Travis Coates died. It was awful. He had leukemia, fought a valiant, but unwinnable battle, and died at age 16. Sort of. Because during his last days alive he decided to participate in a crazy, new experiment. He had his head surgically removed and cryogenically preserved in the hopes that medical technology would be able to attach his head successfully to a new body. Travis Coates gambled on the ultimate wish: to have a second life.
Noggin, Michael L. Printz winner John Corey Whaley's second novel, grants Travis his wish. It is five years later and Travis wakes up. He is alive. He is the second person to have successfully had his head attached to a new body. He's got Jeremy Pratt's body, though way more cut and buff than his ever was, even when he was healthy and that's weird. But truthfully, this fancy new body is the least of Travis's problems. For Travis, it's like he just woke up from a night's sleep, but for his family and friends, it's been a long five years. There was the devastating loss of a son and friend, then the painful period of mourning and then the necessary moving on. Because even though they knew Travis had agreed to this experiment, they didn't really think it would work.
But it did. And now still-sixteen year old Travis has to deal with his best friend, Kyle, being in college, his parents hiding some sort of secret, and the love of his life, Cate, being engaged to another guy. He attempts to make sense of it all while trying to wrap his head pun intended around what it means to be given a second chance. And not only that, such a public second chance.
With incredible creativity, sharp humor, and deep empathy, Whaley creates a story that is much less about the science fiction of coming back to life and more about living life in the present. As Kyle says after Travis admits that he wants his relationship back with Cate, "Everyone wants to change the past, Travis. But they can't. None of us can." This, really, is at the core of Noggin, which is much more about the heart than the head. Says Travis, "They say a heart can't really break because there's nothing to be broken. But see, I once had to leave everyone I loved, and it felt this same way. Maybe Jeremy Pratt's did too. Before he died, I mean. Maybe his heart was torn to shreds and maybe that's why it hurt so bad now, like it hadn't had enough time to heal before receiving its next blow." We all experience broken hearts. We all experience a longing for a time lost to the past. Whaley's ability to dig deep into these universal truths is strong, but it is his endearing characters and quirky plot coupled with the thematic exploration that make Noggin so special.
As is expected, Travis struggles most with where Cate is at in her life. He just can't believe she isn't still in love with him. And in a way similar to how we sometimes focus on one salvation when we are having an especially difficult time, Travis decides that the entire reason he is here now is to win Cate back. It's excruciating (but brilliant) to watch he is so raw and open and, worse yet, hopeful. At one point Cate says to him, "We're soul mates...I know that. And so are Turner and me. And you and Hatton and Kyle. We all get people that help us make sense of the world, right? We just have to figure out how to keep them however we can." This is an especially compelling notion that Whaley explores. A New York Times op-ed piece by Pamela Druckerman offers the same idea: "There are no soul mates. Not in the traditional sense, at least. In my 20s someone told me that each person has not one but 30 soul mates walking the earth...In fact, 'soul mate' isn't a pre-existing condition. It's an earned title. They're made over time." Whalen beautifully explores this idea that we are capable of having deep connections with many people in our lifetimes. As an adult, I find this to be true. As a teen, I think I would have found this worrying but, ultimately, hopeful.
Perhaps the hope that Travis harbors for getting back together with Cate will metamorphose into that kind of hope; the hope for many meaningful relationships; the hope for feeling grounded and centered enough to be open to them.
As Lawrence Ramsey, the first person in the book to successfully undergo a head transplant, says to Travis, "Don't go your whole life comparing everything that happens to the way it was before. You know what else happened before? You died." And he's right...right? Maybe great things, great experiences, great moments are in our past. But, if we think hard enough, we can remember that they weren't all great. And besides, those times are over. What we have is right now. And aren't there great things happening right now too? Or if not, can we make them happen? Recommended for grades 9 through 12 and all of us adults too.
This review was originally published in May 2014, and has been updated for the March 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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