Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli has created another middle grade masterpiece with Dead Wednesday, a riveting tale about the awkward transition between middle school and high school and finding the confidence to be yourself along the way. It’s a serious story of life, death and mortality that speaks to tweens in an authentic and frequently funny voice.
As he did in his Newbery Honor novel, Wringer, which depicted a town’s ritualistic requirement that 10-year-old boys wring the necks of wounded pigeons shot during an annual festival, Spinelli places another seemingly ghastly tradition at the center of Dead Wednesday. In this case, 14-year-old Robbie Tarnauer, known as Worm, is thrilled to finally be participating in “Dead Wednesday,” a day in which eighth graders wear black T-shirts and take on the identities of the town’s teenagers who have recently died. Adults spend the day ignoring them, treating them as though they’re dead and therefore invisible.
It’s intended, of course, to be a solemn affair that warns rising high school students against dangerous, reckless behavior and its deadly consequences. For the kids, however, Dead Wednesday is a day of strange freedom and pranks.
Worm receives the identity of 17-year-old Becca Finch, who suddenly, mysteriously appears in her pajamas on his desk at school. She can interact with him but is invisible to others. “Worm,” she informs him, “we have to work together on this. I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do.” Worm and Becca get to know each other and eventually enjoy each other’s company. In a particularly moving passage, Becca explains the events leading up to her death and addresses the aftermath.
Spinelli takes an odd situation and makes it odder, but in his talented hands, the unbelievable becomes not only believable but also unputdownable. Worm is a shy, thoughtful and self-conscious protagonist whose quips will immediately draw readers in. He usually wears a watch, “a kind of compass that positions him in time and space,” but as he interacts with Becca, it becomes clear that all bets are off. Dead Wednesday is about how we choose to spend what time we have and how quickly that time can be lost. “You taught me more in one afternoon than I learned in my whole life,” Worm tells Becca. These are unforgettable characters, and Dead Wednesday is another award-worthy book from an author cementing his legacy.