that was likely less interesting. But this is exactly what she was talking about. She said she never had any boundaries growing up. So she just kept pushing and pushing, looking for the walls. She tried alcohol, she tried drugs, she tried stripping, and she just kept going. Unfortunately, I never found a polite way to share that story with parents, but I wish I could have–if that didn’t make them give their kids some boundaries, I don’t know what would. This book, might, though.
More from The Family That Reads Together:
A Fix-It Kit so Your Own Polka-Dot Can Fix Kindergarten, Too
Predictably, the Zebra Doesn’t Make it in “After the Kill”
About the Author:
Wendy Lawrence is a Seattle native who is now living with her husband and two young sons in Nashville, Tenn. A longtime educator and former middle school head at Eastside Prep in Kirkland, she now blogs about parenting and books at The Family that Reads Together.