Pain makes us human, and the acceptance of this harsh reality makes us a family—that is the idea behind How to Save a Life. Author Sara Zarr captures real, unsentimental emotions as two teen girls from opposite worlds are thrust together at the cusp of womanhood.

Harsh, punky Jill MacSweeney is mourning the death of her father—and not doing a great job of it. She has alienated everyone in her life, finding it easiest to be cold to those she loves the most. Her mother, in an effort to fill the void left by her husband, decides to adopt a baby. Timid, dolled-up Mandy Kalinowski from Omaha answers her plea and travels across the country to stay with Jill and her mom until the baby comes. She has plenty of secrets, but her greatest concern is finding a better life for her child than her own.

As the two girls come face to face, something begins to change within them. Mandy’s attempts to escape her past and Jill’s search for a future just might have a common ground. But first, both must redefine their ideas of family—not to mention redefine themselves.

How to Save a Life feels vulnerable and powerful all at once. With interchanging perspectives—one terrified and innocent, the other enraged and confused—that move fluidly back and forth in a mournful, desperate dance, the book gets right down to the hearts of these two girls. Their stories are brutally emotional, but as in Zarr’s National Book Award finalist, Story of a Girl, their lives unfold with a genuine tenderness. No matter how flawed their reactions are to their situations, Zarr suspends all judgment and provides the girls with endless opportunities to grow as young women. The result is a raw yet warm tale that gives new meaning to the concept of home.


Sara Zarr shares with BookPage a little about How to Save a Life at ALA 2011.

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