Review (Plus): ‘This is Really Happening’
Bookshelf Blurb: BuzzFeed Senior Writer Erin Chack has put pen to actual paper sharing her trials and tribulations of being a teen cancer survivor. Bald, scared, yet witty and determined, Chack makes you laugh at her stories while compelling you to embrace death as it is inevitable.
America’s Review: We all die–it is inevitable, but how we embrace death and its arrival speaks loudly of a person’s character. When Erin Chack is told she has cancer at the age of 19 and her mother is diagnosed with it a year later, she discovers “normal” can be defined in a multitude of different ways.
A week doesn’t pass without my hearing of someone who has been touched by the effects of cancer and its aftermath. Having recently lost an aunt to cancer, I started reading this book cautiously. I was not ready to read a gut-wrenching, painfully sad book about a teenager diagnosed with cancer. By the third paragraph, however, I found I was not weeping, but laughing. Chack’s voice and language draw you into her story–not just cancer and its effects, but about her life.
She is correct: we all die. It is a completely normal process, but telling people you have the dreaded “C” word alters the version of death. Each chapter in the book is a different chapter (or experience) in her life. I was relieved to discover Erin already has a steady boyfriend prior to cancer, so there wouldn’t be any moments of falling in love/dying moments. Nope, not in this story. Erin tells us her first french kiss was slimy–just some guy’s tongue in her mouth. She shares her awkward moments of relationships from ninth grade to her present day working at BuzzFeed.
This Is Really Happening isn’t a YA fall-in-love-while-having-cancer book. This is nonfiction. This really happened to her. Bravo, Erin, for writing a book about cancer without it being a cliché.
In the classroom: Death doesn’t ask your age before it arrives. Death comes knocking despite religion, race or creed. When a student dies it can be confusing and difficult to understand. The young feel invincible; no one young should ever die. But as Erin tells us, it happens. Death is cancer in this story, but it can reach our children through illness as much as a myriad of other accidents. Teaching students how to cope with mortality is essential when it arrives at the classroom.
One way to explore death in the classroom is through poetry. Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death explores the ability to feel invincible as many of our young teens do, but still concludes with the inevitable “eternity.” The poem’s ABAB format allows for rhythm in poetry to be taught alongside personification.
For your high school classroom, or more high level students, both Elegy in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray or To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Houseman both explore the idea that it doesn’t matter who you are or your age; die with pride. This is true of Erin Chack’s book as well, thus allowing dialogue for death and the recommendation of this book to your students. When you can combine a nonfiction YA book and tie it to poetry it will broaden your students prospective–especially those who may be reluctant to branch into poetry or nonfiction, or just an altogether reluctant reader.
Death Be Not Proud by John Donne is always my go-to poem for my students. I make sure to send this poem home and give them a few days to read and interpret it. I encourage them to discuss it with their peers and family. Upon due date, as a class, we discuss it and then they receive their narrative essay: the obituary. It is enlightening to read their inner perspectives. For extra credit, they can read it out loud. There aren’t many takers on the extra credit, and it always baffles me.
This is Really Happening by Erin Chack (Razorbill | 9780448493589 | April 25, 2017)