The Last Leaves Falling

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About The Book

A teen grapples with ALS and his decision to die in this “deeply moving” (Booklist, starred review) debut novel infused with the haunting grace of Japanese poetry and the noble importance of friendship.

Sora is going to die, and he’s only seventeen years old. Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), he’s already lost the use of his legs, which means he can no longer attend school. Seeking a sense of normality, Sora visits teen chat rooms online and finally finds what he’s been longing for: friendship without pity.

As much as he loves his new friends, he can’t ignore what’s ahead. He’s beginning to lose the function of his hands, and soon he’ll become even more of a burden to his mother. Inspired by the death poems of the legendary Japanese warriors known as samurai, Sora makes the decision to leave life on his own terms. And he needs his friends to help him.

Reading Group Guide
A Reading Group Guide to

The Last Leaves Falling

By Sarah Benwell

 

About the Book

Sora, age seventeen, will never grow old. He has a terminal illness, ALS—known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—which means he will gradually lose the use of his body, starting with his legs. Sora, who lives with his caring single mother in Japan, takes refuge in Internet chat rooms, where no one can see his problems. Under the user name SamuraiMan, he makes two good friends online. The three start meeting in person, filling Sora’s last days with a joy he never expected. But when his illness worsens, he must ask his friends an almost unthinkable favor. Like the Samurai whose death poems he cherishes, Sora wants to die on his own terms, with dignity and surrounded by love.

Discussion Questions

1. Why does the author, who’s British, set the book in Japan? Which aspects of the story are connected specifically to Japanese culture but which could take place anywhere?

2. Sora says of his relationship with his mother, “We’re a perfect team.” Why does he think that? How does their relationship change in the course of the story? 

3. Sora sometimes blames himself for being a burden to his mother. Analyze why he feels that way and what you think his mother feels, based on the text.

4. What does Sora mean when he says that people treat him as “the boy who’s going to die,” and how does he feel about it? Find examples of people treating him that way and times when they don’t. 

5. Describe Sora’s relationship with his grandparents and his visit with them. What are the good aspects of the visit? What are the good aspects of returning home? Talk about the bakeneko and the cat that Sora helps choose. Why do you think they are part of the story?

6. What role does Doctor Kobayashi play in Sora’s life? Discuss whether you think she is helpful to him.

7. What are the characteristics of a bonsai tree? Talk about the bonsai tree in Doctor Kobayashi’s office, how it changes in the story, and what it might symbolize for Sora. 

8. Doctor Kobayashi gives Sora Death Poems: Last Words of the Samurai. How do the poems affect him? Find different examples of the poems in the text and relate them to what Sora is experiencing. Discuss the meaning of the poem in Chapter 85. Why do you think the poem makes up an entire chapter?

9. Why does Sora call himself “SamuraiMan” online? Find places in the story, other than the poetry, where he thinks about warriors and their approach to life and death. Why is the warrior’s way such an important influence on him?

10. According to Doctor Kobayashi, the samurai knew that “what matters is not how much time you have, but how you use it.” Discuss that idea and whether you agree with it. Do you think that Sora used his time well? 

11. Talk about how the Internet frees Sora to “be anything” and why it makes him feel like “the old me.” Discuss his reactions to other teens online and what they discuss. Why does he end up “screaming” online and what are the consequences of his scream?

12. Describe Kaito and how Sora meets him. What are Kaito’s interests and problems? Why is his online name NoFace? What is their friendship like and how does it evolve?

13. Talk about Mai’s dream and why it’s a dilemma for her. Why is it so important to Sora that Mai pursue her dream? How does he help her?

14. When Sora’s mother urges him to invite Kaito and Mai for dinner, why doesn’t he tell them about his illness? How does he feel about having them over? Describe their reactions and how the reactions affect Sora. Discuss whether you think he should have told them.

15. Analyze The Brilliant Adventures of Professor Crane and Friends, and the role it plays in Sora’s last weeks. How do the animals that Mai uses for each of them reflect that person’s character? 

16. After doing research about his illness and its likely progress, Sora starts to “formulate a plan,” about which he says, “I am sure it’s right.” Find examples of foreshadowing about Sora’s final plan. Discuss why he made the choice he did and whether you might have made the same choice if you were in his position.

