Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Noggin


Atheneum: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Atheneum:Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Atheneum:Noggin by John Corey Whaley

Atheneum: Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

Noggin

by John Corey Whaley

What is it like to be frozen, à la Ted Williams, never believing you'll really come back--and then you do? That's the preposterous premise of John Corey Whaley's novel, conveyed with realistic emotions that keep his narrator, Travis, grounded, and the story credible--and also highly entertaining--for readers.

Life has gone on without Travis, whose body was invaded by acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and who was offered an opportunity to have his head cryogenically frozen ("You want to freeze just my head?" he asks Dr. Lloyd Saranson from the Saranson Center for Life Preservation). With nothing to lose, Travis agrees, and "comes to" with his healthy head transplanted onto a healthy body (donor Jeremy Pratt had a fatal brain tumor). Travis has been "away" for only five years, yet the social and emotional divide between 16 and 21 is vast.

Travis had expected to come back in the far future ("Where were the jetpacks?" he wonders), when everyone he loved would be gone. Instead, the girl he loves, Cate, is engaged to someone else; his best friend Kyle has gone back in the closet; and his parents are keeping a secret. The only refreshing new addition to his life is Hatton, who, on Travis's first day back at school, while Principal Carson is telling the students how privileged they are to "witness one of the greatest miracles of modern science right here at Springside High," calls out "Noggin!" It's a cathartic release for Travis, and he and Hatton become fast friends.

Hatton often provides a reality check for Travis, as he attempts to put his life back into place--the place it had five years ago. And so does Kyle, who eventually comes around to Travis; Kyle, Hatton and Travis form a strong friendship. But Cate remains elusive. Lawrence Ramsey, a man from Cleveland, Ohio, who was revived six months before Travis, proves to be another indispensible confidant. Lawrence's wife waited five years for him. Travis, convinced he can win back his beloved Cate, tries everything, including a desperate and darkly funny scene in which he proposes to her practically in front of her fiancé.

The novel brims with gallows humor: "They say high school is the best time of your life. Well, it wasn't the best time of either of mine," observes Travis. At another point, Kyle convinces Travis to accompany him to a college party, where Kyle assures him that college girls will find Travis "adorable": "I definitely wasn't going to go flashing my scar around like some cryogenic gigolo," he thinks. At Thanksgiving, when Travis gets together with extended family, his cousin makes a hilarious observation about the seating arrangement: "If someone in this family gets frozen for a bunch of years, they still have to sit at the kiddy table until their new body is old enough to graduate?"

Whaley makes his hero's implausible situation absolutely convincing. Aside from science today lagging behind the world that Travis inhabits, we believe the emotional dilemma in which Travis finds himself. Having come face to face with his mortality at 16, as cancer hijacked his body, Travis finds himself wanting to play out his adolescence, while his playmates have moved on. "I had to stop thinking there'd be a day when everything I wanted, everything I had, would be set back perfectly into place," he realizes. But coming to that realization and accepting it are two different things.

Whaley taps into the central questions of adolescence in Noggin just as he did in Where Things Come Back. Travis's five-year absence echoes 15-year-old Gabriel's disappearance in Whaley's first novel. The author explores the fine line between living in faith and living in the present: Do you tread water if you believe that he will return? Do you try to go on, if you think he won't be back?

The questions lurking behind Travis's sometimes rash actions plague all teenagers. What happens when, in a friendship, the two parties grow at different rates? Is there enough there to salvage? Can you wait for the other to catch up, or is the distance too great? Is it different for romantic relationships than it is for platonic ones? Can you teach yourself to expect less? Does Travis love Cate for her ability to remain true to herself and live out her life, or does he wish she'd waited, as Lawrence's wife did? Would Cate be the same person if she had waited? Ultimately this insightful story explores the challenges of intimate relationships and managing expectations.

The ending of the novel, like that of Whaley's first book--leaves it to readers to decide how things turn out. One thing is certain: Whaley imparts much wisdom here, and asks teens to think about the life they want to make for themselves. --Jennifer M. Brown

Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99, hardcover, 352p., ages 14-up, 9781442458727

Atheneum: Aristotle and Dante by Benjamin Alire Saenz


John Corey Whaley: Taking Second Chances

John Corey Whaley, who goes by "Corey," won the 2012 Michael J. Printz Award and the William C. Morris Award for his first book, Where Things Come Back (Atheneum), which was also named a "5 Under 35" Fiction Selection for 2011 by the National Book Foundation. Whaley grew up in Louisiana, lived for a time in Dallas, Tex., and now resides in Los Angeles. Here he discusses his path to the publication of Noggin (Atheneum/S&S) and how he made the incredible premise seem plausible: 16-year-old Travis Coates, whose body is riddled with cancer, agrees to be cryogenically frozen, and "comes to" five years later with his healthy head affixed to someone else's healthy body.

