Zelda lives in the kind of quaint, upbeat town worthy of a montage. People greet her by name, wish her good luck on her geography test and loan her a bike when she’s running late. But after a close call on that bike with a car and a disappearing boy, Zelda starts to question her perfect town. Why does that geography test—which she’s pretty sure she also took yesterday—make no sense? Why does the town laundromat sport its own creepy clown? And why has her dead cat, Patches, shown up . . . talking?
Zelda starts to suspect that she’s actually inhabiting a dream, even more so once she reencounters that mysterious boy, Langston. But whose dream is she in? And what if the dreamer wakes up? Will they all just cease to exist?
To find out, Zelda, Langston and Patches head toward the limits of the known dream world. What they discover includes a robot house, an ice cream vendor who speaks in rhymes and the four gym teachers of the apocalypse, all of which are depicted in black-and-white illustrations by author Adam Rex. If this sounds kind of silly, it is. Those familiar with Rex’s books for younger readers will recognize his zany humor here as well, but even as the absurdity is pushed to extremes, A Little Like Waking maintains a level of seriousness as well.
The dreamscape is influenced by personal history and often tinged with tragedy. At every turn, the characters consider big questions: “Do you want to grow up? Do you want a life that’s easy or a life that’s real?” Zelda must confront the fact that if she’s not the dreamer, she’s not the star she once assumed. As she puts it, “Growing up is realizing you’re not the main character. Or everyone else is, too.”
A Little Like Waking is sneaky like that, planting nuggets of philosophical and moral truths alongside carnival rides that sprout from the earth like giant vegetation. It’s also romantic and a little sad, with moments of quiet, bittersweet loveliness that stand out in high relief from the near-constant backdrop of hilarity. Rex’s quest narrative is like none other, sure to leave readers marveling at the wonder of dreams and the power of imagination.