One of the winners of this year’s American Library Association top awards for children’s books was John Corey Whaley, a 28-year-old former schoolteacher from Louisiana who received the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature. Like many other readers and critics, the Printz committee was wowed by Whaley’s debut novel, Where Things Come Back, a remarkable coming-of-age story set in a small Arkansas town obsessed by the sighting of an extinct woodpecker.

We caught up with the (understandably) very excited young author to ask about his “quirky little book,” his reaction to Monday’s announcement and what he’s working on now.

What was the first thing that went through your head when you found out you had won the Printz Award?
NO WAY!!! I was just so shocked and surprised that I nearly ran off the road (yes, I was driving. I’m not sure who parked my car as I reacted!). I was overwhelmed.

Who was the one person you couldn’t wait to tell about the award?
Two people—my mom and dad, the best parents on earth who have supported me always and are so proud of everything. They always get the good news first.

In addition to the Printz, Where Things Come Back has been honored with the William C. Morris YA Debut Award, and you were named a “5 Under 35” writer by the National Book Foundation—the first young adult novelist ever given this recognition. Why do you think your book has resonated with so many critics and readers? Have you been surprised by the widespread attention?
Well, I hope what resonates with readers and critics alike is the theme that, to me, was my guiding force as I wrote the novel—the idea that second chances and hope exist and that there is beauty to be found in the simplest things around us.

I have been surprised that this quirky little book has gotten so much attention! It’s something an author dreams of, but tries to stay healthily cautious of as well. It’s just incredible to see it unfold the way it has.

My guiding force as I wrote the novel was the idea that second chances and hope exist and that there is beauty to be found in the simplest things around us.

How did you become interested in the Lord God Bird?
I heard a story, when I was in college, on National Public Radio about the Lord God Bird in Brinkley, Arkansas [the site of the real-life reappearance of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker], and I became completely obsessed with it—I knew I had to write about people in a place where something so strange was happening.

What sort of research did you do for this novel? Have you been to Brinkley?
I actually have never been to Brinkley! It’s crazy . . . maybe I need to visit now. I owe it so much! For research, I read up on extinct species and the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, and of course, I read the Book of Enoch from the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible, which plays a major role in the story as well. It was so much fun delving into these interesting things and seeing these crazy similarities that worked to better my story.

How close is the novel’s fictional town of Lily, Arkansas, to your own hometown of Springhill, Louisiana?
It’s pretty close, for sure. A lot of people from my hometown tell me they notice so many things [in the book] that remind them of home—the city park, this street or that street, etc. I definitely saw my hometown as Lily while I was writing.

When you were a teacher, how did you balance teaching full-time with writing? Did your students inspire your creative work?
I wrote Where Things Come Back the summer after my first year of teaching and I edited it while I was teaching. It’s hard to do both, and I do find that it’s a lot easier to write now that I don’t teach during the day. But, with lots of late nights and weekends, plus great teacher vacations, it somehow worked.

Do you have a favorite past Printz winner?
Oh boy. They are all so brilliant! I must say, I’ve recently been reading John Green’s newest novel [The Fault in Our Stars] and I’m hooked! He writes like no other!

Have you read or listened to past Printz acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
I have. I was actually there for Paolo [Bacigalupi]’s speech last year and now the pressure is on! I’m not worried, I’m excited . . . I love getting to talk about what I do and getting to celebrate with others—it’s all part of why I love being an author.

What can you tell us about your next project?
I can tell you that it’s a dark murder-mystery/coming-of-age set in South Louisiana with a few spooky turns and maybe, just maybe, a little voodoo.

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