If I Stay | Study Guide

Gayle Forman

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If I Stay | Context


Young Adult Novels Told through Flashbacks

The flashback is a literary technique used to depict relevant events and background information that occurred prior to the time and place of the current story. In some cases, the flashback works to create suspense as details are revealed slowly and in fragments. Flashbacks may be introduced through the memories of characters or through direct reference via structure, style, or narration.

In If I Stay, the character of Mia experiences flashbacks of past events as she considers whether to live or die after the horrific car crash that kills her family. If I Stay is one of several young adult novels constructed through the use of flashbacks.

  • I Am the Cheese (1977), by American author Robert Cormier (1925–2000), is about a boy named Adam who rides a bicycle in search of his lost parents. Between descriptions of Adam's journey, Cormier intersperses scenes in which Adam is interrogated by a psychologist.
  • Rats Saw God (1996), by American author Rob Thomas (b. 1965), is about Steve York, a National Merit Finalist and drug user, who keeps a journal at the request of his guidance counselor.
  • The Book Thief (2005), by Australian author Markus Zusak (b. 1975), like If I Stay, uses flashbacks in a nonlinear way, meaning they are not in chronological order. This chilling story of World War II–era Germany is told in flashbacks, with Death as the narrator.
  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz (2010), by American author A.S. King (b. 1970), incorporates the memories of several different characters. It tells the story of Vera Dietz, whose best friend, Charlie, has died under mysterious circumstances.
  • Code Name Verity (2012), by American author Elizabeth Wein (b. 1964), tells the story of Verity, a British spy captured by the Nazis and interrogated by the Gestapo. Forced to write down her secrets, Verity weaves a clever confession, which leads to an unexpected conclusion.


A coma is an unconscious state caused by a brain injury. A person in a coma won't react to external stimuli, such as verbal commands or touch. Brain injuries that lead to comas may be the result of a disease or the effects of trauma. A car accident, such as the one Mia Hall suffers in the book, would fall into the category of trauma. Trauma can be defined as a wound or injury caused by violence or an accident.

The Glasgow Coma Scale is used to measure the extent of a patient's conscious level of response to stimuli. Medical professionals test the patient's eyes, verbal skills, and motor skills, stimulating them in various ways. Patients are given a certain number of points based on their responses to stimuli (on a scale from 1 to 15). For example, a patient would be given three points if they opened their eyes in response to someone speaking, four points if they were disoriented but still communicated clearly, but only two points if they simply moaned.

Consciousness is defined as wakefulness (being awake) and awareness (being aware). Different parts of the brain control each state. If someone is aware without being awake, or vice versa, they are not conscious. Awareness is a patient's ability to perceive the environment and respond to it. People have shared anecdotes of being in a coma and being able to hear what was said around them. Studies also have shown that patients can hear what is going on around them.

A patient may be in a coma for two or three weeks before they are considered to be in a vegetative state, from which they are unlikely to recover. Patients with less severe brain injuries are more likely to recover from a coma; however, it is difficult to tell in the early days of a coma whether or not the patient will recover.

As a result of the car accident and multiple surgeries, Mia spends the bulk of the novel in a coma. By making the comatose Mia the narrator of the novel, Forman suggests that Mia is aware of her surroundings and situation, though she is not awake or communicative. Mia uses her time in the coma to consider the pros and cons of living.

Out-of-Body Experiences

Mia refers to a moment during the accident and moments during her coma as out-of-body experiences. She describes being able to view the scene of the accident, including her own unconscious body, from some vantage point. She also describes the ability to decide whether her physical body lives or dies as an out-of-body experience. An out-of-body experience is defined as the sensation that the mind and physical body have become separated. Many who claim to have experienced this sensation describe the ability to view the physical body from another vantage point or to travel away from the site of the physical body.

While science has not proven the existence of such a state, attempts have been made to characterize the experience. Such a state may occur as a result of spontaneous inducement, such as a trauma. It may also occur from external inducement, such as drugs, sensory deprivation or overload, or lack of blood to the brain. This can occur in pilots or astronauts exposed to G-forces (forces that act against acceleration). Some researchers have focused on the part of the brain where the parietal and temporal lobes meet as a source for this phenomenon. This area of the brain is responsible for synthesizing external environmental information with internal physical information. The symptoms of an out-of-body experience may result when this part of the brain fails to integrate this information successfully.

