June 10, 2024

Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities

Written by Casey Lyall
Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins)
288 pp.
Ages 8-13
May 2024
Bringing people back to life is an unusual service for a funeral home, but it is one my family did with great pride. (pg. 1)
Twelve-year-old Kimmy Jones knows it's a privilege to have the Jones's gift of Waking those newly departed who have some unfinished business and to grant them one last wish. Her father, Nathan, now passed, had it and so does Kimmy's Grandma Bev on her father's side. In fact, Grandma Bev is training Kimmy now that the child has turned 12. Kimmy's mom Julia and her stepdad Alex know what Grandma Bev and Kimmy can do and allow them to perform Wakings at their Jones Family Funeral Home though they are cautious as Kimmy is still a trainee and everyone insists she honour the boundaries that have been placed on their gift. And though Kimmy is able to Wake, everything changes when Grandma Bev dies. 
When Kimmy tries to Wake Grandma Bev, knowing she had secrets still to share with Kimmy, including the recipe for her awesome cookies, all she gets is a nosebleed.
How could she let her spark move on and pretend she had no unfinished business?
She had me. (pg. 57)
Worse yet, months afterwards, Kimmy is still having no success in Waking, though the power she used to feel in her chest when she was trying to Wake someone has become a "tug, tug, tug" that never leads to anything. 

When a boy around her age is found dead in the park, Kimmy is convinced that here is a soul who definitely has unfinished business i.e., revealing who murdered him. She breaks into the hospital morgue and, pushing harder than she ever has, Wakes Devon who doesn't know what happened to him. Surprisingly, Devon does not return to dead when Kimmy breaks the connection. Now Kimmy has a bigger problem: she's got a kid who is supposed to be dead but isn't and who can't go home, and she needs to figure out why he's still Awake and how did he die. 

With much humour and sharp investigative skills, Kimmy and Devon and a motley group of family and newly dead work to determine what is going on with the dead in their town of Basbridge, including Grandma Bev, and put things to right.
Casey Lyall, whose most recent book Gnome is Where Your Heart Is was nominated for a Silver Birch Fiction award, knows how to blend all the right elements for a comedic supernatural mystery, while making sure that readers understand how overwhelming death and grief can be. Still there is a message about life being for the living, except sometimes if you've been dead (!). Young readers on the Silver Birch Forest Kid Committee put this new book on their summer reading list of recommended Canadian titles for middle grade readers and they know great books when they read them. Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities is a fabulous read. It has laughter and magic, mystery and life lessons about death and grief and living. 
Devon stared at the sign. "You live in a funeral home?'
His eyebrows crawled up his forehead. "And you bring dead people back to life?"
"I told you!" I flung a hand in the air. "It's not usually permanent!"
"Terrible business model," he muttered. (pg. 108)
For many young readers, Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities will be a can't-put-it-down read, especially once they get invested in the characters, most notably Kimmy and Devon. They'll want to know if Devon becomes a zombie, gets to go home or dies again. They'll want to know why Kimmy can't find Grandma Bev's spark to Wake her for her last few minutes or whether the gift of Waking has died for the Jones family. There is a mystery to solve–remember Devon was murdered–and some family secrets and legacy to sort out. Did I mention there was magic at hand too?

The story in Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities is rich, like Grandma Bev's complex cookie recipe that Kimmy just can't replicate. She tries but it's just so sophisticated that you can't always figure out why and how it works so well. That's what Casey Lyall's writing is like. I don't know how she does it, but Casey Lyall has always done mysteries well (see her Howard Wallace, P. I. series) but what brings everything to life–pun intended–is the way she weaves humour and compassion into her stories. Her books, like Waking the Dead and Other Fun Activities, are complete packages that have everything to entertain, to inspire the imagination, and to subtly support middle graders who might be dealing with their own family issues, including grief. Casey Lyall may not purport to provide answers but it's more than enough that she can delight us with her clever plotting, her vibrant characters, and her ability to astonish with the supernatural that is still wholly believable.

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