Downham, Jenny 1964(?)-
Downham, Jenny 1964(?)-
Born c. 1964, in England; married; children: two sons.
Author and actor. Tellers Theatre, London, England, actress, c. 1990s.
London Writers' Competition first prize, 2003.
Before I Die, David Fickling Books (New York, NY), 2007.
Before I Die was adapted as an audiobook, read by Charlotte Parry, Listening Library, 2007.
British writer Jenny Downham tackles a difficult theme in her first novel for teen readers: what a person does after learning that he or she has only months left to live. In Before I Die readers meet sixteen-year-old Tessa shortly after she has been told that the leukemia she was diagnosed with four years ago is now terminal. A strong character, Tessa decides to make the most out of every day she has left; with her best friend Zoey, she sets about listing the top ten things she most wants to accomplish or experience during what is left of her short life. While her parents' reactions range between denial (her overprotective dad) and disinterest (her emotionally distant mom), Tessa focuses on achieving each of her goals, and her record of her own progress serves as the novel's text. One goal stands out as most meaningful for the girl—to experience love—and this is accomplished through her relationship with Adam, the boy who lives next door.
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Calling Tessa's story "shockingly straightforward," a Publishers Weekly contributor added of Before I Die that in Downham's "wrenching and exceptionally vibrant" prose the author effectively portrays the teen's slow physical decline and her battle with a myriad conflicting emotions. In Booklist Hazel Rochman praised the use of the present tense, noting that the author's "clear, beautiful prose" will "draw readers deeply into the story" and inspire them to question what they would do in Tessa's place. Citing the novel's "inspired originality," John Burnham Schwartz added in his New York Times Book Review appraisal that Before I Die contains "as honest and indelible a portrait of a young adult at risk—no, beyond risk—as one is likely to find in recent literature."
In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Downham discussed the focus and intent of her first novel, noting that she read widely on the medical aspects of her story in order that Before I Die portray the facts accurately. However, the novel "was never supposed to be a medical or hospital-based story," she added. "Tess has been sick for four years and has received a terminal diagnosis. She knows she will die. She lives with her condition. I wanted the reader to inhabit her body (by using first-person, present tense narrative) in the hope that they would have both a visceral and an emotional response. If Tessa's body does the talking—if the reader experiences a lumbar puncture or a hemorrhage with her—then it inevitably pushes the reader closer to the physical self. I wanted to achieve an immediacy between the body's decline and the words Tess uses to describe what's happening to her."
Downham, a former actor, draws on her stage training in her work as a writer. "I keep notebooks and journals and diaries for the characters, researching them as if I'm going to play them on stage …," she explained in her interview for Teenreads.com. "It might not all get in the book, but it helps me to know who they are."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 15, 2007, Hazel Rochman, review of Before I Die, p. 53.
New York Times Book Review, October 14, 2007, John Burnham Schwartz, review of Before I Die, and interview with Downham.
Publishers Weekly, August 6, 2007, review of Before I Die, p. 191.
Teenreads Web site,http://www.teenreads.com/ (September 1, 2007), interview with Downham.