Pub. Date:
Random House Children's Books
Before I Die

Before I Die

by Jenny Downham
Current price is , Original price is $15.99. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


For the many readers who love The Fault in Our Stars, this is the story of a girl who is determined to live, love, and to write her own ending before her time is finally up.

Tessa has just months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, and drugs with excruciating side effects, Tessa compiles a list. It’s her To Do Before I Die list. And number one is Sex. Released from the constraints of “normal” life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa’s feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, and her new boyfriend, are all painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time runs out.

A Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year
Booklist Editors’ Choice
A Book Sense Children’s Pick
Kirkus Reviews Editors’ Choice
Publishers Weekly Flying Start Author
An ALA-YALSA Top Ten Best Book for Young Adults

The newly released feature film Now Is Good, starring Dakota Fanning, is based on Jenny Downham's intensely moving novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900385751550
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 09/25/2007
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 420
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 1.50(h) x 9.50(d)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

This is Jenny Downham’s debut novel. She lives in England.

Read an Excerpt

I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe on a coat hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took off his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans. He’d wear white pants and he’d be so gorgeous I’d almost faint. He’d take my clothes off too. He’d whisper, ‘Tessa, I love you. I really bloody love you. You’re beautiful’ – exactly those words – as he undressed me.

I sit up and switch on the bedside light. There’s a pen, but no paper, so on the wall behind me I write, I want to feel the weight of a boy on top of me. Then I lie back down and look out at the sky. It’s gone a funny colour – red and charcoal all at once, like the day is bleeding out.

I can smell sausages. Saturday night is always sausages. There’ll be mash and cabbage and onion gravy too. Dad’ll have the lottery ticket and Cal will have chosen the numbers and they’ll sit in front of the TV and eat dinner from trays on their laps. They’ll watch The X Factor, then they’ll watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? After that, Cal will have a bath and go to bed and Dad’ll drink beer and smoke until it’s late enough for him to sleep.

He came up to see me earlier. He walked over to the window and opened the curtains. ‘Look at that!’ he said as light flooded the room. There was the afternoon, the tops of the trees, the sky. He stood silhouetted against the window, his hands on his hips. He looked like a Power Ranger.

‘If you won’t talk about it, how can I help you?’ he said, and he came over and sat on the edge of my bed. I held my breath. If you do it for long enough, white lights dance in front of your eyes. He reached over and stroked my head, his fingers gently massaging my scalp.

‘Breathe, Tessa,’ he whispered.

Instead, I grabbed my hat from the bedside table and yanked it on right over my eyes. He went away then.

Now he’s downstairs frying sausages. I can hear the fat spitting, the slosh of gravy in the pan. I’m not sure I should be able to hear that from all the way upstairs, but nothing surprises me any more. I can hear Cal unzipping his coat now, back from buying mustard. Ten minutes ago he was given a pound and told, ‘Don’t talk to anyone weird.’ While he was gone, Dad stood on the back step and smoked a fag. I could hear the whisper of leaves hitting the grass at his feet. Autumn invading.

‘Hang your coat up and go and see if Tess wants anything,’ Dad says. ‘There’s plenty of blackberries. Make them sound interesting.’

Cal has his trainers on; the air in the soles sighs as he leaps up the stairs and through my bedroom door. I pretend to be asleep, which doesn’t stop him. He leans right over and whispers, ‘I don’t care even if you never speak to me again.’ I open one eye and find two blue ones. ‘Knew you were faking,’ he says, and he grins wide and lovely. ‘Dad says, do you want blackberries?’


‘What shall I tell him?’

‘Tell him I want a baby elephant.’

He laughs. ‘I’m gonna miss you,’ he says, and he leaves me with an open door and the draught from the stairs.

Zoey doesn’t even knock, just comes in and plonks herself down on the end of the bed. She looks at me strangely, as if she hadn’t expected to find me here.

‘What’re you doing?’ she says.


‘Don’t you go downstairs any more?’

‘Did my dad phone you up?’

