Michael Printz YA Award Winner

Where Things Come Back

Whaley, John Corey. 2011. Where Things Come Back. New York: Atheneum Books.
ISBN 978 1442413337

Plot Summary
Where Things Come Back is based on the true story of the Lazarus Woodpecker: The supposed reappearance of the ivory-billed woodpecker is a true story that inspired expression in a variety of media. Author John Corey Whaley inspired to write the book after he heard Sufjan Steven’s “The Lord God Bird”. Cullen Witter’s life in a small Arkansas town takes a strange turn the summer before his senior year in high school. His cousin dies of an overdose, his younger brother disappears without a trace, and the whole country is abuzz with the sighting of a supposedly extinct woodpecker in Cullen’s small hometown of Lily, AR. A carnival atmosphere takes over and Cullen finds and loses love all in one summer while growing increasingly worried about his brothers Gabriel’s disappearance. In a second story that is woven into Cullen’s story, a young missionary has a crisis of faith. Both stories have a theme of second chances.

Critical Analysis
Where Things Come Back John Corey Whaley is a great summer book for young adults. The theme of second chances is one that young adults seem to live by. The characters are all solid, especially Cullen as he tries to hold his family together. Cullen’s younger brother Gabriele can be funny at times, but young readers will appreciate this. The character of Cabot Searcy can be both menacing and comical at times. Cabot is scary and violent but does stupid things that young readers will find amusing. The setting is the small town of Lily AR; a small, dull town where nothing extraordinary ever happens. The plot is pure fiction, except for the sighting of the Lazarus Woodpecker. Brothers don’t get kidnapped and returned still alive months later. The theme in this novel covers a teenager’s growth into a young man. Cullen discovers his role within his family and finds and loses, his first love. There is a theme of second chances and wishing to do something over again to get it right. Mr. Whaley writes with the style of a southern storyteller. Where Things Come Back is complex and with melancholy and regret, comedy and absurdity, this novel finds wonder in the ordinary and emerges as ultimately hopeful. It’s about a lot more than what Cullen, as the protagonist, calls, “that damn bird.” It’s about the dream of second chances and things coming back. Small town southern life and culture is represented well in this book. This book has no illustrations. There are two versions of the book jacket. One version has a drawing of the woodpecker in flight, while the second book jacket shows the woodpecker in a tree. Neither book jacket does the story justice.
Michael L. Printz Award
William C. Morris Debut Award Winner
Publishers Weekly Best Book 2011

Review Excerpts

Publishers Weekly

“In this darkly humorous debut, Whaley weaves two stories into a taut and well-constructed thriller…Vulnerability balances Cullen’s arch sarcasm, and the maelstrom of media attention lavished on the woodpecker offers an element of the absurd, especially when juxtaposed against the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance. The portentous tone and flat affect of Whaley’s writing is well-suited to the story’s religious themes and symbolism… as Whaley gradually brings the story’s many threads together in a disturbing, heartbreaking finale that retains a touch of hope.”


“In a build-up that explores the process of grief, second chances and even the meaning of life, Cullen’s and Cabot’s worlds slowly intersect and solve the mystery of Gabriel’s disappearance in this multilayered debut for sophisticated readers. Unexpected, thought-provoking storytelling.”


“What will hold readers most is the moving story of Cullen’s beloved younger brother, who suddenly goes missing, leading to mystery, heartbreak, and an astonishing resolution on the very last page…An intriguing, memorable offering teens will want to discuss.”

Describe and discuss life in small southern towns.
Introduce a discussion about how and why some things are right or wrong.
Ask the readers if they believe in second chances?
Can people ever really forgive and forget?

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