Where Things Come Back – John Corey Whaley

wherethingsThe 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.



6 thoughts on “Where Things Come Back – John Corey Whaley

  1. Ken C. February 8, 2014 / 12:10 pm

    Speaking of award winners I’m considering buying, did you ever read MIDWINTER BLOOD, the newest Printz Award winner? It looks like one of these YA books (and there are so many nowadays) that might appeal more to adults than teens. Those books wither and die on my classroom shelf, kind of like the previous Printz winner by Sonya Hartnett whose title (SURRENDER, maybe?) eludes me.

    Any advice you can give would be appreciated. Book orders are always in the wings waiting to drain the account.

    Oh. And congrats on the club. No way would teachers at my school go for that. Everyone’s too “busy.” On Facebook and Twitter and their cellphones, that means (sigh)….

  2. Christie February 8, 2014 / 1:03 pm

    Hi Ken!
    Sorry, I have never heard of Midwinter Blood. I know Marcus Sedgewick’s name, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by him. I did, however, read Surrender and I have to say that even though I often didn’t have a sweet clue what was going on…I liked it. Where Things Come Back was reaching on tippy toes for something meaningful to say…but I think the idea was just bigger than Whaley could manage first time out. Of course – opinions will always vary.

    Next up for my school book club is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a book I’ve been looking forward to reading and one my son, who is now 14, read a couple years ago and loved. Have you read it? (Our English dept is all women…and we likely won’t get 100% participation – but we all agreed that it would be nice to focus on YA fiction, which I am happy about.)

    I’m sure this is a ridiculous question…but do you follow The Nerdy Book Blog? Yeah, never mind. 🙂 I sometimes put books for younger readers on my shelf (Wonder, See You at Harry’s) because I know that not every kid is an avid/strong reader and those books are still well-written and interesting. (I read and loved both of those titles and I’ve had some stronger readers enjoy them as well.) I am constantly adding titles to my list and when I place a huge order at Book Outlet I try to read reviews of the books before I purchase them so I don’t end up with too much dead wood on my shelves. By the end of the year I’ll probably have close to 1000 books – and limited space, despite my beautiful new bookshelves..

    How do you choose books for your classroom library? Where do you buy them from?

  3. Ken C. February 8, 2014 / 2:25 pm

    Alas, most of my purchases come via amazon because I am not close to any brick and mortars. As a rule, they do not discount YA paperbacks, though they do discount hardcovers.

    I have read the Nerdy Book Blog now and again. I sense a little bit of cliquishness on some of their parts, though not all of their parts, but I guess that’s true of all online watering holes (even — no, especially — Twitter, where KLOUT salves the egos of many a bigshot or wannabe groupie following said bigshot).

    I keep forgetting to order MISS PEREGRINE (and the sequel that’s now out), so I’ll let you be my guide and add it to the offing list.

    The trouble with classroom libraries is that teens constantly crave the latest books. Very few YA titles have staying power, seems. Oh, a few, like SPEAK maybe, and GO ASK ALICE, but for the most part, everyone’s on to the next sequel. They don’t even care about HARRY POTTER anymore. Sheesh.

    Bottom line of all this: My classroom shelves are groaning and maybe 85% of the titles there never get touched, despite pitches and booktalks.

  4. Christie February 8, 2014 / 3:05 pm

    Book Outlet (http://bookoutlet.com/) is like crack for book lovers….and CHEAP. (Probably even cheaper for you because you’re in the States and shipping will likely cost less.) They don’t always have all the latest titles…and sometimes they have limited copies of things…but for example I got The Perks of Being a Wallflower for $1.99 or something ridiculous like that. often they’ll have sales, too. It’s worth checking out.

    I hear you about The Nerdy Book Club…but it’s like anything on the web, though – I often feel as though I’m just not cool enough to belong. ::shrugs:: Still, I have found some useful stuff there.

    It is difficult to keep up with all the latest titles…and especially all the series. (Kind of drives me nuts, especially when I read the first one and it’s only so-so, but I know I am going to have to put it in my classroom library!)

    Speaking of series – do you have Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy? That is one that I can whole-heartedly recommend. The narrator is 12…and the books are just so….awesome!!! The first book is called The Knife of Never Letting Go.

  5. Ken C. February 8, 2014 / 5:30 pm

    Thanks. Added Bookoutlet to my bookmarks. I can see it’s a hit-or-miss site and not an everything site. Searched MISS PEREGRINE but they don’t have it. Ditto WINTERBLOOD.

    And yes, I have Patrick Ness’ trilogy, though it goes unread by my kids. They seem to shy away from long books. I need to start counting pages only, not books.

    I also have Ness’ latest, MORE THAN THIS, but I’ve kept it out of circulation because it has one mild bed scene with two teen boys. Might create a problem with parents reading over shoulders of 13 and 14-year-olds, but that’s where we’ve come in YA lit these days… it’s a big contest to push the envelope. (Why, he asks???)

  6. Christie February 9, 2014 / 1:09 pm

    It’s true that Book Outlet won’t have everything…but I always keep checking because one day they don’t have something and the next day they do. They often have backlist stuff as well. It’s worth it to check and I LOVE it when the box of books arrives. It’s like Christmas!

    Funny you should mention More Than This. I picked that for my own bookclub. We rarely read YA titles (The Book Thief being the only other example I can think of) but I’ve been wanting to read this and while I am finding it oddly compelling I am pretty sure no one else is going to like it. We meet on the 18th, so I’ll let you know how it goes. The last book we read was Me Before You and everyone loved it but me. 🙂

    Do you really think it’s pushing the envelope to let kids see themselves (or some part of themselves) in the books they read? I take your point, for sure…I worry less about it in high school and post a Kelly Gallagher-esque letter on Edline letting parents know I have anything and everything ion my shelves (NOT 50 Shades, of course, but more because it’s just poorly written!) and if parents prefer not to let their kids choose for themselves – that’s fine, too.

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