Noggin by John Corey Whaley


“Listen–I was alive once and then I wasn’t.  Simple as that.  Now I’m alive again.  The in-between part is still a little fuzzy, but I can tell you that, at some point or another, my head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado.”

Good golly!  What a start, huh?  If you’re worried that John Corey Whaley kills it in the intro but falls flat in the follow-through, think again. Noggin is the story of 16-year-old Travis Coates, who signs up for an experimental cryogenics program after being diagnosed with an untreatable form cancer.  The plan is to cut off his cancer-free head, freeze it, and reattach it to a healthy donor body as soon as science has advanced enough to perform this procedure–a projected 50-60 years in the future.  Amazingly, science zooms ahead and Travis blinks awake a mere 5 years after his “death,” head on a brand new set of shoulders–and, well, everything else, too.

All of this is laid out in the first few pages, ensuring that this is not a cancer story or a book about dying.  This is a book about getting a second chance at life and the weirdness of:

A) Coming back to life

B) Having a new body

C) Having everyone in your life suddenly age forward 5 years, making you the oldest “16-year-old” in the room–or youngest 21-year-old, depending on your perspective

Whaley could have easily put Travis in a coma for five years instead of going the “cranial hibernation & reanimation” route, but this introduces the interesting element of grief to the story and, subsequently, “un-grieving.”  The likelihood that the procedure would work was very low, so those closest to Travis still had to treat his passing as a death and move on. Post reanimation, Travis reconnects with his best friend, who is now in college and apparently not gay anymore, and is dealt the devastating blow of learning his girlfriend, Cate, is engaged.  Things at home aren’t exactly “normal” either, but how can they be after what everyone has gone through?

As Travis tries to adjust, we see him spend a lot of time trying to get his old life back, rather than taking the 5-year leap forward.  This includes a few embarrassing attempts to win back Cate, which are funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  It takes the support of his old best friend, as well as his new one–the one who bestowed upon him the moniker “Noggin”–to draw Travis forward into his new life.  Though this new, unlikely life is filled with challenges, it also a second chance at living, so things aren’t all bad.  Travis has a smokin’ new body that came with the ability to skateboard and a lot of people who want to help him succeed.

A thread of humor runs throughout, as well as an awareness of the insanity of the entire situation, which lend a somewhat wry tone to the narration–Travis refers to himself as “Mary Shelley’s nightmare come true” and makes jokes about getting ahead–and keep the story from becoming too weighty. This was my first experience reading Whaley, though I knew his name from his 2012 Printz Award win for Where Things Come Back.  I loved his writing style.  It had heart and humor and originality of ideas and characters I truly enjoyed.  What more can you ask for, really?  In the New York Times review, A.J. Jacobs likens Noggin to “Greenlit”–novels by John Green, particularly due to his penchant for writing “first-person, funny-sad” YA.  Personally, I prefer Whaley to Green, but the comparison is apt, though I think there’s a little less of the “sad” in Noggin. This is a book for A.S. King and Ned Vizzini fans, as well, or anyone in the market for (mostly) realistic YA fiction.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.


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