The members of the English department at my school decided before Christmas that it might be fun to have a book club to look specifically at Young Adult fiction. There’s so much great fiction for teens…and this will be a no-pressure way to look at some of the titles.
Last night I hosted the first meeting where we discussed John Corey Whaley’s much-lauded debut novel Where Things Come Back. Seriously, this book has won several prizes including two of the biggest: Michael L. Printz and William C. Morris. I’ve learned that prize winners don’t always live up to the hype and I am sad to say that I’d put this book in that category.
It started off okay.
I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body. It wasn’t my cousin Oslo’s. It was a woman who looked to have been around fifty or at least in her late forties. She didn’t have any visible bullet holes or scratches, cuts or bruises, so I assumed that she had just died of some disease or something; her body barely hidden by the thin white sheet as it awaited its placement in the lockers. The second dead body I ever saw was my cousin Oslo’s
Intriguing enough. And the character’s voice was distinct and I was interested. But to say that Where Things Come Back fulfilled its early promise would be a lie. And my fellow teachers agreed; not a single one of them liked it either.
The first question I asked at last night’s gathering was whether or not we should hold YA to the same rigorous standards we hold other literature to. And the answer is – of course. As a teacher I want my students to read the really, really good stuff, but I also know that often times they will read stuff that is below my lofty standards. Geesh – I often read stuff that is below my lofty standards! I have many books on the shelves in my classroom that are just…yuck. But someone will read those books and love them and as long as they are reading I feel like they are walking that path towards better literature.
Once we determined that no one liked the novel, we set about trying to determine why.
“Fiction is driven by character,” said Karen. (Karen is a colleague and has also been one of my dearest friends for the past 30-odd years. Our philosophies are quite similar when it comes to teaching and reading.) “I just didn’t like any of the characters in this book.”
Other teachers had problems with the novel’s narrative structure.
And who cares about the woodpecker? None of us.
Where Things Come Back is mostly Cullen Witter’s story. He lives with his parents and younger brother, Gabriel, in Lily, Arkansas. Lily is a backwater little town where nothing ever happens. One day Gabriel just vanishes. Where Things Come Back is also, superficially at least, the story of Benton Sage, a teenager doing missionary work in Ethiopia who suddenly has a crisis of faith. How Cullen and Benton’s stories connect finally becomes apparent in the novel’s final pages – but by then I didn’t care. And that’s a failing of two things: character and telling. So much of this story is told to the reader.
Perhaps there was just too much story to handle. Cullen’s journey after Gabriel’s disappearance might have made for some riveting reading. Benton’s story, too, had potential. But the clunky denouement tipped over into melodrama that didn’t serve either character, really.
One teacher had a student who read this book and loved it and I will happily add it to my classroom bookshelf – but I won’t be rushing to recommend it.