A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that I Was Here is a realistic teen novel by best-selling young-adult author Gayle Forman that focuses on an 18-year-old dealing with the aftermath of her best friend's suicide. The book explores how it's impossible to know everything about another person, especially if they are good about hiding depression or suicidal thoughts. An intense read with disturbing details about how a talented, passionate young woman found an online group to encourage her to commit suicide, I Was Here deals with many tough subjects, such as suicide, unhealthy sexual relationships, and clinical depression. Because of the subject matter, the frequent strong language (including "f--k" and "s--t"), and candid references to sex and substance use in college, this is a book best suited for mature high schoolers.
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What's the story?
I WAS HERE opens with 18-year-old Cody going to yet another memorial for her best friend Meg, who committed suicide by checking into a motel, drinking an industrial poison, and sending time-delay emails to her parents and Cody. After Meg's grieving parents ask Cody to head to Meg's college housing and pack up her stuff, Cody reluctantly agrees to spare them the extra pain. While going through Meg's stuff, she reads personal emails between Meg and a rocker boy named Ben she had hooked up with in Seattle, and she begins to obsess over an encrypted file found in the laptop's trash. Because Cody had stayed in their working-class town while Meg went to college, they hadn't talked as often in the months leading up to Meg's death. But now all Cody can do is find out exactly what could have led Meg to take her own life -- a journey that forces Cody to confront Ben, talk to Meg's housemates, and figure out the mystery of Meg.
Is it any good?
Gayle Forman is known throughout the literary YA community as a master of evoking "the feels" with her stories, and I Was Here definitely delivers on that front. Cody's sadness is visceral and haunting; Meg was the only friend she had -- the only friend she needed. And for most of the book, Cody's journey is an emotional mystery of figuring out the bits and pieces of Meg's secret college life. It's touching when Cody connects with Meg's roommates -- Christian stoner Richard, kind computer geek Harry, and free spirit Alice -- in a way Meg never did. As Cody finds out more about Meg -- an indie rock enthusiast who spent a lot of time in small Seattle clubs socializing with budding bands and crushing on players (in both senses of the word) like Ben -- she realizes there were layers to her best friend even she didn't know.
The main reason this book isn't getting the typical Forman four- or five-star review is that it includes a dramatic twist that felt both unwise for Cody and unnecessary to the plot. Without spoiling any specifics, let's just say there's a Catfish-like development that went a step too far for this reader's comfort. Although the romance wasn't central to the story, as it was in If I Stay and the Just One Day duologes, it was threaded throughout to show how different Meg and Cody were to the same guy, hipster guitarist Ben. If you're expecting another epic love story, this isn't it. Instead, it's a complicated slow burn between the kind of guy parents warn their daughters about and an inexperienced girl who makes him change his spots. Not sure that happens often in real life, but if anyone can sell that sort of connection, it's Forman.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way the book portrays social media, especially websites that seem to support and encourage suicide. Do you think these sites are dangerous? Should they be monitored, or do people have the right to discuss anything they want?
Do books and movies that tackle tough topics such as rape, depression, and suicide provide an important outlet and opportunities for discussion? Are there enough, too few, or too many books about these issues, in your opinion? What can you do to help if you realize your friend is depressed or suicidal?
Talk about the romance in the book -- was it the center of the story? Was it believable? How does it compare to other YA romances, particularly Forman's other literary couples?
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