Without Tess by Marcella Pixley. October 2011. 9780374361747. Gr 7-9.
Every Wednesday Lizzie Cohen sits in the high school guidance counselor’s office with her sister’s childhood journal in hand. Lizzie’s sister Tess died five years earlier, and the journal full of poems and drawings is all Lizzie has left of Tess. It isn’t enough. It was Dr. Kaplan’s idea to use the journal in their therapy sessions. Lizzie says,
“At our very first session, I told him about the journal filled with sketches and poems. I told him how I rescued it from her coffin the day of her funeral and carried it home in the inside pocket of my coat, how I couldn’t let them bury it, because I knew that these pages contained the real story of Tess and me and what happened when things changed. Even though I might not want to remember, burying the Pegasus Journal along with Tess would have been criminal.”
Most of the book is made up of Lizzie’s memories of her sister and their childhood, which was full of adventure and make believe. The two sisters were always very close, and Tess was wildly imaginative in the games and stories she made up for her little sister. Eventually though, Tess’ behavior grew more and more erratic and the make believe became darker as she went downhill mentally. Lizzie was only a kid, and she had no way of knowing that Tess believed her own stories until it was too late. Only Lizzie knows that her sister didn’t drown accidentally, and the guilt that she feels over her sister’s suicide is at the heart of this thoughtful novel.
In the present, Lizzie’s high school experience is falling apart. She rarely turns in any homework, except in her English class where she turns in the poems that Tess had written in her journal before she died. Lizzie is amused to note that her deceased sister is getting a B in a high school English class with poems she wrote at age ten. But a poetry doubles assignment in which she is paired with an old friend may be just what she needs to bring her present into focus.
Readers who are interested in a powerful psychological story will be glued to the pages as they try to understand, along with Lizzie, what Tess was really about. Teachers may also find the story to be an educational tool for helping more young people understand and empathize with mental illness or as a way of exploring the redemptive power of poetry.