Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where Things Come Back, or let's hope the cover doesn't

Did you know that many of the youth awards accept field nominations? I've never nominated anything. Until now. I actually field nominated Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley for the Morris Award. It turns out that you don't find out what happens after you nominate something, but I'm happy just to force a committee to read something that I believe in.

Yes, I do enjoy being evil.

Before Gabrielle disappeared, Cullen Witter held onto the hope that he wouldn't end up trapped in tiny Lily, Arkansas. He bides his time by coming up with book titles and imagining the zombie apocalypse (especially zombies attacking people who annoy him). Without Gabrielle, Cullen does his best to maintain normal amid pain and absurdity when the town forgets one of their own has gone missing and instead becomes obsessed with the reappearance of a supposedly extinct woodpecker. But if a bird can reappear after 60 years of assumed extinction, surely a little brother can come back, too. This is a coming of age tale of hope, redemption, grief, and wonder.

I stumbled upon this book by sheer luck. I peruse all new teen titles that come into the library, and often set several aside to share with my teen advisory board, or book group. This was one of the random newbies that came in several months ago, and I was so captivated by the quirky jacket flap that I had to read it. But let's face it, it was probably the promise of zombies. You know me.

I'm not going to pretend that this is anything other than an odd book. It's weird. There's a B plot going on there that seems rather inconsequential for a long time. It isn't, of course. Adding to the quirk factor is the fact that Cullen occassionally slips from first person into third as he distances himself from pain, embarrassment, or boredom, and starts narrating his life as though it were just a chapter in a book that he could close when things get to be too much. Cullen wants to be a writer, and maintains a growing list of book titles inspired by the happenings around him.

What Whaley has created is an unusual story that never fails to captivate despite its oddities. It's also wryly humorous (the book titles), and so well-structured that it calls for an immediate re-read. It feels fresh even while covering the well-trod small-town and missing child plots, and reminds me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or John Green before he got tediously repetitive. For newer titles, Where She Went by Gayle Forman, The Lucky Kind by Alyssa B. Sheinmel, and Okay For Now by would probably be good matches. I will definitely be watching to see what's next for this first-time novelist. Regardless of whether the Morris committee agrees with me.

If you are a NPR nerd like me, you might have heard the NPR feature about the real return of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. The story was framed by a Sufjan Stevens song The Lord God Bird. I believe (but don't quote me) that this story, which stuck with me for so many years, was what inspired John Corey Whaley. So, that Lazarus burger and haircut in the book? Yeah, that really happened. In Brinkley, Arkansas.

The potshot about the cover is perhaps unfair since it is appropriate for the story, however, I can't deny its questionable appeal to the intended audience. But perhaps the kid who would pick this one up because or in spite of the cover would be the exactly right audience for it.