Sunday, February 15, 2009

Life and Death

Ways to Live Forever
by Sally Nicholls
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2008
review copy provided by the publisher

I finished WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER on the drive to Tennessee last weekend. It was an experience much like the one I had when I finished reading EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS on the drive home from dog trials: words blurring, tears streaming down my face. EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS is set in a funeral home and has a pet dog in it, so I should have known what I was getting myself into. WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER begins like this:
1. My name is Sam.
2. I am eleven years old.
3. I collect stories and fantastic facts.
4. I have leukemia.
5. By the time you read this, I will probably be dead.
Both books are about death, and that might be reason enough for some to want to keep them out of the hands of children. But both books are also about life, and in my opinion, that's precisely the reason why children should read them. Just last week, we had a conversation in my fourth grade classroom in which one of the great truths of fiction came out: we read fiction as a way to enjoy and learn from the problems of the characters...from a safe distance. Children should read WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER so that they can get to know Sam through the collection of lists and questions and journal entries he writes in the last 4 months of his life. Sam examines death and dying from all possible angles, but on the flip side, Sam makes a list of 8 things he wants to do, and over the course of the book he accomplishes all 8 in some way, shape or form: this is a book about living.

What a contrast it was to put WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER back in my bag, dry the tears off my face, and begin to read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. I went straight from the heart-wrenching misery of the death of a bright, talented death as a matter-of-fact way of life as a child grows up in a cemetery, surrounded by and taught by ghosts. Whoa.

Despite the shift of perspective from "life looking at death" to "death looking at life," both books accomplish the same mission: they give the reader the safety of distance from which to consider life and death from all angles.

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is woven through with history, mythology, and fantasy. It brings to mind Ray Bradbury's THE HALLOWEEN TREE and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. And of course, GRANDY THAXTER'S HELPER.

I didn't need a single Kleenex when I read THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, but it kept me on the edge of my seat for the rest of the drive to Nashville, and I opened it again before we left the city limits on the way back home to Ohio. When I closed the book at the end, I sat for a long time just thinking. About life. And about death.

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
illustrated by Dave McKean
HarperCollins, 2008
review copy provided by the publisher


  1. And by the way, when I add Miss Hawthorn from WILLOW to our list of 100 Cool Teachers in Children's Literature, I will also add Mrs. Willis, Sam and Felix's teacher in WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER. Her classroom is the boys' homes, and her class is comprised of two terminally ill boys. The curriculum is mostly driven by the interests of the boys and includes encouraging Sam to write his book, bringing a Van de Graff generator to class so that they can play around with static electricity, letting them play Top Trumps and call it math, and pushing the two boys to come up with as many solutions as possible to Sam's question, "Why does God make kids get ill?" Mrs. Willis is one extraordinary teacher in my books!

  2. And why not add Miss Lepescu to the list while you're at it?

  3. Indeed! Miss Lupescu was a marvelous teacher for Bod! I'm on it!

  4. Wow! WAYS TO LIVE FOREVER sounds intense, but I definitely want to get hold of it. Conversely, I'm not excited about reading THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, even though I probably will, mostly because it won the Newbery. I am just about finished with CHAINS. I read yesterday between basketball games, sat at a table in the concession area, with tears running down my face.

  5. Finished the Graveyard Book last night. Wasn't crazy about it. The writing is, as advertised, very well done, I just didn't like the story. A bit too weird for me, and I can't think of too many kids that would like it.

  6. You didn't happen to be in Nashville for Blissdom, did you?? Do tell!

  7. Nope, not Blissdom -- the wedding of a friend's son.

  8. I cannot wait to listen to The Graveyard Book. I read it but more wondering, "Is it appropriate for
    5th grade?"
    I will look for Ways to Live Forever. Apologies, hve to log in using my fledgling photo blog.


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