‘Are you in pain?’


She gives me a suspicious look, then stands up and takes off her coat. She’s wearing a very short red dress. It matches the handbag she’s dumped on my floor.

‘Are you going out?’ I ask her. ‘Have you got a date?’

She shrugs, goes over to the window and looks down at the garden. She circles a finger on the glass, then she says, ‘Maybe you should try and believe in God.’

‘Should I?’

‘Yeah, maybe we all should. The whole human race.’

‘I don’t think so. I think he might be dead.’

She turns round to look at me. Her face is pale, like winter. Behind her shoulder, an aeroplane winks its way across the sky.

She says, ‘What’s that you’ve written on the wall?’

I don’t know why I let her read it. I guess I want something to happen. It’s in black ink. With Zoey looking, all the words writhe like spiders. She reads it over and over. I hate it how sorry she can be for me.

She speaks very softly. ‘It’s not exactly Disneyland, is it?’

‘Did I say it was?’

‘I thought that was the idea.’

‘Not mine.’

‘I think your dad’s expecting you to ask for a pony, not a boyfriend.’

It’s amazing, the sound of us laughing. Even though it hurts, I love it. Laughing with Zoey is absolutely one of my favourite things, because I know we’ve both got the same stupid pictures in our heads. She only has to say, ‘Maybe a stud farm might be the answer,’ and we’re both in hysterics.

Zoey says, ‘Are you crying?’

I’m not sure. I think I am. I sound like those women on the telly when their entire family gets wiped out. I sound like an animal gnawing its own foot off. Everything just floods in all at once – like how my fingers are just bones and my skin is practically see-through. Inside my left lung I can feel cells multiplying, stacking up, like ash slowly filling a vase. Soon I won’t be able to breathe.

‘It’s OK if you’re afraid,’ Zoey says.

‘It’s not.’

‘Of course it is. Whatever you feel is fine.’

‘Imagine it, Zoey – being terrified all the time.’

‘I can.’

But she can’t. How can she possibly, when she has her whole life left? I hide under my hat again, just for a bit, because I’m going to miss breathing. And talking. And windows. I’m going to miss cake. And fish. I like fish. I like their little mouths going, open, shut, open.

And where I’m going, you can’t take anything with you.

Zoey watches me wipe my eyes with the corner of the duvet.

‘Do it with me,’ I say.

She looks startled. ‘Do what?’

‘It’s on bits of paper everywhere. I’ll write it out properly and you can make me do it.’

‘Make you do what? The thing you wrote on the wall?’

‘Other stuff too, but the boy thing first. You’ve had sex loads of times, Zoey, and I’ve never even been kissed.’

I watch my words fall into her. They land somewhere very deep.

‘Not loads of times,’ she says eventually.

‘Please, Zoey. Even if I beg you not to, even if I’m horrible to you, you must make me do it. I’ve got a whole long list of things I want to do.’

When she says, ‘OK,’ she makes it sound easy, as if I only asked her to visit me more often.

‘You mean it?’

‘I said so, didn’t I?’

I wonder if she knows what she’s letting herself in for.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Review, NYTBR, October 14, 2007:
"This may sound too depressing for words, but it is only one indication of the inspired originality of Before I Die, by Jenny Downham, that the reader can finish its last pages feeling thrillingly alive ... I don't care how old you are. This book will not leave you."
—John Burnham Schwartz

Starred Review, Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2007
"Lucid language makes a painful journey bearable, beautiful and transcendent."

Starred Review, Publisher's Weekly, August 6, 2007
"The eloquent dying teen can seem a staple of the YA novel, but this British debut completely breaks the mold. Downham holds nothing back in her wrenching and exceptionally vibrant story."

Review, Entertainment Weekly, September 21, 2007
"Bound For Glory: This fall, five young authors deliver breakout books packed with razor-sharp writing."

