Lessons from a Dead Girl
by Jo Knowles
About the book: Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, the pain of knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery.
Yes, she had wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. Practicing for when they got older and got married. But Laine knew that other girls don’t do those things. Do they? Why did Leah choose her? Was she special? Or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner?
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.
About the author:
Jo Knowles got hooked on writing for young adults after taking a course on children’s literature in college and went on to earn a master’s degree from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College. She was the recipient of the 2005 PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award. The inspiration for Lessons from a Dead Girl came from an article about kids abusing kids. “I began to wonder what makes childhoos friendships so complex, so painful at times and yet so binding,” she says. Jo Knowles lives in Vermont with her husband and young son.
- How did you develop such complex, believable characters?
Oh, I really do hope that’s what I achieved, but I guess as the author you can never know for sure if you’ve succeeded. I think it boils down to forcing yourself to keep looking closer, no matter how hard it gets. Several years ago, I heard Jennifer Richard Jacobson say that one way she gets to the heart of a story is to ask over and over again, Is it true yet? I think you have to do that with your characters as well. I think you have to ask, Are they true yet? Are they real? With each revision of Lessons, I tried to peel back another layer to learn more about Laine and Leah—to understand why they made the choices they made, and to feel that I truly understood the motives behind their actions and inactions, even if I didn’t openly reveal them in the book. I knew for this story to resonate with readers, I had to know these characters completely. Then, I had to put the layers back on so that, with each lesson/chapter, the reader could peel them off and make the same discoveries I did.
- Which authors and books have most influenced you as a writer?
I think the books that influenced me most to become a writer are the books I read as a teenager, and later reread many times in graduate school and beyond. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier and A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (no relation that I know of) are two that stand out as books I read multiple times. These days, I find myself drawn to authors who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is: Adam Rapp, E. R. Frank, Markus Zusak, K. L. Going, and Chris Lynch come to mind.
- Do you jump in and see where the story leads you or plan it before you start? Why?
I prefer to jump right in. I think I’m able to feel the fear and joy my characters feel when I am as unsuspecting as they are. I tend to see scenes unfold as I write them, moment by moment, so I often don’t know what’s going to happen in the next sentence any more than the characters do. Of course when I start to write, I have a general sense of what the story is about, but I always start with the character and a situation, and then let all the questions unfold from there. This means I wind up revising A LOT, but I still prefer to write this way.
After reading Lesson One predict what you think you’ll learn about Leah and Lainey’s friendship.
- Describe the beginning of Leah and Lainey’s friendship. Do you think Leah picked her on purpose? Why? Why do girls seem to need the classification of “best friend?” Do boys require this exclusivity too? Why or why not?
- What is the secret the girls share? How can secrets gain power? Do you think everyone has them?
- In every friendship is there a more dominant person? Which role do you play most often? Why? Are sibling relationships also unequal footing?
- Not only is Leah beautiful and smart but rich enough for her own horse and lessons. Is it difficult to be friends with someone who seems to have it all? Can envy destroy a relationship like this?
- Why do you think Leah asks Laine not to leave her alone with Sam? Do you think there’s a direct connection to him and the doll closet? Why do you think children who are abused often become abusers themselves? Why does Laine say “It feels good and horrible at the same time.” (p. 42)
- How would you describe Laine and Leah’s friendship? Who has control? Does one person always have control in a relationship in subtle and not-so-subtle ways? Why does Leah threaten to reveal their secret?
- Leah has “…the strangest way of knowing things—hidden things—about people.” (p.57) How do you think she has developed this talent? What types of things does she observe? Do you have this skill to understand others’ motivations? Would it be useful?
- Why do you think Leah reaches out to Paige Larson? What is revealed at her party? Why does she insist on secrets again? What does Laine want to do? Why does Leah disagree? What would you have done?
- Mr. Mitchell teaches his class about the mark of true friendship. What is the litmus test for it? Would your friendships qualify under this test or not? Why? Laine says, “maybe that’s what being real friends is all about—putting up with the hard lessons—both taught and learned together.” (p.77) With whom do you agree- Mr. Mitchell or Laine? Can you agree with both of them or not?
- Have you ever heard the old saying “there’s a thin line between love and hate?” Does this apply to Laine and Leah’s relationship or not? Why? Do you think what the girls have shared is a friendship or something different? How does it finally snap?
- Leah knows that rumors have swirled about her in her absence. Why do you think rumors exist? What do they reveal about human nature? What should you do about rumors?
- How has this relationship made Laine less secure about other friendships? Are the intimacies shared by Laine and her new friend, Jess, typical of female friendships? What physical demonstrations of friendship are allowed between male friends? Why do you think there is such a difference?
- Laine tries to prove to Leah that she’s over the whole relationship by dancing and having fun with Web. Have you ever tried to overcompensate for the loss of a friendship or romantic relationship in this way? How? Did it convince anyone (even yourself)?
- Why does Laine blame herself for what happened to Leah? Do all secrets eventually come to light? How do Web and Jess respond to the truth? Why couldn’t she trust them with it at first? Would you trust your friends with your deepest, darkest secrets?
- Why did the author set up the book in a series of lessons rather than chapters? Which lesson in the novel holds the most truth in your own life? Explain. What lessons have you learned from your own longest friendships?
Write a scene (fictional or memoir, your choice) that reveals a moment in a friendship. It can be a happy memory (like the horse show is in Lessons) or it can be darker or more complex.
Create a playlist for the movie adaptation of the novel. Explain your choices in a brief journal.
Create a piece of sculpture or collage that depicts the emotion of either Leah or Lainey. Think about your use of color, shape, and line to bring these emotions to life. Explain your piece in a brief artist’s statement.
Research the effects of childhood sexual abuse on its victims. Create a wiki, powerpoint or website to share what you learned.