How to Save a Life

Book review by
Kate Pavao, Common Sense Media
How to Save a Life Book Poster Image
Tender tale of pregnant teen celebrates hope after loss.

Parents say

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Kids say

age 13+
Based on 4 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Could open up a good discussion about teen pregnancy -- and allow families to share their own concerns and values. See our "Families Can Talk About" section for discussion ideas.

Positive Messages

The characters learn how to support each other and create a fulfilling future for all. As Mandy says, "I give my whole body to yes./ Yes to trust, yes to a new family. Yes to hope. Yes to staying."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jill's mom is shown as capable and loving. The characters each go through struggles, but in the end they learn to support one another. Their support helps each of them to start living for the future instead of the past.


One teen admits she is repeatedly sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. She fears he might be the father of her baby.


One protagonist reveals a sexual encounter that happened the first time she met a boy, and another protagonist discusses her sexual relationship with her longtime boyfriend.


A few words like "crap" and "s--t." Jill feels bad after she tells her father to "Eff America" on the Fourth of July.


Jill works at a fictional bookstore chain. Mandy goes shopping at a mall, where she goes to a Starbucks and uses Jill's mom's American Express.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Mandy says her mom and her mom's boyfriend were often hung over from too much drinking; Jill gets her mother drunk so she won't worry about Mandy, who is missing. The next day the mom throws up. Jill's dad smoked cigars on weekends.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this book is about a pregnant teen and the family adopting her baby. One protagonist reveals a sexual encounter, which happens the first time she met a boy, and another protagonist discusses her sexual relationship with her longtime boyfriend. One teen is also repeatedly sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. Other mature material includes some swearing, parents who get drunk and hung over, and grief over a father who is killed in a car accident.

User Reviews

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There aren't any reviews yet. Be the first to review this title.

Teen, 13 years old Written byEnc1nue October 15, 2020
Teen, 17 years old Written byabbacus April 10, 2013

Pretty Decent.

I thought this book was good. I wouldn't say it would be a favorite of mine, but still worth reading. I give it 3 and a half out of 5 stars.

What's the story?

When pregnant teen Mandy arrives to live with the family adopting her baby, she is leaving behind a mean mother and her mother's sexually abusive boyfriend. She narrates the story with Jill, who will be the baby's sister; Jill's own father died in a car accident, and she worries that her grieving mother hasn't quite thought through the adoption, which is being done without lawyers or a contract. When the mother meets Mandy, she is suspicious of the strange girl, and even hires a friend to investigate her. But as she learns more about Mandy's troubled past, she begins to realize that her boyfriend's observation is true: \"She may be giving up the baby so it has a mother, but she kind of needs one herself.\"

Is it any good?

The two very different protagonists allow readers to get in deep with the complicated emotions of these people in pain. Zarr creates some truly tender moments that will stay with teens long after they read this book, such as when Jill's mother tells Mandy the she will love her baby even if Mandy's mother's boyfriend turns out to be the father ("'Either way, this little girl is innocent, and I'm going to love her with all my heart.' Her whisper is fierce.") Some of the plot lines will be more interesting to readers than others -- the thread about Jill hiring her friend to investigate Mandy falls pretty flat -- but overall readers will relate to the protagonists and applaud their ultimate decision to support each other and believe in hope.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk books and movies depicting teen pregnancy. How does this novel compare with other books that you've read about the subject? Is it more or less realistic? Are stories like this one more likely to normalize teen parenthood -- or help families think and talk about a difficult subject?

  • What do you think of the book's title? Whose life is the author talking about? What does she believe is the secret to saving a life?

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