Review by MacKenzie Sewell
Orca Book Publishers, February 15, 2022
80 pages, paperback, ISBN 9781459828643, $10.95
Ages 12+, reading level 1.9
I take out my phone and check my messages. I’m hoping it was just Mom telling me she’ll be late at work or something.
The first text is a picture of Fatima and me holding up our necklaces on the rock. We took that selfie the day we got them. Fatima’s wide smile beams out at me. No one else has that photo. Neither of us posted it anywhere. This can’t be real. I must be losing my mind.
I read the second message.
I need you to help me, Jay-Jay. You have to find out the truth about the night I died.
While studying for an exam, Jaylin has a system: phone on silent, and brain breaks when she needs them. But when she receives a text from her best friend Fatima on one of these breaks, Jaylin finds it impossible to put her phone back down — because Fatima has been dead for a full year.
Jaylin initially assumes that the messages are some sick prank, but as the texts coming from Fatima’s number become more and more specific, she has no choice but to believe the impossible. Fatima is communicating from beyond the grave, and her message is clear: there’s something about her death that nobody knows, and it’s up to Jaylin to find out what it is.
In Grave Message, Mary Jennifer Payne creates a mystery that all readers 12 and older can become immersed in. With each message from Fatima, both Jaylin and the reader become more invested in finding the truth about what happened the night of Fatima’s accident. Despite the novel’s brief length, tension builds naturally and continuously, cumulating in a horrible and captivating scene in which Jaylin is trapped in the bathroom of Fatima’s killer. The messages from Fatima — like “You have to find out the truth about the night I died,” for example — reveal just enough to push Jaylin to investigate, but not so much as to make it easy for her.
Not only does Payne create a good mystery, but she incorporates haunting details that make readers’ arm hairs stand on end. My favourite of these are the moments when Jaylin is still unconvinced that the messages are coming from Fatima, but the pieces of the mystery are starting to slot into place. The use of the nickname Jay-Jay, the homeless man talking about the girl with the scarf (which we later find out belongs to Fatima), the photo of the buried necklace that nobody else has: they’re innocent relics of a friendship, but with each impossibly specific text we start to realize along with Jaylin that these messages are legit, which in itself is chilling.
Payne writes this paranormal thriller using simple sentence structure and short chapters with frequent breaks. Grave Message is intentionally designed to be accessible to teenagers with a reading level below 2.0. Payne herself works as a special education teacher who mainly works with dyslexic students (like Jaylin!), and she aims to create age-appropriate content for teens with learning disabilities. Not only is the novel accessible, but the mystery is enthralling for young people of any reading level.
MacKenzie Sewell lives in Coquitlam, BC with her girlfriend and their two cats. Somewhere in between studying creative writing at UBC and working as a barista, MacKenzie loves to read — novels, cereal boxes, you name it.