Sunday, August 4, 2013

Contemporary Realistic YA Fiction Book Review: WHERE THINGS COME BACK by John Corey Whaley


Whaley, John C. 2011. WHERE THINGS COME BACK. New York, NY: Atheneum Books. ISBN: 978-1442413344

When seventeen-year-old Cullen Witter’s cousin dies his life changes in several unexpected ways.  From the possible reappearance of an extinct bird to the disappearance of his little brother, Cullen’s life seems to turn upside down.  Then there is Benton Sage, another young man trying to figure out his place in the world and how the choices he makes can affect the lives of so many people.

Whaley intertwines the lives of two young men: Cullen Witter and Benton Sage.  Although strangers, the lives of these two boys are very much connected through a series of events and circumstances that ultimately causes heartache and grief.  Lily, Arkansas is not the most exciting place to live and like many people living in a small town it seems like there is no escape. People leave but ultimately come back for one reason or another.  The theme of coping with depression while still having to live your life is a struggle for many in this story.  Cullen has to cope with the fact that his younger brother may never be found, and that people in his little town seem more preoccupied with a long lost woodpecker than the fact that his brother has disappeared. You see the grieving process played-out through Cullen, his friends, and his parents - each dealing with the disappearance of Gabe Witter in their own way.  Whaley weaves in short flash backs of how special Gabe was to his family, as well as Cullen’s wild imagination of everyone turning to zombies or the Lazarus woodpecker talking to him. 

The characters are identifiable and real with their flaws and reactions to the world around them.  Cullen’s mother tries to go about her daily life and act as if nothing has happened or that her son will return very soon.  Cullen’s father, on the other hand, doesn’t stop looking for his son or researching missing persons.  Cullen also goes through different stages of the grieving process, from disbelief, shock, grief, anger, and then despair.  Through all of this, Cullen is supported by his friends who never give up hope and keep him from going into an even deeper depression. 

There are a lot of religious connotations with the story of Benton Sage.  He worked hard to become a missionary to please his father, but it didn’t turn out the way he expected.  The theme of father vs. son is shown here as the son does all he can to make his father proud but is turned away by cruelness when he doesn’t meet those expectations.  Benton questions everything he has ever learned about his religion when he gets little to no support from his church or family during a time when he needs it the most.  As you go back and forth from Cullen’s story to Benton’s, you finally see towards the end how these two strangers are connected and the unknown consequences of their decisions.  This story is a powerful read for mature young adult audiences who have lost a loved one and yet still have to move on with their lives.  It’s also a story about true friendship and second chances.

KIRKUS: “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.”

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL:  “The characters’ reactions are palpable as their grief deepens and yet they continue to hope for Gabriel’s return. Cullen is an eloquent, thoughtful narrator…the ending is worth the wait.”

BOOKLIST: “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.”
* This book is great to share with mature readers 15 years and up to learn more about the different stages of the grieving process and that everyone copes in their own way.   A gripping story that compels the reader to think twice about choices they make and the importance of friendship and family.
*Other books about losing a loved one or depression:
Green, John. LOOKING FOR ALASKA. ISBN: 978-0142402511
Jenkins, A.M. DAMAGE. ISBN: 978-0064472555
Staub, Wendy Corsi. ALL THE WAY HOME. ASIN: B00BW94HW0

Friday, August 2, 2013

Fiction, Fantasy, and YA Book Review: LOST AND FOUND by Shaun Tan


Tan, Shaun. 2011. LOST AND FOUND. New York, NY: Levine Books. ISBN: 978-0545229241

Previously three separate stories: THE RED TREE, THE LOST THING, and THE RABBITS, Tan brings you the stories of a girl who discovers a way out of a dark depression, a boy who finds a place for a lost thing, and how a species of peaceful creatures lose their homes to invading rabbits. 