Review, Entertainment Weekly, September 28, 2007
"In luminous prose that rings completely true, Downham earns every tear she wrings from her readers. I trust there will be many of them—many readers, and of course, many tears. A-"

Reading Group Guide


1. Describe Tessa’s relationship with her father. How has this relationship been shaped by Tessa’s illness? Debate whether Cal, Tessa’s younger brother, feels neglected by his father. Discuss Tessa’s relationship with her mother. Why did she leave home? When does Tessa miss her mother the most?
2. Discuss the true qualities of a friend. Which of these qualities best describes Tessa and Zoey’s friendship? What does Zoey offer Tessa that her father cannot give? Why does Tessa’s father call Zoey when Tessa won’t get out of bed? Cal hates Zoey. How does Tessa explain her friendship with Zoey to her little brother?
3. Tessa’s father is frustrated when she becomes withdrawn. He says, “If you won’t talk about it, how can I help?” (p. 2) How does this withdrawal represent the first stage of grief? Why is talking about feelings always better than keeping them to yourself?
4. Discuss why Tessa doesn’t want to return to school. She says that Zoey is the only person at school that isn’t afraid of her illness. Explain how difficult it is for teenagers to deal with the terminal illness of a classmate. What might Zoey say to other students that would help them know how to interact with Tessa?
5. Tessa writes her private thoughts on the wall beside her bed. Why does she let Zoey read what she has written?
6. Zoey tells Tessa that it’s all right to be afraid. How does Tessa reveal her fear? How does she use her hat to hide her fear? Discuss how Cal, Adam and Tessa’s father express their fear.
7. How is Tessa’s list a form of bargaining and acceptance? At what point in the novel does Tessa accept the fact that she is dying? Explain how her list helps her “get on with living.” Which item on her list is the most dangerous? Why does doing illegal things like shoplifting and driving without a license give Tessa a thrill?
8. Tessa’s father wants to know the things on her list. He says, “I need to know about it, not because I want to stop you, but because I want to keep you safe.” (p. 80) Discuss how Tessa reacts to her father when he asks to see the list.
9. Discuss the conversation between Tessa and her father after she is caught shoplifting. Why does he think anger is taking her over?
10. How is Tessa’s list confusing to her father? Explain how Tessa’s list is self-centered. Her mum tells her, “You have to think about the people who love you.” (p. 170) At what point does Tessa begin to think about Cal and her father? Explain why Tessa’s mother speaks in past tense when she says, “we loved you.” Why is it unrealistic for Tessa to think that she can rekindle her parents’ relationship?
11. Why do you think sex is number one on Tessa’s list of things she wants to do before she dies? Tessa worries about being a “slag” if she has sex with someone that she doesn’t know. Explain Zoey’s reaction to Tessa’s thoughts.
12. Tessa says that walking up the stairs behind a boy she doesn’t know reminds her of hospital corridors. What do the stairs and the corridors symbolize?
13. Discuss the moments in the novel that Tessa is most depressed. Who helps her deal with her depression?
14. Why does Zoey suspect that Tessa is in love with Adam? What does Zoey mean when she says, “I thought you understood the rules! Never let a bloke into your heart–it’s fatal”? (p. 88) Why is Adam different than Zoey? Discuss what Adam means when he says, “I can’t give you what you want.” (p. 117) What does he ultimately give her? What does she offer him?
15. Tessa asks the home health care nurse if she believes in God. What is the significance of this inquiry? Tessa tells the nurse that she doesn’t believe in heaven. Discuss the nurse’s reaction to Tessa’s confession. Why does the nurse think a support group might be helpful to Tessa? How does Tessa’s list take the place of a support group?
16. How does Tessa’s dad react when he finds out Zoey wants to terminate her pregnancy? Discuss how his opinion is related to Tessa’s terminal illness.
17. Sorrow, loneliness, anxiety, and guilt are emotions associated with grief. How does each of the characters in the novel deal with these emotions?


Seventeen-year-old Tessa struggles to work through a list of things she wants to do before she dies as her battle with leukemia comes to an end.

