Wild Awake

Book review by
Barbara Schultz, Common Sense Media
Wild Awake Book Poster Image
Brilliant, intense tale of teen coping with grief.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Wild Awake reveals a lot to teens about the symptoms of grief and of mental illness. The story takes place in Vancouver, British Columbia, and there's considerable detail about the geography of the city. Also included are information about classical piano music and the rigors of performance competitions, and several passages of the Tao te Ching.

Positive Messages

This novel about grief and recovery teaches that it's essential for anyone who's lost a loved one to fully experience his or her own feelings, and it's equally important for young people to accept help when the pain becomes greater than they can handle.

Positive Role Models & Representations

This novel is decidedly short on role models. For most of the book, Kiri's parents are out of town, and Kiri's observations about them make them seem uptight and withholding. Kiri's friend Lucas's mom, Petra, however, is generous and caring toward Kiri, trying to feed her and monitor her behavior in her parents' absence.


The pivotal event in Wild Awake is Kiri learning about the violent circumstances of her sister's death. Later in the novel, Kiri also finds out about a past violent outburst involving a boy she cares about. Other violent episodes include a car hitting a bicyclist and causing minor injuries, and a skirmish that results in Kiri banging her chin.


Kiri has sex with her boyfriend, but euphemisms are used to describe what they do together: "snarfling," 'gamboling." They also kiss a lot, and the author mentions them disrobing. Early in the novel, Kiri is attracted to another boy and describes feelings of arousal after kissing him. In one scene, a character's drug use puts her in danger of being sexually molested by a stranger.


Included are several instances of the word "s--t," a few of "f--k," "piss" and "piss off" and a couple uses of "bitch" and "ass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens in the novel smoke pot, and one uses unspecified pills, pot, and alcohol to numb her grief. Another character takes several medications to control symptoms of mental illness. Others in the book drink beer, and someone at a nightclub puts liquor in an underaged patron's ginger ale.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Hilary T. Smith's intense and beautiful debut, Wild Awake, depicts a teen girl's descent into despair and mania after learning the circumstances of her older sister's death. The central character faces extreme emotional pain with little support, and acts out in disturbing ways, including manic behavior, and use of pot, alcohol, and pills to mask her grief. Another character suffers from severe paranoia and must be medicated to function safely. Two teens in a loving relationship engage in sexual activity, but there are no graphic descriptions of sex. There are, however, details about horrific violence, including blood and assault. And there's some strong language ("s--t," "f--k," "piss," "bitch," "ass").

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What's the story?

Kiri is a passionate musician, who spends most of her time practicing piano in preparation for an upcoming competitive Showcase, and jamming with her bandmate, Lucas, to get ready for a Battle of the Bands competition. While Kiri's parents are away on an extended vacation, she gets a call from someone named Doug, who says he is holding possessions that belonged to Sukey, Kiri's sister, who Kiri believes died in a car accident. Kiri adored her sister and immediately sets off on her bike to retrieve Sukey's effects. Kiri then learns that her parents have kept secret the real story of Sukey's death. The information she receives sends Kiri into a spiral of pain, drugs, and a desperate need for understanding and solace.

Is it any good?

Kiri's sleeplessness, her drug-induced moods and personality shifts, her struggle to make sense of her sister's life and death are all so palpable, it hurts to read about her. But it's worth the heartache to experience the unfolding of this perfectly paced story, and the blossoming tenderness between the troubled couple of Kiri and Skunk. WILD AWAKE is a beautifully constructed and remarkably well-realized first novel.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Wild Awake compares to other novels that depict mental illness or grief. What others have you read? 

  • Do you think Kiri's parents were right to shield her from the facts about Sukey's death?

  • What do you think Kiri does after the end of the novel?

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