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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Noggin

Noggin, John Corey Whaley
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, April 2014
Reviewed from ARC

I need to be up front about something. I loved Where Things Come Back. I know it wasn’t a favorite ’round these parts, but I was impressed with the nuance and ambition in its debut author’s writing. John Corey Whaley’s Printz-winning novel made me think and feel and had me excited to read more from him.

Enter Noggin.

The high-concept plot (cryogenically frozen heads!) and the teenage angst (he’s back from the dead wants his girlfriend back too!), oh, how they intrigued and beguiled me. And oh, how I kept waiting for Noggin to deliver on the promise of its authorship.

I’ve been trying to separate my reading of this book from my expectations, because comparison to previous work is not part of the Printz criteria and this book is so different in theme, tone, and scope it would be comparing apples to oranges. It’s a hard task though, because the books share a similar strength.

John Corey Whaley excels at capturing the teenage male voice. This was true in Where Things Come Back and it’s true in Noggin. Travis Coates, as the first-person narrator, offers wry commentary on the strangeness of his situation. (In a smart move, Whaley grounds the high-concept in a scientific reality close to our own, where head freezing is a new and risky procedure. This pays emotional dividends as well when Travis must deal with the fact that he’s an oddity.) He’s also prone to the grandiose statements teens can make, especially when he talks about his girlfriend, Cate.

I had to find her and tell her, show her, that Travis Coates might be mostly ash … but that the part of him that found its way back would always be incomplete without her. I wasn’t dead anymore, so we could be together. It was so simple and I just needed to tell her. So I’d either make it happen, or I’d die again trying. (p. 131)

It’s a consistent and authentic rendering of how a sixteen-year-old boy thinks and talks. I’m not, nor was I ever, an expert on the teen male voice, but people I respect–my fellow Hudson Valley Library Association Book Club members–noted Whaley’s skillful work with Travis’s narration in this book. Despite this literary strength, Noggin still has problems with character development and theme.

Travis, is the only character in the novel who feels like a real person. The others can be broken down into pat descriptions: the dad who couldn’t let go, the grieving girlfriend who moved on, the closeted best-friend, and it goes on. Travis is the only complex character but at the end of the novel he’s essentially the same guy he was when the book began. Growth isn’t a requirement for every protagonist in every novel, but in a book that downplays plot in favor of character development, a lack of emotional growth is problematic and frustrating.

Noggin also has issues with the execution of themes. Whaley makes literal the anxiety that teens have of feeling left behind as friends grow up, physically and emotionally, at a faster pace. That idea fuels the novel but isn’t deeply explored. Identity formation, rebirth, and family dynamics are other themes that are introduced without thorough development.

While I admire the ambition of this fascinating concept–which I’ve referred to as the saddest time travel ever–and I can certainly imagine interesting discussions happening as a result of reading this book, I don’t think Noggin hits the literary highs needed to make it into the Printz winner’s circle this year. It is, however, on the NBA longlist so perhaps others considering this novel with a critical lens are getting more from it.

  •  A single stray thought: I read and watch science-fiction. I’m willing to happily accept science that doesn’t necessarily make sense, but there was some science-y stuff that kept distracting me when I read Noggin: did Travis and Jeremy Pratt’s necks just happen to match perfectly? Travis refers to a scar in the middle of his neck so that means that he and Jeremy had the same neck diameter right? RIGHT?? Gah, science! Please, someone give me a plausible theory to put my mind at ease.
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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. We run a Mock Printz club for teens at one of the branches of the Wake County Public Libraries in NC. So far two of our members have read Noggin, and they both nominated it as one of our 2015 Mock Printz contenders. One reader was impressed by the way it portrays emotions, unusual in science fiction. The other reader is a teen guy who is really hard to please, and absolutely hates any kind of romance in a book, but he loved Noggin!

  2. Lisa, the teen boy you speak of is exactly what I expect to see happen with Noggin. I think it will bring readers to Where Things Come Back. Like Joy, I find MUCH to admire with this book (including the teen voice). That notion that teens both feel older and younger in their bodies at the same time is an excellent construct. I plan to recommend this to just about any and every teen I speak to. In terms of the Printz, I think it relies a bit too much on the gimmick and does not always seamlessly stich all the required details back onto the frame. Joy, your stray thoughts wandered over into my head and we didn’t even need a transplant to make that happen. I can easily see others read this and dismiss my objections as being insignificant in the overall consideration–I could live with that. It is a fine book–just not one that will be my top pick. Like you, Joy, I also wonder if my huge admiration for Where Things Come Back (I served on the Morris Committee for this one) is distancing me from this very different book. That is why the committee process is so important.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      For what it’s worth, I didn’t love Where Things Come Back and I didn’t love Noggin either, albeit for very different reasons. It’s a premise that seems to not go far enough, although I don’t know what else could have happened to make that work better — maybe just digging deeper, as Joy says?

  3. I wasn’t a fan of Noggin when I first read it in early summer because I felt the reader was being asked to suspend too much belief surrounding the whole body transplant with no/few side-effects part. The interesting bits were when the main character (I can’t even remember his name) dealt with his adjustment and contacted the man who also had a body transplant. I wish that Whaley had stayed with that line of plot for longer or dealt with it more fully.

    That said, I just recommended that we add Noggin to our Mock Printz reading list today after several different reviews and the NBA finalists were announced. I don’t want to seem to be jumping on the band-wagon late, but the thought I had when I recommended it was I want kids to read and if the gimmick of a body transplant gets them to open the book that is a good enough reason for me to add it.

  4. I am koran student of wash high in washington pa thos book was really good and heat wrenching it was so good great book .

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