Seventeen-year-old Tessa was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 12. That was the same year that her mother left home. Now, Tessa is in the finally stages of her illness, and there are a list of things that she wants to do before she dies. This list confuses her father, who has quit his job to take care of her, but he ultimately understands that the list helps her focus on life rather than death. Zoey, Tessa’s best friend, is by her side as she moves down the list. There are many symbolic relationships and events that help Tessa face her untimely death. Among them are Adam, a neighbor who is dealing with his own loss, but gives Tessa the romance that she is seeking; her mother’s brief reappearance in her life; and, a return to a favorite family vacation spot.

Discuss the five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Write a letter from the point of view of a dying person that expresses one of these stages of grief.


Jenny Downham trained as an actor and worked in alternative theatre before starting to write. She lives in London.


Before reading this book, discuss the five stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Write a letter from the point of view of a dying person that expresses one of these stages of grief.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Before I Die 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 527 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just read this book and am in complete awe of the author's talent. I saw this book in the bookstore and was intrigued by the title and it's placing in the young adult section. I started thinking; is this really written from the perspective of a dying person, a dying young person? I picked it up and read the first few sentences for the blurb (I don't like to know too much about a novel before I read it) and it confirmed my initial suspicion. I simply had to read it.
Downham is amazing. She has a beautiful, lyrical voice that cuts to the heart of the matter. It's heartfelt without being melodramatic. As I was reading I was laughing, crying, and laughing again. Even though it's a tough subject matter, it's an incredibly uplifting book. A book that makes you feel more alive than you ever have, a book that makes you reflect on your life and the purpose of it. Having read the book, I am feeling full of optimism about tomorrow, about the promise that it holds and the things I want to achieve. I cannot emphasise enough how great this book is. If you're looking for a read that will shake you from the complacency of life and make you take stock, make you feel, and make you want to bow down in awe at someone's talent, then Before I Die by Jenny Downham is a must read.
Awesomeness1 More than 1 year ago
This book is real and emotionally enrapturing. Downham holds nothing back as she describes a teenager in her final days. Its all in here: sex, drugs, illness, and death. But that doesn't keep the novel from being uplifting. Overall, its a tribute to life, and how little we have of it. The book itself is written marvelously. Its simple and real, with splashes of beautiful prose thrown in. I loved it, and I understand its not for everyone, but I fully recommend it.
njisamazing678 More than 1 year ago
This book is something that changed my life. Many say that, but this book really did make me rethink how I lived. When I finished, it made me want to write a bucket list myself! The sarcastic tone that sixteen-year-old Tessa spoke and the extreme situations she got into made me laugh and cringe throughout the book. The edgy tone and content made me respect the book even more. Jenny Downham portrayed exactly how I believe I would feel if put into that situation. She discusses many contreversial subjects that teenagers go through. Anywhere from sex, drugs, and friend, she hits the real view of a rebellious teen to a tee. I find I am most interested in racy books that suprise and exhilarate me, and this book did just that. As most know the ending when they begin this book, I expected it, yet found myself crying anyways. The details Downham put into it made me picture every movement and character. I fell in love with Adam, even though I did not like him at the beginning. He brother Cal made me laugh and tear up with his naive honestly with his older sister. I could understand where her father came from with the way he treated his only daughter and her mother made me crazy at times, but she was an important part to understanding how Tessa acted. Zoey was hard to understand at first, but I felt that after Zoey got pregnant, we saw the real side of her. All and all, I believe this book is one of the best I have ever read. It honestly inspired me to rethink my life and how I want to live it.
Ashley5390 More than 1 year ago
