Friday, November 19, 2010

Lessons from a Dead Girl (Novel)

Lessons from a Dead Girl (Novel) Release date: 2007. Author: Jo Knowles. Publisher: Candlewick Press. ISBN: 9780763644857.

Plot summary: After Leah Green is tragically killed, Laine reflects on their relationship as she tries to come to terms with the death. Leah and Lainey have been friends since they were little. As they were growing up they did everything together: had sleepovers, told secrets, played with dolls. But something was different about their friendship. Leah has a troubled past and was sexually abusive to Lainey, telling her that what they did was just practice for when they got older and begin to date boys. Lainey was confused by her friend’s actions. Leah’s charisma and popularity made it hard for Lainey to question anything her friend says or does, but she knew that what they do in the “doll closet” was wrong. She felt dirty and guilty. As they grew up, Lainey struggled as Leah began to drift away, making new friends and becoming increasingly popular at school. Lainey is confused, and is constantly haunted by Leah’s past actions and taunting. At every turn, Lainey can hear Leah’s voice inside her head, reminding her that she liked what they did together. As Lainey thinks about her troubled friend’s life, will she be able to forgive her?

Critical evaluation: Lessons from a Dead Girl is a truly haunting and heartbreaking story about abuse, friendship and forgiveness. The novel opens with the death of Leah Greene, and the rest of the story is broken up into chapters named with a lesson Lainey learned from her friend. As more and more about Leah and Lainey’s friendship is revealed, the truth about the abuse subjected upon Lainey at the hands of a peer becomes clear. Sexual abuse between friends, siblings, or children who are close in age is not something that is talked about as frequently as between an adult and a child. As the reader learns about Leah’s actions, it’s obvious that Leah herself has been sexually abused (it is later revealed that a family friend, Sam, is the person responsible for victimizing Leah.) This type of abuse has been presented in previous teen literature, but few novels have touched upon sexual abuse between friends in quite the same as Knowles does in Lessons from a Dead Girl. The novel itself is very well-written, but extremely difficult to read due to the subject matter. Teen and adult readers alike will find themselves sickened by Leah’s treatment of the innocent and trusting Lainey, as well as by the abuse Leah must have suffered herself. And while Leah is somewhat of an antagonist, her death is truly tragic despite the fact that Lainey is now free from her abuse. The story will raise many questions in the reader’s mind about Lainey’s struggles: What could she have done to help her friend? Is there any grace in Leah’s tragic death since she was clearly very troubled? Will Lainey ever be able to truly forgive Leah? Thoughts like these will remain in the reader’s mind long after the book has been completed. An excellent but heartbreaking read for teens.

Reader's annotation: Leah Greene is dead, and Lainey reflects on her long-time friendship with the beautiful, troubled teen.

About the author: Jo Knowles grew up in New Hampshire surrounded by animals and books at her parents’ farmhouse. As she was growing up, Knowles loves writing stories about her family and their pets. When she was young, her parents purchased a Victorian house and converted it to a restaurant called The Hathaway House. Some of the first stories Knowles wrote were about her experiences at The Hathaway House. In college, Knowles took a children’s literature course and decided to pursue a career in writing. She went to grad school and wrote her first novel as her graduate thesis. In 2007, her first novel Lessons from a Dead Girl was published. Her second novel, Jumping Off Swings was published in 2009. Both novels have received much praise by critics as well as awards. Lessons from a Dead Girl was named a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. It also received the Pen New England Children’s Book Discovery Away and a Gold Star Award for Excellence from Jumping Off Swings was also a YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers as well as a YALSA Best Book for Young Adults. Knowles lives in Vermont with her husband. (
Genre: Fiction

Curriculum ties:

Booktalking ideas:
Sexual abuse between friends, siblings, or peers
Sexual abuse between adults and children

Reading level/Interest Age:
Age 15+

Challenge issues:
Sexual abuse
Drug and alcohol abuse

Challenge counterpoints:Recommended for ages 15 and up.
Recommend parent read book before child and discuss before child reads book.
Recommend parent discuss sexual abuse with child.
Provide resources about sexual abuse and how to report it to authorities if parent or child suspects it is occurring to someone they know.

Reasons for inclusion:
Positive review from School Library Journal and Booklist.
Winner of Pen New England Children’s Book Discovery Away and a Gold Star Award for Excellence from
Named a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.
Nominated for a Georgia Peach Book Award for 2009-2010.
Named a Teen Top Choice at Flamingnet Book Reviews.

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