What I Leave Behind

Book review by
Mary Cosola, Common Sense Media
What I Leave Behind Book Poster Image
Teen walks out his grief in beautiful, captivating book.

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Kids say

age 12+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Readers will learn about the importance of empathy and how people deal with grief.

Positive Messages

Throughout the book, Will is dealing with grief, but he still shows other people that he cares about them. Reach out to the people in your life, even if it is in small ways. You never know what personal battles people are going through. Open your eyes and heart; observe and connect with the humanity around you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Will is a sweet, empathetic person. He does many small acts of kindness every day that go a long way toward helping other people. Playa is a good, longtime friend of Will's. Major Tom, Will's boss, is supportive of Will and reaches out to him. Will's mom isn't in the book much, but she continues to try to connect with her son in a loving way.


A rape and a suicide are discussed but not described.


Infrequent profanity, mostly used for emphasis: "s--t," "f--k," "bastard," "hell," "pissed," "ass," and "Jesus."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Character recalls drunk teen girls at a big party.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee (Snap) follows a teen boy named Will as he works at his part-time job and walks the streets of his urban Los Angeles neighborhood for hours at a time. Will's father recently died, and he deals with his grief by walking, thinking, and trying to sort out his memories and emotions. The story is told in 100 one-page chapters that are 100 words each. It's a quick but not light read. Issues of love, friendship, death, suicide, and rape are important to the story and provide good discussion topics. There's infrequent strong language (including  "s--t" and "f--k") and a mention of drunk teens at a party.

User Reviews

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Teen, 13 years old Written byOlivia Hwang October 8, 2018

Short but sweat

Gives reader a meaningful thought as they go through the book but the maturity with launguage is required and not for young readers the book is also extremely s... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byTherealdirtydan September 22, 2018


It is a very short book (took me 50 minutes) but it is beautiful and incredibly written. There is some strong language like frequent s**t and very infrequent f*... Continue reading

What's the story?

In WHAT I LEAVE BEHIND, teen Will walks and walks and walks the streets of his urban Los Angeles neighborhood, remembering and trying not to remember big and small moments in his life. The story is told in a series of short passages --100 one-page chapters of 100 words each -- that are Will's inner monologues as he works at the Dollar Only store and passes different people in his neighborhood. He's walking out the pain of losing his dad and losing touch with an old friend who's gone through a traumatic experience. As his thoughts and emotions circle his brain during these walks, he starts to understand more about himself, his dad, and the world. He learns that the best way to break out of his isolated grief is to reach out to those around him.

Is it any good?

This beautiful and captivating little book about grief, friendship and empathy sneaks up and hits you with an emotional wallop. What I Leave Behind gives the reader Will's thoughts as he walks his neighborhood, which is his way of coping with the grief over his dad's death. The book has no real plot to speak of, but it tells an important coming-of-age story. Will's past, regrets, happy memories, and hopes all unfold as he walks and thinks. He learns a lot about himself and the world during these walks. His voice as a narrator is wonderful and relatable. Already an empathetic kid, his empathy grows as he closely watches the hopes and struggles of his friends and neighbors. Even though there's not a lot of "action," author Alison McGhee packs so much emotion and personal growth in so few pages it feels like magic trick.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how grief is portrayed in What I Leave Behind and other YA books and movies. People react to loss in different ways. Do the characters in these kind of stories react in ways you find believable?

  • How do you feel about novels written in unusual styles and formats? Does it add to or take away from the story the author is trying to tell?

  • What are your most cherished memories of your loved ones?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of grief and empathy

Themes & Topics

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