Noggin by John Corey Whaley is reviewed by Mary Malhotra.
☆starred reviews – Publisher’s Weekly & Booklist
John Corey Whaley’s debut novel won the Printz and William Morris prizes in 2012. His latest YA novel, Noggin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers 2014, $17.99, Ages 14 and up), is a worthy follow up, with unique and lovable characters put into a situation that is intriguing, heartbreaking, and a little creepy.
Noggin is about a boy named Travis Coates who has just experienced a medical miracle. Travis volunteered. He didn’t think it would work, and if it did, he didn’t think he’d come back for at least a hundred years, when everyone he knew and loved would be gone. It would be sad and lonely at first, but uncomplicated. Instead, just five years after ending his battle with leukemia by having his head cryogenically frozen, Travis finds himself in a hospital bed, alive and adjusting not only to the transplantation of a healthy body onto his old head, but also to the changes in his world.
In a way, the book picks up where John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars leaves off. Travis and the people who love him have experienced all the challenges and pain of losing a teenager to cancer. Travis wants to re-wind to before he got sick, physically and emotionally still sixteen and in high school, but the people he left behind — his parents, his girlfriend Cate, and Travis and Cate’s best friend Kyle — have gone through five years of letting go, growing up, and moving on, with varying degrees of success. Going to school (where the only thing that hasn’t changed is the presence of a hated math teacher) is difficult for Travis, but it’s even harder trying to reconnect with Kyle and Cate. Kyle has an awkward secret, and Cate avoids Travis entirely, which is not surprising considering she’s now engaged to someone else.
Noggin explores some hefty questions while somehow keeping a light and funny tone throughout. Flashbacks fill in the life old Travis had before he lost his head. New Travis deals with being a celebrity (or maybe a freak?), even at school where his only friend is a quirky, funny, and absolutely dependable kid named Hatton. Meanwhile, Travis thinks about the secret Kyle told him when he was dying. Should he let Kyle keep pretending it never happened? Travis wonders about the life and death of the boy whose body he is using and forms a support group of two with the only other surviving cryogenic regeneration patient.
But the Travis/Cate dilemma is the heart of the story. He wants her back. If love and loyalty are meant to be forever, is it healthy and normal to move on when your soulmate dies (sort of)? Or is it a betrayal? If Travis truly loves Cate, should he work to win her back, or stay out of the way of her newfound happiness?
I highly recommend this book. I immediately connected with Travis, and found myself wondering how my world might change if I checked out for five years. The Travis/Cate problem is one I love to hate — I don’t know how I would face it in real life! Most of all I appreciate Whaley’s realistic and hopeful take on how we manage to keep on living after experiencing loss.