It requires someone bold to write about an 11-year-old character waiting for death. But in Ways to Live Forever, Sally Nicholls has put together a story in scrapbook format (it is a mix of a diary and a scrap) that is stirring, witty and light-hearted.
Sam McQueen has leukaemia and knows he is dying. A normal tween in all other respects, Sam decides to wait for the end to come—on his own terms. Written as a first person account, this book is the story about the rest of the days in Sam’s life.
Ways to Live Foreever: By Sally Nicholls, Scholastic, 200 pages, Rs195.
Sam lives with his granny, parents and little sister Ella, all of whom know that time is running out for him. Sam has a private tutor, Mrs Willis, who teaches him and another cancer patient Felix. Mrs Willis is not a teacher in the conventional sense. She believes learning is fun, and the trio’s attempt at science experiments that would have been frowned upon by school labs—not to speak of parents—puts both boys on a path that leads to searching for more facts.
Facts are what Sam loves. He wants to know and do as much as he can while there is time. UFOs, horror movies, flying in airships and having a girlfriend are just some of the normal things that both boys try and make happen. Both also make light of finding answers to questions like “Why do we have to die?” or “Why do children get terminal illnesses?”. Considering its subject, Ways to Live Forever is never morbid. Nicholls gets her characters out of the self-pity mode adroitly. The child’s natural curiosity beats his despair.
In case you are wondering if this is the right stuff for your child, try and read it with him or her. You could be in for a surprise. There is hardly any child who has never wondered about death or afterlife. Sam’s lists (of facts and observations), drawings and his questions are touchingly emotive symbols of a child’s outlook on life. Sample this: “After I die, Ella can have my bedroom as it is bigger. She can also have my bike and PlayStation too,” writes Sam. Nicholls tackles a difficult subject, but comes off very well at the end. It is a brilliantly written “print documentary”.
As Ways to Live Forever developed, the characters’ names, too, changed. The main character was called David first. However, when she got feedback that it was too girly, she changed the name to Sam, more boyish, and a person different from David. Sam’s sister started off as Katherine, became Tilda midway and then Ellie (“You have to like your characters’ names if you are an author”), which was further shortened to Ella. Felix was the only character who retained his name from start to finish.
According to Nicholls, she has written great scenes on trains, in fields, in pubs, on “writing dates” with a friend or in a coffee shop. “I find I write differently wherever I am,” she writes on her website.
Nicholls spent most of her childhood “trying to make real life as much like a book as possible… And I liked making up stories.”
Things haven’t changed too much for the 25-year-old Nicholls. In an interview published in Writer’s Secrets, she says: “I have a part-time job as an administrator for a charity called Effective Intervention. The rest of my time I spend writing stories, and trying to believe my luck.”
The writer is the editor of Heek, a children’s magazine.
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