Through Tan’s masterful and emotionally driven artwork, he reveals the hopelessness and the mental state of a young girl who finds no joy in life in THE RED TREE.  The story’s theme is about depression and how what we are looking for is often right in front of us. The words are short but poignant and take the reader into the mind of someone who doesn’t know how to find happiness.  Even just waking up in the morning can feel hopeless as “the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” Tan is spot-on as he describes the world as a “deaf machine” which explains how people suffering through a depression feel that others do not understand them. Pessimism is also another characteristic of depression that Tan showcases as the character feels that everything always seems to “go from bad to worse” and that “all your troubles come at once.”  The illustrations are visual metaphors for what the character is feeling.  When the character is waiting for something good to happen, he represents this with a girl marking off each day like a prisoner would in a cell with slashes on a wall.  However, in this case it is not a wall but the back of a snail – which also represent how slow time seems to pass when we are waiting for something to happen. Readers who are suffering or have suffered through a depression can identify with the young girl in the story who cannot seem to find happiness in life and struggles to find a light in her dark world.

In THE LOST THING, readers are reminded how innocence is often lost as we become so engulfed in our everyday lives as adults.  We become less open-minded and more cynical as we go through life like robots.  The discovery of something new or noticing the obvious becomes difficult as we occupy our minds with work and adult pragmatism. In this story, we are introduced to an average boy who collects bottle caps and finds something strange on the beach one day.  No one seems to notice this large, strange creature on the shore right in the middle of everyone.  It was something that was definitely out of place and the boy takes it upon himself to take this lost thing back to where it belongs, or at least to somewhere it would fit in.  Later, as the boy gets older he stops noticing the “lost things” and seems to fall into the same everyday routine as the adults in the beginning of the story.  The theme of losing your innocence and the wonder of childhood is obvious and disappointing because it all seems inevitable somehow.  Even at the end, Tan shows you the “man” that gives the boy the clue to find a place for his lost thing, and you realize it wasn’t a man at all. It was something strange and out of place and because you were so busying with everything else going on in the picture you missed it.  There is no doubt that Tan uses strong imagery to show deeper meaning behind this story.

Finally, in THE RABBITS written by John Marsden, Tan illustrates the story of how the North American Indians lost their lives and land to European conquerors.  The peaceful creatures which represent the Indians are confused at first because the foreigners looked similar to them even though they spoke a different language.  They didn’t feel too threatened because the “rabbits” were small in number at first.  Soon, more and more rabbits arrived and they took over the land and the natural resources.  The creatures fought the rabbits, but there were too many of them and no match for their technology.  Their numbers seemed never ending. In the end, the creatures lost their land and their homes and were driven away to live elsewhere.  The story also closely relates to the theme of nature vs. technology.  Tan beautifully depicts this through these two worlds which collide and have very different ideals.  This is a connection to the ongoing struggle of protecting the earth and its natural resources and as well as developing technology to further society.  Like the creatures in the end, we are also left to wonder how to fix this problem.
A New York Times Best Illustrated Book of 2007
A New York Times Notable Children's Book of 2007
World Fantasy Award 2007, Best Artist
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2007
A School Library Journal Best Book of 2007
A Booklist Editors' Choice for 2007

SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “The largeness of the landscapes and the scarcity of text in these stories give readers' own imaginations room to stretch—they are undeniably strange, emotionally diverse, and unsettling. Certain kids will return to this book again and again.”

BOOKLIST:While they are most assuredly not for young children, these stories representing the visionary work of a master storyteller, illustrator, and designer who cares deeply about his message deserve a place in almost every collection.”

* This book is great to share with mature children in elementary or even secondary grades that are struggling through depression or trying to find meaning in their world.


*Other illustrated books about depression or dealing with emotional issues:
Adams, John. THE DRAGONFLY DOOR. Ill. Barbara Leonard Gibson. ISBN: 978-1934066164
Crist, James J. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE SAD AND LONELY. ISBN: 978-1575421896