17. How do Mai and Kaito help Sora with his plan? Discuss their emotions and how Sora’s mother might feel when she finds out. Talk about the wish tree Mai and Kaito create. Discuss the final poem and how it relates to Sora and his story.

18. Baseball comes up throughout the story. In what ways is baseball important to Sora? Discuss the imagery he uses in his last e-mail to his grandfather.

19. Find examples of nature imagery throughout the story. Choose a few examples and discuss how they affected you as a reader. Why do you think the author draws so much imagery from the natural world?

Extension Activities      

Last Words of the Samurai

Have students find the poems in the novel and jot down their page numbers. Gather as a class and read the poems aloud. Then have students write their own short poems in the same spirit as those in the book. Each student should choose their favorite among the ones they write, illustrate it, and post it on a “Last Words of the Samurai” bulletin board.

Presenting Japan

Many aspects of Japanese culture are mentioned in the novel, often briefly.  Have the class brainstorm a list of topics to research, such as baseball in Japan; Japanese folklore; funeral customs; anime; manga; Hayao Miyazaki; and so on. Students, working alone or in pairs, should use at least two print sources and two digital sources to create a multimedia presentation on the topic to share with the class.

I Wish . . .

Sora challenges Kaito and Mai with the question: “If you could do anything before you die, what would it be?” saying that the answer doesn’t have to be realistic. Have students write several answers to the question, share them in small groups, and compare their aspirations. You can also encourage your students to submit a wish at TheWishTree.net, and read what other people have made wishes for.

Right or Wrong?

Have students debate the topic of assisted suicide as a policy issue rather than a religious one. The affirmative side should research the benefits to the person, family, and society of allowing assisted suicide. The negative side should research the drawbacks and possible pitfalls. Use the traditional debate format of two students on a side, with each given two opportunities to speak.  (For format guidelines, see http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/debformats.html.) 

Author Insight

As a class, watch this video of author Sarah Benwell and hold a classroom discussion about what she says: (http://books.simonandschuster.net/The-Last-Leaves-Falling/Sarah-Benwell/9781481430654)

 

 

 

Guide written by Kathleen Odean, a former school librarian and Chair of the 2002 Newbery Award Committee. She gives professional development workshops on books for young people and is the author of Great Books for Girls and Great Books about Things Kids Love.

This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
About The Author

Sarah Benwell lives in the picturesque English city of Bath, where she studied for an MA in Writing For Young People. Now she writes, runs creative writing workshops for teens and adults, such as the Young Writers Squad at Trowbridge Library where she’s also a writer in residence, and works retail at unsociable hours. Having seen a good chunk of the world, Sarah is a keen advocate for diversity in life and on bookshelves, and she loves nothing more than acquainting herself with both. As such, she co-runs DiversifYA.com: an online space that highlights diverse experience and promotes inclusion in YA fiction.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (June 2015)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781481430678
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99
  • Lexile ® HL640L ? The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

*"Benwell’s deeply moving story is visceral...and psychologically acute in its portrayal of a dying teen and his loyal friends. Its shattering ending is sure to engender discussion among readers."

– Booklist, starred review

"Benwell's gentle treatment of friendship and death with dignity will touch fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars."

– Kirkus

*"This is more a tale of friendship than of romance and one of living life to the fullest for as long as possible...this thought-provoking read offers teens a different perspective on living and loving life."

– School Library Journal, starred review

*"Benwell’s story is remarkably unsentimental, and her setting—contemporary urban Japan—adds a unique appeal...[T]he haiku Sora reads, and writes, are a perfect symbol for his life: brief in length but full of strength and subtlety."

– Horn Book, starred review

*"It’s a memorable and haunting story of a boy’s determination to seize control of the limited time he has left."

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

*"An exquisite debut YA novel that serves as a guide to living a meaningful life, and the importance of family, friendship and self-knowledge."

– Shelf Awareness, starred review

Awards and Honors
  • CBC/NCSS Notable Children's Book in Social Studies
  • Kansas State Reading Circle List High School Title
  • USBBY Outstanding International Book
  • Arkansas Teen Book Award Master list
  • MSTA Reading Circle List