The second in his Johnny Maxwell trilogy, and sixth young adult novel overall, Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead was published in 1993, twenty-two years after his first novel (The Carpet People) and ten years after his first Discworld novel (The Colour of Magic). Set in the village of Blackbury, a sort of Pratchett-ised standard of suburbia, it sees Johnny and his friends trying to carry on with the normal lives that most 12-year-olds live; hanging out in the mall, trying to avoid getting beaten up by older siblings, and coping with the well-meaning attention of parents. When Johnny starts seeing the dead (post-senior citizens, not ghosts) however, and they find themselves caught up in a campaign to save the local cemetery, life soon becomes more complicated.
Where the Discworld books at the time were still very much satirising the fantasy genre, this is much more straight-up, maintaining the dry humour of his adult books but cutting back on the fantasy (it’s still there, just in a smaller dose). Pratchett’s eye for a clever pun or a wry observation is evident throughout, as the reader watches Johnny and his friends working out how the world works by just living and getting involved, and talking their way through it. There are some delightful highlights in the rambling conversations they have amongst themselves as they apply their youthful minds to the problems in front of them, from trying to remember who invented the telephone (sadly not Sir Humphrey Telephone) to working out where witches go when they’re abroad (Majorca, maybe?).
In terms of the language and the humour it definitely still feels close to those early Discworld books, but it uses the medium of a slightly silly story to explore some pretty powerful ideas of community and local history. On one level it’s a story of a boy who can see ghosts, and who stands up to the world around him in order to do what he thinks is right, but it goes deeper than that. Johnny deals with some pretty intense concepts over the course of the book, not least his own feelings about death and the impact it can have on a community; like the best children’s/young adult books, this can be enjoyed by adults just as much as children, as the impact of these concepts becomes even more powerful when seen through a child’s eyes.
It’s testament to Pratchett’s skill that this feels just as relevant today as it must have in 1993, the references to 90s-era life and technology adding to the sense of childhood nostalgia instead of feeling dated. With a clever story, brilliantly observed characters and the typical Pratchett humour, as well as a healthy dose of powerful, real-life issues, this is quite simply a joy to read. It’s maybe not as developed and sophisticated as his later young adult novels such as the Tiffany Aching series, but it’s no less enjoyable for its simplicity.