Grab this book and a box of Kleenex (no bookmark needed). A very good, inspiring, and real book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story of Tessa and her life with cancer. she only has weeks to live before she dies and she made a list of things to do before she dies and the first item on the list is sex. at first it was hard to like Tessa her motives we're selfish but more along her journey she meets Adam and this is when her story becomes more meaningful. it show's how life will always go on even when she is dead. This book I recommend to anyone and everyone its shows the real meaning living your life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Before I Die is a beautiful novel. The characters are so relatable and don't feel like characters and this story never feels like a story. The whole book is about Tessa, a girl recently diagnosed with cancer who now knows for a fact that her treatment will stop and she will not get better. Basically Tessa is on her death bed. Before she dies she has a list of things she wants to do before she dies that aren¿t all exactly pleasant such as her number one wish losing her virginity. Although this seemed as though it would be fun it turns out to be quite the opposite but Tessa keeps going with her list and the end completes the novel with extreme sadness but dignity. This novel was great.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My sister went into the grocery store(to get one thing) as I was nearing the end, (since I couldn't put it down) I started balling crying and my sister came out and my eyes were already so red and it was just simply an amazing book. Good for teens with context etc.
Klondon More than 1 year ago
This is such a fantastic book. I'm a survivor of cancer so I really enjoyed reading this book. The main character I felt was a lot like myself which was such a nice element to this story. I find the characters amazing. I felt very emotional about Tessa and I must say I did cry more than once! This is a definite book that can be read over and over again. I recommend it to everyone that loves to read as much as I do.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have read the book and it is amazing my mom cryed reading if u every get a chanse to read it u should
ReviewerMar More than 1 year ago
I had been wanting to read Before I die for a long time, and then I just stumbled upon it in the library, and I just had to read it. So I did. And I loved it, and cried a lot. Just like most people who have read this book probably have. Before I die is not your stereotype sad story. The list made it a unique book. What would you want to do before you died? Tessa tries to do everything on the list. The list becomes her life, as far as she still has a life. But there are some things on the list that will be hard to accomplish. Love and be loved. It seems so hard. With the last power she has inside of her, Tessa completes the list. Some things are hilarious to read about, like the only-say-yes day she had, while others seemed impossible, like bring back together her parents. As I turned the pages of this book, I became fully aware of what was happening. Every page meant one page closer to Tessa's death. Even a miracle couldn't make her stay alive anymore. No-one should die at that age, or earlier. Tessa is one of the greatest characters ever. She has cancer but can still be happy, and she can still find the power to hang on to her life, even if that power is the list. Tessa was super realistic, and at one point in her process of accepting her own death she decided to stop giving a f*ck about her own life. And that's what made her so special. Then there was the YA-stereotype mean best friend. She didn't really interest me. And there was the Boyfriend, who was a-dor-able, he was so caring and protective, just like Tessa's dad. And the most amazing character from this book was Tessa's brother. He seemed to have accepted his sister's death, and was joking about it all the time, but when she was about to die he revealed his real feelings. That made me cry so much! Jenny Downham has a great writing style, and the pace of this story was great, too. I just wish the book wasn't so short... A recommender for every teen who likes sad tragic stories, or just wants to see how amazing his/her own life is.
Rickilynne More than 1 year ago
Im 15 years old and my librian told me about this book in our High School library and I was the first one to read it. Its an amazing story about life, love, and the end of the book I was in tears during Social Studies class. Its for anyone boy or girl teen or adut...
books-then-food More than 1 year ago
Wow. This book is really fantastic. It sounds like its your average teen book love/death/sob story, but its so incredibly well written and eye opening. The main character has had cancer for four years, and has decided to stop treatment. She experiences an extreme range of emotions, all clearly written and totally believable, from anger to joy, sorrow to boredom. At times the characters are difficult to like, but there experiences always come through as authentic and sincere. This book opened my eyes to aspects of dying (and living) I'd never considered before. Though the end is emotional, its an uplifting story that won't leave you depressed for weeks. Can't reccomend this book enough, a definite must read!
bookworm297 More than 1 year ago
WOW doesn't even cover this life changing...... This book makes you appreciate life way more than you did the following day....It makes you believe that you can truly do anything and everything that you want to because you never know when you'll depart from this Earth....Tessa's strength, will to keep going, and just overall determination to live her life despite what the doctors told her, despite her so-called limitations, and despite people's interpretations of how she looked and acted. She had the love of her family, her best friend Zoey, and her love Adam which helped her through this time. In Adam, she found that people really can stick by you and truly love you aside from just pity and guilt. Adam was crazy about her and didn't care that she had cancer which is don't find many genuine people like that these days....the best friend Zoey is absolutely honest and definitely won't apologize for it which is great and Tessa needed someone like that in her life so nothing's sugarcoated...her dad truly amazing and strong to stick by his daughter through this traumatic years and her bro Cal is annoying but cared alot and loved Tess so much and as for her mom....well I'm glad she grew up and realized that family is the most important thing.... I recommend this book to anybody and everybody because it changes the way you look at the world around you and how you live each day and not take one moment for granted and take risks and just live carefree and do everything and anything you want because all the opportunities are out there and all you have to do is take it now!