The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell. June 2, 2015, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 368 pages. Ages 13 & up.
Seventeen-year old Abe Sora plays baseball, loves reading and learning, and dreams of being a professor and teaching others. Then one day he collapses on the field, his legs inexplicably weak. As the weakness worsens he undergoes multiple rounds of tests, only to finally arrive at the terrible diagnosis: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease).
In that moment, all Sora's dreams are dashed and replaced by a bleak prognosis of progressive weakness, pain, and helplessness, leading to death within two years. Eventually he is unable to attend school any longer, and turns to books and the internet to fill his hours at home, using an online chat room as way to connect with other teens without his illness getting in the way. He makes 2 new friends, first online, then in real life. The three friends talk about their dreams and pressures, and give each other the support and courage to make difficult decisions about their futures.
As his condition worsens and the weakness spreads to his hands and arms and he becomes more and more dependent on his mother, Sora struggles with the issues of death and dying with dignity, and has to make the most difficult decision of all.
I thought this was a beautiful, bittersweet, story of friendship, goodbyes, and making peace with the cards you're dealt. Of course it was sad at times, but I liked seeing how the friendships between Sora, Mai, and Kaito developed, first from casual chatting online, then in real life. I was glad Sora was able to find peers he could connect with, who, once they got over the initial shock, could accept Sora's illness without pity but with honesty and sincere friendship. I liked how Sora opened up with them and could answer their questions honestly, without trying to put on a brave face or sugar-coating things like he felt he had to do for his mother.
While this can be a bit of a tear-jerker at times, I did not find it to be an overwhelmingly sad book. While an obvious comparison would be John Greene's The Fault In Our Stars as they both deal with teens that have serious illnesses and their relationships, the plot of The Last Leaves Falling is more simple, with no real plot twists. I would also compare it to If I Stay by Gayle Foreman, as both deal with teens making decisions about how and when to die. Another novel of the same genre would be Chris Crutcher's Deadline, which also stars a teenage boy with a terminal illness deciding to live and die on his own terms. I would recommend this book to readers who enjoyed any of the above, and those who are more interested in a thoughtful, character-driven story, rather than action and drama.
Other Works By This Author
This appears to be Sarah Benwell's first book.