Noggin by John Corey Whaley
John Corey Whaley, who was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, shares the same first name with the ever-popular, mega-bestselling author John Green. Perhaps I might be delusional here, but Noggin feels like it could be some alternate-universe sequel to Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, with quite the fantastical twist – imagine 16-year-old Hazel who succumbed to cancer in Stars coming back five years later, only to find the ever-devoted, once-in-a-lifetime perfect soulmate Gus having somehow moved on and involved with someone else. There you have the basic premise here in Noggin …
Five years after he died of the big C, Travis wakes up in someone else’s body. His ‘noggin,’ which was cryogenically preserved, has now been reattached to a skateboarder’s healthy physique that was donated after the original owner died to a brain tumor. The reborn Travis – the second person to ever cheat death – wakes up still 16 years old, and about to repeat sophomore year given all the school he missed while he was dying.
Although Travis has stayed basically the same – at least in his head – everyone else went on with their lives. His parents saved his ashes in an urn now relegated to the back of a closet. His best friend Kyle is 21 with a little sister who matured into the 17-year-old object of every teenage boy’s fantasy. Worst of all, his girlfriend Cate – to whom he promised on his deathbed that he would somehow return no matter what because theirs was an epic love not unlike Hazel and Gus’ – is engaged to some random dude and shows no interest in seeing Travis again. What’s a reborn teenager to do without the love of his life?
Whaley captures the unpredictability of teenagerhood (Kirby Heyborne is his supremely reliable audible narrator) with quite the clever schtick at the end of each chapter into the next: the ending phrase of one chapter begins the next with the exact words, which can go smoothly or jarringly, just like teenage interactions. Sometimes the transition is an easy continuation – “‘Welcome back, Travis Coates'” concludes and opens Chapter One and Chapter Two; other times an unexpected 180-degree opposite turnaround happens with the same words – “There was no doubt in my mind,” in Chapter Eighteen becomes “Doubt in my mind” with a flip of a page in Chapter Nineteen. Play close attention for a delightful little meta-narrative just in these transitions.
Medical miracle that he is, Travis is the world’s only boy to turn 17 on his 22nd birthday. Of course, he struggles with where he fits in. Yes, he feels left behind. But somehow, he’ll need to figure out who the old Travis is in his sorta-familiar but still way-too-new-world … after all, he’s the kid “who died but isn’t dead anymore …”
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult