Without Tess

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Without Tess Book Poster Image
Compelling tale of teen haunted by troubled sister's death.

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Kids say

age 12+
Based on 4 reviews

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

Educational Value

Readers will pick up a bit about Judaism and Catholicism from the lives of the Cohens and their neighbors the Amodeos.  But the main educational value is in following Lizzie's progress in coming to terms with a horrible loss and her sense of guilt, and the relationship between her sister's world and the one in which everyone else lives.

Positive Messages

Love and loss, power, and helplessness, holding on and letting go -- all inescapable life lessons and balancing acts for everyone. Lizzie and her family struggle with an especially devastating dose and eventually come to terms with their inability to save Tess, their survivors' guilt, and the fact that life can still be beautiful.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Dr. Kaplan, who counsels Lizzie at school, is wise and insightful. Lizzie's parents, though as out of their depth with Tess as most parents would be (based on her journal and Lizzie's accounts, Dr. Kaplan suspects she was psychotic), are intelligent, committed, and loving. Childhood friend Niccolo Amodeo shows loyalty, tenacity, and romantic interest in Lizzie when they become teens.


The pivotal event is Tess' death by drowning, which is foreshadowed when "pretending to drown" is one of her favorite games. Another scene involves a "magic" blood ritual in which Tess stabs herself and Lizzie with a unicorn earring, with dire results.

The girls and their friends live on the seashore, and perhaps as a result, they have  a cheerful callousness about using the body parts of dead sea creatures for projectiles and other playthings. In addition, there's one episode that haunts both of them, in which toads they've captured bake to death in the sun because Tess and Lizzie have forgotten about them and gone off to eat a popsicle.


Some  kissing, along with Lizzie's hilariously snarky comparison of her poetry teacher's presentational style to that of a late-night sex hotline worker. Kids who haven't learned the term "double entendre" will acquire it here. Some of Tess' more disturbed behavior, while not explicitly sexual, is certainly sexually charged. One particular episode finds her in a trance-like state licking a cat -- which, after a certain point, is having none of it and lashes her across the face, drawing blood, as a stunned Lizzie and a neighbor look on.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that there is plenty of darkness (mental illness, grief, suicide) but also plenty of humor and ultimate hope in Without Tess. Pixley paints a compelling portrait of both the beauty of the magic fantasy world Tess and Lizzie share and the dark, out-of-control side that leaves 10-year-old Lizzie more and more bewildered as people ask "What's wrong with your sister?" and she doesn't know how to answer.

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Teen, 13 years old Written byUsername01 April 20, 2020

Without Tess Book Review

Without Tess is a particularly interesting book. However, at times it can be a little bit disturbing: Tess stabs her sister with an earring, smashes dead crabs... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byaero July 10, 2017

Without Tess

Without Tess is a wonderful book. The writing draws you in and you will be truly touched by the end. Although the book is sad it's well worth reading in th... Continue reading

What's the story?

Teen Lizzie Cohen's life, and that of her whole family, has been in freefall since the death of her older sister, Tess, six years earlier. The two shared an extraordinarily close bond and many adventures in a magical world of Tess' creation, but the arrival of new friends brings Lizzie different interests and possibilities. Told partly in the present and partly in retrospect, the story gradually reveals Tess' disintegration and its effect on those who love her, and how they come to heal.

Is it any good?

Pixley's previous novel, Freak, scored high praise for perfectly capturing various aspects of the adolescent-girl experience, and here again, her voice and attitude are spot-on. When not writing novels for young adults, Pixley is a middle school teacher. The quality of her writing is excellent and engaging, and she's not afraid to grapple with such issues as mental illness and self-destructive behavior at a level that's challenging but age-appropriate.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about mental illness -- how it affects those who suffer from it and those who love them. 

  • Families can talk about the power of charismatic leaders to make people believe in alternative realities. Tess believed so strongly in her visions that she not only saw them herself, she also could, to some extent, make Lizzie and Niccolo see them, too. This gave her extraordinary power over Lizzie, in particular. Have you ever known anyone who exerted this type of power -- to make you believe something you normally wouldn't, and act upon it?

  • Tess did not want to be cured of believing in the reality of magic, no matter what the cost. Do you know people who cling that strongly to their positions or beliefs, in spite of the consequences, or evidence to the contrary?

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