Monday, June 20, 2011

Lessons from a Dead Girl Book Review

Release date: 2007. Author: Jo Knowles. Publisher: Candlewick Press. ISBN: 9780763644857.
Annotation: Leah Greene is dead, and Lainey reflects on her long-time friendship with the beautiful, troubled teen.
Personal thoughts: This was a very difficult book to read due to the subject matter, but also very well written. Knowles tackles some really tough issues about sexual abuse, friendship and loss. I would recommend it, but only with a warning that it’s not in any way light or fluffy.
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 began 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?
Review: 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.
Genre: Fiction
Reading level: Grade 9+

Similar titles: Such a Pretty Girl by Laura Wiess, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott.
Themes: Friendship, abuse, loss.
Awards/Reviews: 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.
Series Information: N/A

Discussion Questions:

- How did reading this book make you feel? Sad? Angry? Upset? Why?

- Why do you think that Lainey has such a hard time letting go of Leah?

- Why do you think Leah did the things she did to Lainey? Is Leah a victim too?

- In the end, do you think Leah was a good friend to Lainey? Why or why not?

- What are some ways you can help a friend if you suspect he or she is being abused?

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