Although this series is made up of four books—Awakening, Believing, Connecting, and Discovering—they’re really better considered a complete novel split into four parts. In fact, they’re probably best read back to back. (I only figured out the A, B, C, D naming convention as I started the fourth novel.)
The series follows high school senior Calla Delaney during the year following her mother’s death. She moves from Florida to upstate New York to live with her grandmother. Told in present tense, the books are an intimate exploration of what Calla goes through as she struggles to make sense of her quickly changing life. The point of view changes occasionally, giving hints of other stories that will eventually intersect with Calla’s.
My reaction to each book is included below, but here are some things you might want to know about the series as a whole. I feel I should include a reminder that this review, like all my reviews, is chock full of spoilers.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
The series takes place primarily in Lily Dale, NY, which is a spiritualist community. Lily Dale is a real place, and the descriptions from the novels are apparently pretty accurate. Spiritualists believe that spirits communicate with the living through mediums, and the novels accept this as true and looks at it positively. Those who have the ability need to learn how to deal with it, though, or it can become overwhelming.
Ghosts are everywhere, as are premonitions. It can get a little freaky, especially when it’s coming from little kids. It’s not uncommon for Calla and other characters to suddenly realize they’re not alone because a spirit has appeared, but the spirits look so real that they don’t always realize there isn’t a live human, say, standing over their bed in the middle of the night.
Calla’s mother was murdered, and Calla found her body. One of the first spirits to appear to Calla is a murdered girl. Calla sees flashes of violence that has already happened or might happen to people. Eventually it escalates to the point where Calla is nearly murdered by two different people for unrelated reasons, once in Believing and once in Connecting. A serial killer stalks young girls in Believing, and getting inside his head is disturbing—he blames the girls for his actions.
This is a recurring theme, although clearly death isn’t the end when you can speak with the dead. But that doesn’t mean you’ll get to talk to the people you most want to. In addition to losing her mother, Calla is dealing with being dumped by her long time boyfriend. Learning how to deal with this loss is also difficult, especially as they both still care about each other. Other characters deal with spouses who left, parents who die, parents who neglect them, friends who leave, and other kinds of loss.
These are themes through the book, but it’s never graphic and Calla’s experiences are all PG and sweet. Boyfriend troubles—past, present, and future—are an ongoing issue. In the later books, Calla fears her mother had an affair and learns that her mother had a baby when she was a teenager.
Lily Dale series by Wendy Corsi Staub
Published in 2007, 2008, 2008, and 2009 by Walker Publishing Company, Inc.
Four books in the series
Read on Kindle
Lily Dale: Awakening
I loved this book, but I really don’t think my 11 year old daughter is ready for it. Kids who enjoy suspense and aren’t frightened by the paranormal might really like it, though.
The prologue is Calla’s birth—while not graphic, it isn’t exactly sugarcoated, either. The first chapter, 17 years later, is the funeral of Calla’s mother. The grieving girl goes to stay with her grandmother, a psychic medium in the town of Lily Dale, NY. In addition to losing her mother, Calla is also dealing with her ex-boyfriend—who is also her best friend’s brother—and two new and interesting boys in Lily Dale. The romance and relationships are quite PG.
The story deals with Calla’s sense of loss—of her mother, her boyfriend, her home—and her dawning awareness of her own psychic sensitivity. The narrative jumps ahead a little in a few places (at the end of one chapter Calla decides she needs to leave Lily Dale, but time has passed before the opening of the next chapter, and now she thinks she wants to stay) but I found that more realistic than annoying. Difficult and nuanced decisions are seldom clear-cut. Calla’s pain, grief, confusion, and loneliness are easy to identify with and don’t venture far into melancholy.
Lily Dale is a real place, dealt with respectfully by the author who grew up nearby. An interview at the end of my Kindle version led me to believe that I wasn’t so close to the end, so it felt like the book came to a screeching and unnerving halt. Of course, I immediately went to buy the next book, so I suppose it did its job. That said, it didn’t feel like a story arc was brought to a close in this book. It felt more like the season finale of a TV show than the end of a book in a series.
The plot deals with several mysteries with some scary and slightly graphic moments. One involves the murder of a teenager—the crime itself isn’t described in detail, but the whole idea might be a lot for kids to handle on their own. Add this to very real presence of ghosts in the story, and there are a couple of possible anxiety triggers for many kids.
I found this a compelling read and would highly recommend it to any reader prepared to deal with the themes of loss and the nature of life after death. It would have terrified me and led to sleepless nights when I was a tween, but as an adult I very much enjoyed it. I’ll probably suggest it to my daughter in a few years.
Lily Dale: Believing
I enjoyed this novel as well, although it further confirms my initial idea that it will be a few years before I suggest these to my daughter. Believing picks up where Awakening leaves off, to the point where I think you only get a complete novel if you read them together. While this book doesn’t neatly tie up all the loose ends, it brings one of the subplots to a close and therefore feels like a more fitting ending for a story arc.
It also ups both tension and violence—the murdered teenager from the first book continues to appear to Calla, and the murderer becomes a point of view character, very similar to many adult romantic thrillers. No one else dies—his latest victim is saved thanks to Calla’s intervention—but the murderer sets his sights on Calla and we learn that his twisted brain thinks these pretty young girls deserve what they get because they don’t protect themselves well enough. Yes, it’s a serial killer’s warped viewpoint, but there’s still the idea of blaming the victim for her own fate.
Calla is attacked in her home and she stabs the murderer with a kitchen knife—this is thankfully not drawn out, which I appreciate. However, Calla and her grandmother decide not to tell her dad about this. Perhaps this is my own bias, but I have issues with kids’ books that suggest that keeping secrets from your parents is a good plan. I understand that some secrets are inevitable and perhaps even healthy, but this seems like a big one.
I’m still enjoying this series and intend to read the rest of it. However, the more I read the more I’m certain this series is better for early to mid-teens. At one point, my reading light started blinking and it freaked me out so much I had trouble sleeping that night (the book suggests that spirits often make themselves known through electronics). This book isn’t for kids who are easily frightened.
Lily Dale: Connecting
The story continues as Calla explores her abilities, negotiates the social travails of high school, and tries to find out the truth about her mother’s death. There’s not much new to say—there are still lots of spirits running around which is a little freaky. The danger hasn’t backed off much, and by the end Calla again narrowly escapes death.
An issue that was building for me through the last book almost became a deal breaker in this one—Calla insists on keeping secrets from everyone, often facing things beyond her understanding alone, despite having a pretty good support group of friends and family. And some of her friends help her keep secrets from her other friends who help her keep secrets from her grandma who helps her keep secrets from her dad…the whole plot would be solved if she’d just be honest with people and ask for help when she needs it. Her explanations for why she can’t just talk to people are getting strained and worn, in my opinion.
I’d probably skip this one if it didn’t lead to the fourth (and so far last) novel in the series. Like the second, it’s good for early to mid-teens who enjoy the paranormal. It’s more freaky than truly scary.
Lily Dale: Discovering
This novel ties up all the loose ends. All the primary secrets are finally shared (although by the end of this, I was cringing each time Calla kept any secret at all), friendships are mended, relationships are defined. There’s no real tension in this novel—there was plenty in the previous three, and the role of this one is to bring the story to a close. This adds to my feeling that these are better read as sections of a long novel.
The romance stays quite PG, although it’s made clear that Calla’s mom had a baby out of wedlock and there’s suspicion that she may have had an affair.
Unlike most series, this final book is actually much tamer than the previous three. However, it won’t make sense nor hold a reader’s interest unless you’ve read the first three.