Pub. Date: 2015
Genres: Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Young Adult
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
About a year ago, my mom discovered The Last Leaves Falling, by Fox Benwell*, on the Internet and was inspired by an interview with the author that she read to go find this book. She also found an interview, which I think was this one, where she was surprised to find out that there were different plot threads between the U.K. and U.S. editions, so she purchased both editions. She has been encouraging me to read it, so I finally did—the U.K. edition.
This beautiful book is about a Japanese boy, Abe Sora, who has developed ALS, which you might have heard more about when the Ice Bucket Challenge was a thing, and he contemplates how the rest of his short life will go and what dying will be like. This isn’t a topic for the faint of heart. The ending isn’t for the faint of heart. I don’t mean that in the sense of Game of Thrones; I mean it in the sense that it is controversial. It concerns the Death with Dignity Act, or at least the core of what it is.
Now, a book about illness, death and suicide is not depressing to me, even though I cried through the last half of the book. I’ve read enough books that concern death (to the extent that I did a big class project about it) where I find there is a lot to talk about. I think it’s especially worth talking about with teens. This book can easily start conversations about physician-assisted suicide, horrible chain letters that encourage teens to commit suicide, quality of life, and culturally-specific issues around disability. Please note that one specific item in this list makes me uneasy about teens reading this book without having a conversation with a responsible adult about it.
Death is a great part of the book, but the middle of the book is about friendship. Sora discovered an online chatroom that makes him happier and helps him forget some of his troubles for a while. I like that this is a better example of finding real-life friends from the Internet. I like seeing them meet for the first time and having to deal with him hiding his illness. I like that they all become close friends who help each other, talk about random things, and push each other to follow their dreams. I loved seeing all three of these friends develop and find themselves. It was more heartwarming to watch them help each other through the bigger struggles of their lives, especially those of Sora and Mai.
On a side note, I don’t know for a fact if the cultural parts or the day-to-day life of a person who has ALS are accurate, but I accept that Benwell did research both Japanese culture and ALS, as he states in his FAQs. It is also relevant that Benwell is disabled. The most connection I can make to a level of accuracy is that Japan does have a suicide problem, but I have moments of doubt about the language used to make usernames (however clever they are) and emoticons in a Japanese chatroom.
I am curious about how the American edition is different, and I will probably read it some day to find out. For now, I recommend this beautiful and complicated novel to those who want to read about a character who has increasing challenges with their health or about a character who finds great friends online.
* Fox Benwell wrote under the name “Sarah,” as you can see on the book cover, before he started transitioning. In the course of this review, I am sticking to using the name he goes by now and his pronouns.