Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

where things come back“When I asked him the meaning of life, Dr. Webb got very quiet and then told me that life has no one meaning, it only has whatever meaning each of us puts on our own life.  I’ll tell you now that I still don’t know the meaning of mine.  And Lucas Cader, with all his brains and talent, doesn’t know the meaning of his either.  But I’ll tell you the meaning of all this.  The meaning of some bird showing up and some boy disappearing and you knowing all about it.  The meaning of this was not to save you, but to warn you instead. To warn you of confusion and delusion and assumption.  To warn you of psychics and zombies and ghosts of your lost brother.  To warn you of Ada Taylor and her sympathy and mothers who wake you up with vacuums.  To warn you of two-foot-tall birds that say they can help, but never do.”

The woodpecker showed up  just about the time that Cullen Witter’s little brother disappeared.  The small Arkansas town sees the return of the long-thought-extinct woodpecker as the gift of salvation, hoping the excitement of the bird’s sighting will draw people in and revitalize the local economy.  Cullen is sick of the bird already, and wishes everyone would stop being so awkward around him since his brother’s disappearance.  He also wishes his mom would stop crying and listening to his brother’s old music and reading his books.  This summer, Cullen negotiates relationships with others, tries his best to take care of his grieving family, and searches for meaning in it all.

First of all, I love books that take teenagers seriously: the ones that validate young people by including them in the  exploration of beliefs and the full spectrum of emotions and experiences.  Grief?  Of course. Love?  Absolutely.  Fear of the unknown?  Everyone is afraid, I promise.  It is just that nobody talks about it openly, except in books like these, which is why they are so great! To me, not only do these books say that young people are fully able to participate in the human search for meaning, but they actually offer the vocabulary for expressing such ideas-tools to be used in real life.   Where Things Come Back is one of those books.

You’ll love it because Cullen is a great narrator: his elaborate daydreams include zombies, soundtracks, and miracles.  You’ll love being able to read all his thoughts, especially because he is such a complex character-portrayals of characters like this do a lot for breaking down stereotypes about young men and women.  And I think you’ll also love it because it makes you think about important things.

Happy Reading!

Author’s website

Whaley, John Corey. Where Things Come Back. Athenum: New York, 2011. 228 p.  Age 15 and up.

If you liked this book, I think you’d really like Looking for Alaska, which has the same setting, tone, and some similar plot elements.  If you liked the summer setting and the elements of religion, Pete Hautman’s Godless might be perfect for you!  If the mystery and small town setting was what grabbed you, try Shine by Lauren Myracle. If you want a book about missing loved ones, check out Please Ignore Vera Dietz.  

And one more! Remember when I talked about using book covers to help you pick books that were alike?  Check out John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.  It’s another meaning-book, with a lot of the same Big Questions.  But careful with that one-it’s heart-wrenching!

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Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

“We held hands when we walked down the gingerbread path into the forest, blood dripping from our fingers.  We danced with witches and kissed monsters.  We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.”

I debated whether to review this book or not.  I’m still not sure if I’ll leave this post up, or take it down in a few days.  The problem with books covering eating disorders is that a lot of readers migrate to them for their triggering effects, to garner the strength to continue their disordered eating patterns.  I know; I was there.  I lost seven years of my life to it.  I know the books well.  And readers who are seeking this book to further their illness will find it anyway, with or without my review.

This raw, challenging story relates Lia’s struggle with an eating disorder.  Her best friend, Cassie, recently died alone in a hotel room, a victim of a ruptured esophagus brought about by bulimia.  Both girls suffered from eating disorders, and perversely encouraged the behavior in each other.  Now Lia is haunted by Cassie’s ghost, who continues to encourage her in her downward spiral.  On the night of her death, Cassie called Lia thirty-three times, but Lia didn’t pick up, and now the guilt is destroying her.  Lia starves, fights with her family, stays awake miserably at night, trying to stave off Cassie’s image in her mind.  It’s not pretty.

But, with Laurie Halse Anderson’s storytelling prowess, it is skillfully and mesmerizingly told.  I’m reviewing the book because I think it’s different from other eating disorder stories, in that she focuses much more on the mental processes involved with anorexia, as opposed to a triggering recitation of calorie counts and weights.  While those elements are certainly present in the story, the majority of the text is consumed with Lia’s tortured mental machinations, and readers are transported into the nightmarish territory of her brain.

Blank pages, pages of orders that Lia gives herself, such as “Must. Not. Eat” repeated over and over, and her actual thoughts (scratched out in the text, but still legible), followed by what she feels she must think, all combine to create a very realistic portrait of the despair of grief and starvation, without glorifying it.  Like I said, I’ve been there.  It’s not a pretty place, and Anderson is clear with the message.   While I am still ambivalent about the subject matter, because I know it is so often misused by those struggling with similar issues, I am reviewing it because Laurie Halse Anderson is a master storyteller, and this is an excellently written book, that (to me), was careful to avoid exalting the illness.

It ain’t pretty, but it rings pretty true.

Happy Reading! (Actually, with this book, I feel like I can’t really say that, so I’ll amend to: Read it if you must, because it’s the best of all the books out there when it comes to a realistic portrayal of an eating disorder.)

I’d like to close with a quote from another reviewer, Jezebel: “Read without discussion or supervision, Wintergirls could indeed be triggering. But read as part of a conversation — or, perhaps, read by parents and other family members — the book could help make some teens’ worlds a little less dark”.

Author’s website: http://madwomanintheforest.com/

Anderson, Laurie Halse. Wintergirls. Penguin Books: New York, 2009. 278 pp. Grades 10-12.

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

“Was everyone playing a trick on me? Of course numbers had colors.  Were they also going to tell me that letters and sounds didn’t have colors? That the letter a wasn’t yellow like a faded sunflower and screeching chalk didn’t make red jagged lines in the air?”

Mia sees the world differently than most people.  She has a rare condition called synesthesia, which is a disorder that involves the brain’s processing of sensory information.  For Mia, letters, words, numbers, and some sounds have their own colors.  For example, her name is candy-apple red with a touch of avocado green.  However, after the episode in the quote, where she realizes that her other classmates don’t see the colors that she does, she keeps her condition a secret, even from her parents.

Aside from her condition, Mia lives the life of an ordinary thirteen-year-old.  She loves her cat, Mango, and spends a lot of time squabbling with her siblings.  She forgets homework assignments and disagrees with her friends.  She worries about fitting in.  Through all of this, she deals with algebra problems that don’t make sense and bad Spanish grades.  It’s pretty typical stuff, just with extra colors.  I especially enjoyed her experiences with acupuncture (it really intensified her synesthesia) and her developing relationship with Roger.

Spoiler alert:  Mango dies near the end of the novel, and a lot of space is devoted to how she processes grief.   Because of her extreme sadness, she temporarily loses her synesthesia.  I was more emotional than I thought I’d be when I read that part, and anyone who has ever lost a pet will understand.

This is a calm story about a girl with an interesting condition.  It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s very pleasant.  Happy Reading!

Author’s website: http://www.wendymass.com/

Mass, Wendy.  A Mango-Shaped Space. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2003. 224 pp. Grades 5-8.