Where did the idea come from, for a transplantation of a full cranial structure onto a donor body?

I thought about why I liked Kurt Vonnegut. What is it about him that I'm able to connect with so much? He's able to take absurd ideas and scenarios, and you can be laughing hysterically on one page, and he'll bring you to tears on the next. Could I take something absurd and ground it in some sort of emotional reality? What about a literal out-of-body experience? That's where it came from.

What was it about the five-year time lapse that was key?

The original lapse was going to be 10 years. Last year was my 10-year high school reunion. I didn't want to go. I thought, "These people won't have changed that much, but just enough to not be the people I knew 10 years ago." I kind of wanted to keep some of them the way I remembered them.

When I decided to do five years, it was first of all supposed to be funny. Travis was expecting to come back 100 years in the future or expecting to never wake up. With the five-year thing, I was able to have him experience a world that was not different, but just one little tiny step ahead of him. That was the most realistic way I could re-create the way people feel their friends and family are growing up a little faster than they are. A lot of life is people moving faster than we are, and us moving faster than others. Being 16, and being only 16, and not being able to not be 16 in the context of this story is what I wanted to explore; you're right there at the cusp of waiting to see what will happen to everyone.

Cate and Travis were inseparable before he was frozen. In the intervening years, Cate decides to move on, but Travis is still in love with her.

The more I got into the story, I didn't want to go the cliché route of Cate having a bad boyfriend; that would take away from Cate's character. She judges people quite well. Even if not for her own good, she's unable to let Travis go. Everyone says Turner [her fiancé] is a really nice guy. That makes Travis even angrier. Turner is Travis--five years older.

Even while the situation with Cate is rife with problems, Travis and Kyle find a way to work things out.

Whereas Cate was able to move on, Kyle was not able to connect with anyone the way he connects to Travis. Kyle didn't have a great time of it when Travis left; he reverted to being secretive. Travis is taking his nap and waking up, but Kyle had to go to bed every night for five years, wondering if he'd ever have someone like Travis that he could be honest with.

I struggled with the fact that Cate and Kyle don't go to Travis immediately [when he comes back]. Kyle was so afraid that if he saw Travis and lost him again, that he'd never be able to recover. He couldn't risk it.

The friendship between Travis and Hatton, and its beginnings, are so terrific. How did Hatton come to you?

I had a lot of fun writing him. I'll be accused of making the best friend the most likable character. It's too fun not to. I think it makes my job a little easier. When I have someone very different from the narrator, he's able to show the flaws. In our lives, there are usually one or two people trying to relieve us of whatever our hardships are. That's what Hatton and Kyle do.

Travis helps Kyle be honest with himself, and then Kyle is able to return the favor when Travis comes back.

It goes back to the thing of Kyle still having trouble liking himself because of his struggle with identity. When Travis died, Kyle didn't get to do these things [that he and Travis and Hatton do together]--because of his secret and because Travis died. Kyle is getting a second chance, too.

What inspired the idea of Travis having someone like himself, a compatriot to talk to, in Lawrence Ramsey?

I thought, "How do I write a book about a situation that's never happened before? How do I know what Travis is going to feel like?" There's no research to do on someone coming back from the dead. I had to put that mindset into Travis's head. The most horrible thing is that you'd be experiencing something no one else had ever experienced. With an adult coming back, he'd [get to] be in the car commercials to benefit his family. Lawrence Ramsey is hassled by the media. I wanted to show that in opposition to Travis, who's still protected, by his parents and the school. In a subtle way, to show that even if Travis feels out of control, he's still in a safe situation.

Lawrence says, "How do I live up to this? How can I be the man that this woman waited for for five years?" Everything he'll do will be a little less than what they thought they were waiting for. It's in juxtaposition to Travis. If Cate had waited, would they still be the same? Would she still be able to love Travis the same way? Would Cate-and-Travis still exist if she'd been a miserable, sad person putting her life on hold? Which would you rather?

In both Where Things Come Back and Noggin, you play with the idea of second chances. What draws you to this theme?

I'm the second-chance guy. Someone tweeted the other day, "I think it's really great that the title for Where Things Come Back could also be the title of Noggin." In my third book, I think it also applies. It's a fascination of mine. With WTCB, I knew they'd all have second chances.

With Noggin it was fueled more by the Vonnegut-esque idea: Can you ground an absurd story in realism and emotion and have a reader connect with something that's impossible? I think it stems from growing up in a really small town, and you see a lot of people who never went the extra step to do what they wanted to do or to live the life they constantly think they should be living. That affected me when I was younger--a dread of aging, that I'd go right back to that place. Not that it's a horrible place, but it's not a place I wanted to be.

Noggin could be me processing the huge change of life I had going from a teacher to an author. The book thing was what I always wanted to do. That was me waking up from a frozen nap, if you will. --Jennifer M. Brown


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