Where Things Come Back
John Corey Whaley
228 pages (hardcover)
Several months ago, my stepmother, Tina, pointed out that I have a tendency to give higher ratings to YA books than books of other genres. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I think she may be right. The only book to which I’ve given a 5/5 since starting this blog is a YA book (The Fault in Our Stars). And, of the ten books to which I have given a 4/5 thus far, two are YA books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Spectacular Now).
Tina had been giving my affection for YA books some thought, and she came up with a possible theory for why I might think that many YA books are more enjoyable than your average adult novel. She posed this question: Are YA authors more focused on/in-tune with their audience? Are they, unlike authors of adult fiction, writing more for their audience than adult-fiction authors?
My brother, who is a children’s book editor, chimed in with a resounding yes. He pointed out that a YA author has to be cognizant and respectful of his/her audience in ways that authors of adult fiction do not. A YA author has to be aware of things like vocabulary, reading level, and emotional maturity.
And, let’s face it: adult fictions writers’ work is often borderline masturbatory. Some (the bad ones) don’t care a lick about their audience. They think they have an incredibly fascinating story to tell and an even more fascinating manner in which to relay it. Unfortunately, their story is often not as interesting or creative as they think it is. And, to top it off, it’s often poorly written or too long-winded or too convoluted. Perhaps adult-fiction authors are not thinking enough about the best way to deliver their message to their audience.
So, maybe Tina is on to something. Maybe YA books have a tendency to be more enjoyable to read because, by necessity, their authors have to be more focused on the reader. They think about how best to approach sensitive topics in ways that are approachable and relatable to their audience. As a result, generally speaking, YA books tend to be faster paced and less pompous than adult fiction.
Of course, lots of adults have a tendency to look down their noses on YA books. They assume YA books are shallow, trite, and simple (or all have to do with vampires and post-apocalyptic fighting). All I have to say is this: they are missing out on some really great books. Like this one!
Where Things Come Back won the ALA’s Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature and its William C. Morris Debut Award a few years back, so you know it’s no slouch. The book’s protagonist, Cullen Witter, is seventeen and lives in Lily, Arkansas, with his parents and his younger brother, Gabriel. Lily is a teeny tiny town in the middle of nowhere with no claim to fame. That is, until a scientist from Oregon pays a visit to Lily and claims to see a woodpecker that has been extinct for over sixty years (side note: it just so happens to be the same bird as The Good Lord Bird’s titular woodpecker—in this book, Cullen’s best friend, Lucas, says that Native Americans called it the “Good God Bird,” because “They used to see it flying over their heads and in the trees and the only thing they could do was yell ‘GOOD GOD!’ ‘cause it looked so big.”).
The town goes nuts at the thought that the Lazarus Woodpecker is back. They change the name of hotels, they have parades, and Burke’s Burgers even creates the Lazarus Special (it’s just a #3 without cheese). Cullen’s brother, Gabriel, understands why:
“Look at our town,” Gabriel said, “look at the people. How many happy people do you see in a day? How many people do you see who seem fulfilled?” [. . .]
We joked about Lily all the time but knew full well that we were part of it all. There wasn’t anything that set us apart from the manager at the Lily Grocery Store, who just knew he’d make it out but never did. We were no different from my parents, both of whom had moved away and moved back to Lily within five years of graduating high school.
So, the fact that Gabriel believed our town needed that bird to exist made absolute sense to me, whether I liked it or not. They needed something to be hopeful about.
Then, just as Cullen begins to understand the hope that the return of a bird can bring to their town, Gabriel goes missing. As if by magic, one moment he’s there and the next he is not. No one knows what has happened, but Cullen believes deep-down that Gabriel is dead. But he holds out hope that, like the Lazarus Woodpecker, Gabriel will come back.
Whaley employs a split storytelling device, alternating by chapter. The book begins with Cullen’s first-person narration. The next chapter (and every other chapter thereafter) is told by a third-person omniscient narrator about eighteen-year-old Benton Sage, who begins as a missionary in Ethiopia, where he learns about The Book of Enoch and “Gabriel, the Left Hand of God himself,” who sent the fallen angels (the Grigori, who “were teaching the humans too many things like astrology and the arts”) to hell. The two narratives seem very disparate at the beginning of the novel, but they wind their way together at the end.
This book’s awards are well deserved. Whaley does not shy away from serious issues (suicide, religion). He deals with teenage drama (sex, the future) in ways that are realistic and matter-of-fact, rather than glorified or exaggerated. He employs some obvious but meaningful symbolism. This is a great example of a good YA novel that was clearly written with a focus on its audience.
Who should read it: Tina (I’m curious to see if she thinks this book furthers her theory); Dad, who taught a college course that examined religious themes in YA literature (this would be a good addition to that syllabus).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (1998 Ignatz Award Winner for Outstanding Graphic Novel; adapted into the movie of the same name that stars Scarlett Johansson, Thora Birch, and Steve Buscemi)
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for May 2014; the #1 Indie Next Pick for May 2014)