When some of my trusted book reviewer friends love a book and my students begin to pass it around, I know it’s time to check it out for myself. How to Save a Life definitely fits these criteria (side note: is it bad I need to look up criteria/criterion every time I use it? I hope not.). Plus, look at the title. And check out that cover. They scream awesome realistic fiction YA to me.
Jill is your average 17-year old girl. She has a basic job (bookstore clerk [my dream job after teacher]), an on-again-off-again boyfriend (Dylan, who seems to pretend to be a bad boy, but totally isn’t), her eyebrow is pierced in a small piece of rebellion, and her dad — who is basically the older, adult, male version of her — died a year ago in a car accident. Okay so. . .maybe Jill isn’t your average 17-year old.
Jill’s mom, Robin, has decided she needs to adopt a baby. Nevermind that Jill is her only child, her husband is dead and she’s in her 50s. She’s going to do this. It’s not as much of a whim as it sounds: Mac (the aforementioned deceased dad/husband) and Robin had talked quite a bit about adopting before he died. Enter Mandy.
Mandy is an 18-year old liar. She’s not the Pretty Little Liars type of liar, though. She’s just had such a bad track record with her life that she feels the need to defend herself against everyone. She trusts nobody. Reading the book (written from alternating points of view with Jill and Mandy), I just wanted to say “Oh, Honey” every time Mandy said anything. It’s not cheesy. It’s not fake. She’s just naïve, but incredibly well-written. She’s also very pregnant, and is giving up her baby to Robin. She has moved in with Robin and Jill until the birth.
Jill does not like Mandy. There are many reasons for this (not the least of which being that she feels Robin is trying to replace Mac with Mandy’s baby). Jill does not trust Mandy. Mandy does not trust Jill. Robin trusts them both, but perhaps she shouldn’t. Read, and follow the story of them learning to love and trust again (or for the first time), with a looming deadline of the birth of this child.
I really like this book. I think the characters are very real, and they are what drives the plot along. There are honest emotions: sadness, sorrow, anger, frustration, and yes, even a bit of happiness, joy, and the good kind of heartache. I thought the plot was a tad predictable, but as others have said, I would have been mad had anything else happened (though I have at least one student who vehemently disagrees with me on this). Sara Zarr has written a fantastic YA book here that made me laugh and cry.
I recommend this for all readers probably 7th grade and up. There are some difficult topics, but they’re approached very delicately. I think girls might like this more than boys, but I think it’s a good fit for anyone who could learn how to use a little tenderness in their approach to others.