Teen Tuesday – Back from the Dead: a review of Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Every year around this time the blog, Someday My Printz Will Come, run by Karyn Silverman and Sarah Couri over at the School Library Journal website, reviews and debates potential contenders for the Printz award, one of young adult literature’s highest honors.  They’ve selected a daunting list of fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels published this year.  I’ve followed their blog for a while now and count on their insightful reviews to craft my fall reading list and make sure there aren’t any books that have completely fallen off my radar.  That said, I am ashamed to admit that of the 80+ books on their current list, I’ve read a grand total of nine.  Check here for this year’s list and their criteria for inclusion.

Between my Kindle, my desk, and my bedside table, I have at least a dozen or so books from the list already at hand–titles I’ve been meaning to read which were, nevertheless, pushed aside for newer, flashier offerings.  One of those neglected books was John Corey Whaley’s Noggin which came out last spring.  Why was I so hesitant?  I loved his first book and the cover of this one is very appealing I think.  Maybe it was my assumptions that this would be some teenage Frankenstein story dealing with medical ethics and religious dogma.  But when Noggin was longlisted for the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature, I finally hunkered down, read it in a day and . . . absolutely loved it.

A Morris and Printz award winner for his first novel, Where Things Come Back, John Corey Whaley has crafted a second book that takes donor transplants into the realm of science fiction, yet feels entirely contemporary and credible thanks in large part to his well-drawn characters and realistic dialogue.

Sixteen year old Travis Coates wakes up with a new body after having his head cryogenically preserved.  What feels like a moment between closing his eyes and opening them again, has actually been five years, long enough for Travis’ friends and family to have grieved and rebuilt their lives without him.  What readers will realize immediately is Travis’ real conundrum–he’s actually come back too soon.

The people Travis loves are still alive and essentially look the same.  So does the town where he lives, and while medical advances have granted him a new life, the only real difference Travis has noticed in his jump to the future is tighter jeans.  Yet, while he’s forced to redo his sophomore year in high school, his best friend Kyle and girlfriend Cate are now 21 year old college students.  Even worse, Cate is engaged and living with her fiancé.

What Noggin explores so brilliantly is the concept of time: moving through it, being stuck in it, and having our perceptions changed by it.  Travis’ epic attempts to win Cate back are embarrassingly funny and poignantly sad.  Yet he remains a likeable and sympathetic narrator, slowly realizing that his decision to spare everyone the pain of watching him die had instead put them in limbo–uncertain of their own future and whether Travis would be a part of it.

The first person point-of-view keeps the story firmly focused, filtering out the broader questions of morality, religion and ethics that are only lightly touched upon and would have completely changed the tone, the pace and undoubtably, the sheer weight of this book.  Instead, readers will be quickly engaged and captivated by this ordinary teenage boy given another chance at life.

Creating unique and believable characters is certainly a talent that John Corey Whaley seems to have in spades.  Everyone portrayed in this book felt authentic and genuine.  There are many points of view–all valid–and the author carefully keeps a neutral tone throughout, leaving readers to make their own judgments.  Not many stories turn a freakish medical miracle into an introspective  examination of what it’s like to love, to grieve, and to grow up.

From the very first sentence, Noggin hooks readers with its oddball charm and unforgettable cast of characters.




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