Ten-year-old Becky Zaslow is diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) just before her class talent show. The sudden changes in her world include a hospital roommate whose experience with chemotherapy has left her rude and embittered; a lively nurse who levels with her; and parents who react strongly and differently to her illness. Even though the treatments leave her bald and weakened, she shows up at the talent show just before her bone marrow transplant, to the acclaim of all but one of her classmates.

A key coping strategy for Becky is an increasingly vivid fantasy life in which she finds friends among a herd of zebras and one monkey. Holding her stuffed zebra, she "travels" to Africa to escape the pain and trauma of treatments. Gradually she loses ground; as her body gives way, her mind and spirit move increasingly to the other world where an old zebra offers wisdom and help for the crossing she is about to make. She dies, leaving behind a journal that becomes her younger brother's incentive to learn to read, a task he has been resisting.


The book is dedicated to Kelly Weil who, before her death of leukemia, wrote a story about a zebra named Zink which inspired first a play and then this novel. Though it starts with the zebra fantasy, which might be a little disorienting for readers expecting to plunge into a middle-school setting, the ensuing chapters, alternating between an account of Becky's illness and her zebra fantasies, provide a clear, moving portrait of a girl who finds ways to come to terms with fear, pain, changed relationships, and the reality of her own dying. Her teacher and a nurse are also well-drawn figures, though the adults are somewhat marginal to the world of peers and imaginary companions where she works out her strategies first for surviving her pain, then for relinquishing her short life.

The epilogue is followed by several pages of portraits and short bios of children living with leukemia or who have siblings with ALL, as well as a brief medical explanation of the disease. Though a hard story, it might be particularly useful for siblings of ALL patients or those who have recently lost a sibling or friend to the disease.


Random House: Delacorte

Place Published

New York



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