• Putting Books to Work

Putting Books to Work: Where Things Come Back

by Judith A. Hayn, Karina R. Clemmons, Heather A. Olvey, and J. D. Wilson
August 21, 2014

Putting Books to Work:  Where Things Come Back
By Judith A. Hayn, Karina R. Clemmons, Heather A. Olvey, & J. D. Wilson

Where Things Come Back (Atheneum, 2011)
By John Corey Whaley
Grades 7—12

John Corey Whaley’s debut novel Where Things Come Back is the winner of the 2012 William C. Morris, and Michael L. Printz awards.  Cullen Witter is a typical teenage boy living in the small town of Lily, AR. This unique setting has a profound impact on the characters, almost acting as a personality itself.  Cullen has a close-knit circle of friends and family, and when his brother Gabriel goes missing at the same time as the first sighting of the believed-to-be-extinct Lazarus woodpecker, Cullen begins to freshly examine his life, the town, and all the people in it.  In alternating chapters, the reader is introduced to both Benton Sage and Cabot Searcy, whose fanatical searches for truth using The Book of Enoch as a guide lead them both down very dark paths.  The reader may struggle to see parallels between the different characters in the two stories other than the characters are all searching desperately for meaning, however, the plots eventually come to focus on the question of ultimate import to Cullen: Will Gabriel Witter come back, as everyone else who attempts to leave the small town of Lily inevitably does?

Cross-Curricular Connections:  English language arts, Social Studies, Science

Ideas for Classroom Use:

Creating a Timeline of the Novel’s Events

Discuss with the class the difficulty of understanding the novel’s events in linear order as the chapters in the book flip back and forth between different people’s stories.  As a class, ask students to contribute several important events in the story and add it to a timeline that is displayed. Assign students to groups of three or four, making sure each group has access to a computer or tablet. Assign each group to collaboratively fill an empty timeline with relevant events in the story using collaborative technology such as or Google Docs. Students should integrate events from multiple characters, referring to the book if necessary. Each group should share their digital documents with the class for a class analysis and discussion of the novel’s events.

Creating Titles of Possible Books Based on Students’ Own Lives

Cullen creates fictitious book titles to indicate snapshots of his mental state at certain times in the novel. Whaley’s question in the Reading Group Guide in the back of his novel asks participants to create some of their own examples of book titles. As an extension, this activity allows students to connect their own lives with the book. Instruct students to flip through the novel and make a list of the possible book titles Cullen creates, along with the events that inspired them.  List the titles found on a master list as a class, and then assign students to individually make a list of several important events in their own lives.  Then have students write creative book titles corresponding to the life events. Give students the option to share their events and corresponding titles anonymously in small groups or anonymously by turning in their papers.

Brown Bag Exam

As an assessment activity, use Denise Ousley’s instructions for a brown bag exam based on Where Things Come Back.  In preparation, collect the following items and put each item separately into its own bag.  Close the bag, and give one bag to students, instructing them to wait until everyone has a brown bag before opening.  Once students open their bags and see their items, explain to students that they will be expected to list all the possible connections between the item and Where Things Come Back.  They should attempt to find correlations for plot, character, setting, theme, symbols, or events, however, every item will not fit into every category.  Once students have worked alone and answered question 1, allow them to work in triads, and add the group’s additions for 2.  Instruct students to individually find at least two passages in the book that connect the brown bag items to the text, and write the quotes and page numbers down for 3.  After answering 4, students can then share one idea about their item with the class as a whole.

                                                            Brown Bag Exam
Brown Bag item:___________________________

  • Initial ideas connection item to novel (a bulleted list is fine)
  • Additional comments from small group discussion:
  • Passages:
  • Idea/Connection/Comment to share with the class:

Items to place in brown bags:

  • Lily—This represents the small town in which this book is set.  It is an actual town in Arkansas that is located halfway between Little Rock and Memphis.  Lily plays an important part in the book as most of its inhabitants want or try to leave, but they inevitably come back.  It can also be a symbol of all of the Arkansas cities and town names the author uses as character names in the book.
  • The Bible—Benton Sage begins his journey doing missionary work in Ethiopia.  He is a Christian and fails to live up to his father’s perfectionist expectations.  Benton wants to bring the word of God to the people he meets in Ethiopia, and is unhappy with the result of simply feeding and caring for them.
  • Book of Enoch (can be made by covering a small notebook with the title)—A book in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible that tells the story of Gabriel being sent by God to punish the Nephilim (children of the fallen angels) for giving humans too much knowledge.  After Cabot Searcy finds a quote from this book in Benton Sage’s journal, he becomes obsessed with finding the truth by using this book as a guide.
  • woodpecker—The Lazarus woodpecker was believed to have been extinct for over 60 years.  The believed sightings bring excitement to the small town of Lily, AR.
  • picture of a gas station— Cullen works in a gas station.  He interacts with many of the characters in the book there.
  • picture of a zombie – Cullen’s imagination tends to drift toward creating zombie stories in his mind when confronting stressful events in the book.  Cullen has a list of titles of possible books he might write someday, and many of titles include zombies.
  • angel – This is representative of Gabriel’s character, since both the angel Gabriel and Gabriel Witter play such a prominent role in the book.  There is also much discussion of the Grigori and Nephilim, who are the fallen angels and their children.
  • copy of The Catcher in the Rye – Gabriel’s favorite book.  Cullen read it to his brother when he was 10, and Gabriel read it for the 11th time a week before he disappeared.

Examining Where Things Come Back through Different Lenses of Literary Criticism

Break the class into groups of three or four students and give them the following chart:


Reader Response


Marxist/Social Class


List at least two incidents that support this kind of reading.  (Examples)

Cullen grew up in small town Arkansas.

Cullen had a difficult time finding his path.

Alma is told to follow traditional gender norms from her grandmother as well as others.

Alma searches for a husband because she feels it is the “right” thing to do.

Cabot's life becomes unraveled due to his allegiance to unwrapping the meaning of religious texts. These texts control him.

Barling's celebrity show that people look for something to follow or believe in.

Gabriel is kidnapped (death) but returns (resurrection).

Cabot tries to convince Gabriel that he is God's left hand man.

Interpret at least one character through this lens.





If you look through this lens, what themes/issues emerge?





What symbols do you see?





Cite specific passages that support this kind of reading.





Do you believe in this reading? Why or why not?





Additional Resources and Activities:

Whaley’s Playlist

Whaley has created a playlist of songs that inspired him as he wrote this novel.  Play a selection from his list each discussion day in class to get students to consider possible connections.  Provide students with the playlist and have them create their own playlist that includes a caption for each choice.

Where Things Come Back Study Guide

BookRags has created a Summary and Study Guide that is available for purchase.  It offers a summary and analysis of each chapter followed by an analysis of characters and objects and places, as well as themes that are found in the novel

Additional Texts Dealing with Problems and Coming of Age:

Anderson, M. T. (2012).  Feed. Candlewick.
Booth, Coe (2013).  Bronxwood.  Push.
de la Peña, Matt (2010).  We Were Here.  Ember.
Lockhart, E. (2014).  We Were Liars.  Delacorte Press.
Page, Robin Epstein (2010).  God Is in the Pancakes.  Dial.
Rowell, Rainbow (2013).  Eleanor & Park.  St. Martin’s Griffin.
Sáenz, Benjamin Alire (2012).  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  Simon & Schuster.

Judith A. Hayn, professor of Secondary Education, her colleague Karina Clemmons, associate professor of Secondary Education, and students in the Masters in Secondary English Education program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock prepared these classroom suggestions.



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