Book Review: Noggin

noggin cover

Whaley, John Corey. Noggin. New York: Atheneum for Young Readers, 2014. Print.

Like all perpetually exhausted educators, I enjoy a nice, long nap when the opportunity presents itself. Sometimes I’ll snooze so long that I wake up disoriented. For mere seconds, I’ll be unsure of where I am or I’ll flail around in a frenzy falsely believing I have overslept and am late for school.

It’s this penchant for sleep that drew me to the novel Noggin by John Corey Whaley. The novel’s protagonist, Travis, takes the ultimate nap—his head is cryogenically frozen for five years. If getting some shuteye for an hour or so befuddled me, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of “waking up” after half a decade. My interest was certainly piqued and I dove right into Noggin.

Quickly losing his battle with leukemia, sixteen-year-old Travis Coates has just one glimmer of hope. His head, the only part of his body free from disease, can be cryogenically frozen by an organization known as the Saranson Center. If a healthy donor body is found, the Saranson Center hopes to reattach Travis’ head and bring him back to life. Travis agrees to this, but as his condition worsens and he says goodbye to his family and friends, he truly believes that he will never see them again.

Travis is surprised when he wakes up to an amazed room of medical professionals and his tearful parents. Things are not as he remembers, however; five years have passed, and his best friend Kyle and girlfriend Cate are noticeably absent. Most shocking, Travis is attached to an athletic, taller body. Still technically a sixteen-year-old, Travis must eventually return to high school, a feat made harder by the fact that he is now the subject of news broadcasts and late night talk shows. As more time passes, Travis finds changes everywhere he looks. His dad sneaks away from the house late at night. His friend Kyle is dodging important questions and lying to the people around him. And the love of his young life, Cate, is engaged to someone else. How will Travis adjust to being “left behind”? Will he find a purpose or meaning behind his second chance at life?

Whaley’s novel is infused with a strong narrative voice. Noggin is, above all, a funny story. Travis’ snarky sense of humor is prevalent right from the beginning, and he doesn’t hesitate to poke fun at himself or at the sentimentality of the people around him. On the other hand, Travis can also be extremely vulnerable, and the affection he had for his parents, Kyle, Cate, and new friend Hatton never wavered. There were also some strong images and scenes that will likely stick with me from my reading: Cate and Kyle trying to squeeze all the calendar holidays into a one day celebration before Travis died; Travis’ favorite arcade game, Space Invaders, and his determination to defeat his high score; and the various items from Travis’ life pre-resurrection: a pair of movie theater seats, a favorite poster, a painting made by Cate.

While the plot, voice, and conflict of Noggin couldn’t be more intriguing, I must admit that I found the ending a bit of a letdown. Without giving too much away, I wasn’t sure whether Travis experienced any true character growth or change. I felt a lack of resolution not just for his character, but for many of the other characters in the novel.

Still, I can see this book being a valuable classroom addition, particularly for young male readers. Teens who are experiencing a dark time in their own lives will relate to Travis a great deal. He asks the same questions many young people ask as they try to navigate their own personal relationships: How can you stop loving someone when their feelings have changed but yours haven’t? How can we move forward when life starts to feel hopeless or unfamiliar? Noggin encourages readers to live their best life and take advantage of all opportunities, a message certainly worth relaying to our students.