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Lessons From a Dead Girl

November 26, 2007

Lessons from a Dead GirlLessons From a Dead Girl

Jo Knowles

pub. Candlewick, 224 pp

One of my problems, as an adult, with young adult fiction is that, to me, it is often completely predictable. After I have read the first ten or fifteen pages, the story arc is all laid out, the ending is as clear as a bell, and I can just sit back and follow along. Now I also know that when kids read these books, they often do not have the experience, both literary and real life, to pick up on these clues. Because of this, the predictability factor is, again sometimes, not so important, and I have trained myself to look past it in most of my YA reading. However, I do make note of it for myself. So it is always a pleasure to find a story that either breaks this mold or winds up in a different place than I expected.

Having said that, when I sat down to read Lessons From a Dead Girl, Jo Knowles’ debut novel, within a few pages my prediction engine was in full swing. I thought I had this tale of two girls who are best friends and the abuse that one of the girls subjects the other to, completely figured out. Happily, although this is no way a ‘happy’ story, I found that Knowles did not follow the easy path, and her story is not at all formulaic or trite.

In fifth grade, Leah chooses Laine to be her new best friend. This is a big deal for Laine as Leah is one of the most popular girls in school. Laine, on the other hand, is not. As time passes, their friendship grows and we see some well developed scenes that confirm their commitment to each other. However, at the same time, Leah takes Laine deeper and deeper into a world of sexual and emotional abuse. That this abuse takes place in Laine’s childhood play space, only strengthens its impact on Laine. It is Laine’s confusion about and struggle with what Leah is doing that drives the story. How could someone who is her best friend be doing these things? And why doesn’t Laine do something to stop it?

A difficult story of trust, secrets, betrayal, and a search for self, Lessons From a Dead Girl, is an engaging book. It deals with some very serious topics, in an open and honest way, and as such brings its readers face to face with an often untold aspect of growing up.

For mature readers.

4star 4

On a related note, I got to spend a fair amount of time with Jo Knowles at the ALAN conference in New York, last week. Both talking to her as a person and listening to her presentation at ALAN, I got the feeling that she is a very thoughtful, caring person, and this is also evident in her writing. I enjoyed getting to know her, and will definitely be on the lookout for future books by her.

She also volunteered to come into my classroom to talk about writing, etc. – since she lives close by – and I will definitely be looking into this possibility.

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