When I was about 12, I read Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die, a slim novel about a girl coming to terms with her older sister’s death from cancer. Then I read it again. Then I read it yet again. I don’t know how many times I ultimately read that book, but I can tell you that I still have that same battered copy, and the folds and stains on the pages attest to many, many travels through them.
Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls has a similar magic, I think. The narrator, a boy named Sam, is dying from leukemia. The book is a collection of Sam’s journal entries, lists, questions (mostly ones that grown-ups refuse to answer or can’t answer, like “How do you know when you’ve died?”), goals, and sketches. Sam loves science (the fun kind, where you learn about UFOs and loch ness monsters, and make volcanoes that actually blow up), and he approaches his illness like he would a complicated science experiment–observing, asking questions, researching possible answers. He knows he is dying; he wants to understand why and what it means and what will happen next. Sam and his best buddy Felix, who also has cancer, have very different ways of seeing and coping with their illness, and their friendship adds a lot of humor and a bit of adventure to the story.
The result is a story that is, all at once, tender, hilarious, sad, and hopeful. Kids who I’ve talked to about this book always ask, “Is it sad? Did you cry?” Yes, I cried. Yes, it is sad. But it is also funny, and quirky, and true. Sam doesn’t seem like a character in a book. He seems like a real boy, with real questions that don’t always have answers, and it feels like a gift to be able to go on this journey with him.