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was truly amazing!It seemed as if it was written by someone who actually lived through this. It made me cry as well, and I dont think that any other book has. I, too, read this book in only 3 days! I like books about real life and if you do to then you should READ IT. I'm glad I did. I think that I will think better about life now. It was the best book I'd read in a while and it just makes me want to search for more books that are just as good, or even better (:
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just fininshed reading it and its is one of the best books I have ever read!! I was crying for like the last 50-60 pages. it was so sad but I'm glad I read it and I dont think I could ever forget this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a writer myself, I am extremely critical of the books I read. But aside from writing, I'm also a teenager looking for a good book. This book was extremely blunt and well- written. The author spares noone and dives right into the story, as the main character, Tessa, does herself. At first, I found it harsh and upsetting, but it began to make me think like Tessa. I notice the details and little things that make me happy. We've seen this story before, A walk to remember, etc. But this was different... it pleased me both as a teenager and a writer.
tjsjohanna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was both realistic and hard to read. There is no happily ever after ending - just one teen's efforts to come to terms with the fact of dying. There is some cursing and graphic sex - although I felt that they had their place in this novel. Some of the central characters were just so great!
debhall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very realistic voice. Involving story.
GaylDasherSmith on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It was interesting to watch someone experiencing their death. Fascinating and real-feeling
Awesomeness1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is real and emotionally enrapturing. Downham holds nothing back as she describes a teenager in her final days. Its all in here: sex, drugs, illness, and death. But that doesn't keep the novel from being uplifting. Overall, its a tribute to life, and how little we have of it. The book itself is written marvelously. Its simple and real, with splashes of beautiful prose thrown in. I loved it, and I understand its not for everyone, but I fully recommend it.
mhairimac on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The story is of a 16year old girl called Tessa, who is ternanally ill with leukemia and before she dies wants to complete a number of things.She wants a boyfriend, She wants to drive a car. She wants normal. At the begining Tessa comes across as Bolshy and Defiant on the surface but as you read on and peel away the layers you find a mass of complicated emotions that pull at the heart strings. I found it a very emotional book to read but as though you couldn't put it down it was vital to read on. I found it a very moving book. It made me feel as though i had lost a friend by the end. An extremely good book defenitly a favourite of mine
jayegee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is will change or confirm you thoughts on life.
Kayla-Marie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I expected a more emotional read than what it was. It started out strong, but the main character became kind of flat and I had a hard time understanding her (even though it was written in first-person). I also couldn't understand her "list of 10 things to do before she dies". Many of the things on her list didn't seem to do anything for her once she had accomplished them, so why were they so important to her to do?
EmCh0711 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Overall an amazing book I really liked the plot almost the whole way through. This book brings at lots of emotion & makes us should make us feel more grateful for what we have since we read what Tessa has to go through everyday with her leukemia. I am really glad I read this book but I did not like the ending, especially when the author cut off what Tessa was saying. Another negative is at times I don't think the author explained & went into detail enough.
punkeymonkey529 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read this earlier this year, and just remembered about it, but I remember checking it out from the library for someone else in my family at first, I don't remember who though, but they never touched it, so I saw it laying there and decided to read it. I actually remember reading it in a day or two I think. Something about it just got me sunk into it. A little depressing at times, but in all a good read.