Musical References

The Cello

In If I Stay, Mia plays the cello and hopes to study it in college. The cello is a four-stringed instrument that is part of the violin family. The cello gained prominence as a solo instrument in the 17th and 18th centuries. German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) wrote five sonatas for piano and cello, one of which Mia is listening to in the car when the accident occurs.

Some of the most notable cellists of recent years include Yo-Yo Ma (b. 1955), Mstislav Rostropovich (1927–2007), and Pablo Casals (1876–1973).

Yo-Yo Ma

In If I Stay, Mia and Adam Wilde see Yo-Yo Ma perform during their first date. Adam's knowledge of this iconic American cellist makes Mia realize that Adam really understands her.

Ma is an American cellist who was born in France to Chinese parents. He is known for the rich tone of his playing. Because he frequently collaborates with other artists from other genres and cultures, Ma has expanded the popularity of classical music.

Ma began playing the cello with his father when he was four. A child prodigy, he gave his first public recital at age five and made his debut at New York's Carnegie Hall at age nine. He went on to study cello at the Juilliard School of Music before earning a degree in anthropology from Harvard University in 1976.

In 1998 Ma established Silkroad, a collective of artists from many countries who create music in their own traditions. He seeks to expand the classical repertoire and often plays works by lesser-known modern composers and commissions new works.

Summer Music Camps

There are several prestigious music camps in the United States. Some of the most famous are Boston University's Tanglewood Institute, the Interlochen Arts Academy, and Idyllwild Arts Academy. In the book, Mia attends a summer music camp where she meets campers from all over the world. There, she learns what other young musicians are accomplishing.

  • Located in Massachusetts, Boston University's Tanglewood Institute offers training for all instruments and singers. Tanglewood's successful alumni include singer and pianist Harry Connick, Jr. (b. 1967), soprano Katherine Jolly, and New York City ballet director Andrew Litton (b. 1959).
  • Located in Michigan, Interlochen offers programs in visual arts, writing, dance, motion pictures, theater, and music, including all instruments and composition. The academy's alumni include soprano Jessye Norman (b. 1945), actors Ed Helms (b. 1974) and Adam Rapp (b. 1968), television producer Dan Goor (b. 1975), and conductor Lorin Maazel (1930–2014).
  • Located in southern California, Idyllwild Arts Academy offers diverse programs such as jewelry design, Native American art, and ceramics in addition to traditional studies in areas such as music and dance.

Oregon Music Scene

In If I Stay, Mia, her family, and her boyfriend live in Oregon and are involved in the local music scene. In addition to its natural beauty, the state of Oregon has a thriving classical and rock music scene. Portland's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall is home to the Oregon Symphony, Metropolitan Youth Symphony, and Portland Youth Philharmonic. Portland also has numerous clubs that host dance parties and musical groups in genres including punk, metal, hip-hop, jazz, folk, and indie rock.

Portland is considered to be a rock and roll town and thinks of music as one of its biggest exports. Many mainstream bands have hailed from Oregon, including Paul Revere and the Raiders, Robert Cray, the Decemberists, and Everclear. While Portland is Oregon's largest city, many smaller towns in Oregon also have active music scenes.

Juilliard School

In If I Stay, Mia auditions for the Juilliard School. Formerly the Juilliard School of Music, Juilliard is a world-renowned performing arts school in New York City. Originally founded in 1924 as a graduate school, Juilliard offers bachelor's degrees in music, dance, and drama, as well as graduate degrees in music. It is the professional education arm of Lincoln Center in New York.

Admission to Juilliard is by audition. Auditions are held in several cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, and Dallas, as well as New York. In the book, Mia auditions in San Francisco. Many of the school's programs require that students submit a recording in order to be invited to audition. Gayle Forman mentions no other conservatories to which her main character has applied except Juilliard. Thus, a rejection from Juilliard would mean that Mia would have no option for the immediate future other than to study at the local college.

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