“An artful exercise in melancholy…Every reader will love openhearted Will.” —Booklist (starred review) “Haunting, introspective.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “Emotionally raw…[A] piercing narrative.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “McGhee artfully illustrates the tangled web wherein grief intertwines with the mundane.” —BCCB
After his dad dies of suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this exquisitely crafted story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each, by award-winning and bestselling author Alison McGhee.
Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.
When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread.
Like from a cast iron skillet stuck in the oven to preheat while you mix the batter? A hot, hot oven. So hot that before you open the door you have to put oven mitts on your hands.
And when you take the cast iron skillet out, you pour in a little melted butter and it hisses, the skillet’s that hot, and then you pour in the batter and it starts to brown and puff around the edges even before you put the skillet back in.
“Sometimes you got to walk the day out of you.” That’s what sixteen-year-old Will does. He walks. And as he walks, he thinks about the homeless man on the street, the lonely little boy who loves butterflies, or the dog who lives his life on a chain. Full of empathy, Will discovers that acts of kindness not only help others, but begin to help him come to terms with his father’s suicide. Told in beautifully crafted chapters of one hundred words over one hundred pages, What I Leave Behind shows how the universe can reveal itself in mysterious ways, and how, with an open heart, the most broken hearts can be healed.
Questions for Group Discussion
1. Will is highly sensitive and observant. Early in the story, he thinks, “Tonight the air itself is dark. That happens sometimes. It’s not just the lack of sun, it’s the presence of darkness.” What do you think Will means by this thought?
2. Will has an understanding of human nature that goes well beyond his sixteen years. Discuss the character traits that make Will a sympathetic character. How are Will’s social skills an asset to him?
3. “Music is the refuge of the lonely” is an adage that Will’s father often said. What is a refuge? Do you agree with this adage? Explain. Offer examples from personal experience.
4. People who are awkward around others are often unfairly labeled as odd or weird. Will realizes this about Major Tom early in their relationship. How does Will interact with Major Tom? What does he understand about Major Tom’s nature? Will compares his own social skills to a “dance where you’re born knowing the steps.” Discuss what he means by this description. How can you use Will as a model for interacting with new people?
5. Small moments, gestures, and phrases can flood Will with emotion: Major Tom closing his eyes and jabbing his finger on one of his motivational quotes, little butterfly dude putting the binoculars up to his eyes, or everyone on the bus laughing at the Cheese Doodle–eating kid. What do these reactions tell you about Will? Why do such seemingly simple and arbitrary moments move him?
6.What is a mantra? How is Will’s walking like a mantra? How does the physical activity of walking help Will move through the grieving process? In addition to the physical activity, what thoughts and experiences does Will have along the way that help him begin to come to terms with his loss? How does helping others in pain help him deal with his own pain?
7. Readers learn that Playa was gang-raped at a party. Enraged, Will’s mom says, “‘I don’t care if Angie got drunk. I don’t care if Playa fell asleep . . . You’re telling me that’s why they locked the door and raped her? Like that’s the only logical outcome? That’s the explanation.’” Discuss Will’s mom’s statement and the questions she poses, and how it relates to conversations surrounding rape culture today. Focus on the word explanation.
8. Will references a former art teacher, who said, “‘Look around, artists, the world is full of mystery.’” How is this line representative of Will’s interactions with the world? Do you think mystery is one of the themes of What I Leave Behind? If so, cite examples from the text to support your opinion. If not, explain why.
9. Why is Will drawn to the little butterfly dude? Why does the image of the boy sitting with folded hands come to Will after he gives the jump rope to the little girl in aisle seven? What is the significance of the little butterfly dude’s altar? Why does it affect Will so deeply?
10. How does Will connect Playa’s rape to the last word he said to his father? Why do you think Will wonders if he should have seen warning signs before Playa’s rape and his father’s suicide? Do you think it’s common to look back on a loss and think you could or should have done something to prevent it?
11. The main source of Will’s anger and remorse is finally revealed in a confession to Playa about his father: “‘Nah. That was the last thing I said to my dad. I refused his cornbread. Don’t tell me it’s not important, don’t tell me that’s a stupid thing to care about, don’t tell me my dad would understand, don’t tell me to give up on the fucking recipe. You are not the one who stood there late to school on the last day you would see your dad and said NAH.’” For Will, what would “giving up on the recipe” signify? In addition to anger, what other emotions do you think he’s feeling?
12. Discuss Will’s plan to give Playa one hundred gifts. Is Playa the only one benefitting from this plan? Why is it so important for him to give her these gifts? Why do you think Will finally breaks down with Playa?
13.Why is the shift in Major Tom’s tone when he tells Will to go home an important moment in the story? Why do you think Will tells Major Tom that he’s going to make cornbread? What does this moment reveal about Major Tom? What does it reveal about Will’s journey toward healing?
14. Will’s father died of suicide. Discuss the following passage: “It’s different, suicide. It’s a different kind of death. Most people, they’ll do anything to stay alive, right? Past the point where you’re looking at them and thinking, wow. Your life must suck. Don’t you, like want to die, like seriously? But most people don’t. They just want to keep on living.” Do you agree with Will? Is suicide “different”? Why is Will glad “in a way” that his father left a suicide note?
15. Will wonders whether his father “feels like he was one thing on the outside and something entirely different on the inside.” What does this statement mean to you? Do you think all people feel this way? How might this be an aspect of being human?
16. Discuss the passages in which Will relates the story about Playa on the playground rings. How does this story illustrate their personal connection, and why is this a scene for Will that “just burns and burns its way into you”?
17. “Carry On Wayward Son” is the title of a 1970s song by the rock band Kansas. The chorus lyrics are as follows: “Carry on my wayward son/There’ll be peace when you are done/Lay your weary head to rest/Don’t you cry no more.” How does Will carry on with his life after his dad’s suicide? How do the lyrics reflect actions and characters in the story?
18. Why do you think Will decides to go to the blessings store? What is he trying to find there? Mrs. Lin calls Will a good friend. How do his actions prove that he is a good friend? What does it mean to “have someone’s back”?
19. Along Will’s walking path, he encounters people and animals that cause him to think deeply about life: little butterfly dude, Superman, the dog of Insanity, Major Tom, Playa. What do these characters have in common? Why do you think Will feels compelled to help them all?
20. Discuss Will’s notion of an “early warning system” as protection from things that “claw at your heart.” Why does Will relate so deeply with the dog of Insanity?
21. Discuss Will’s relationship with Major Tom. How does it change over the course of the story? How did it surprise you, or make you think differently about people and how you treat them?
22. Why does Will keep trying to re-create the cornbread that his father used to make? Why does he hide the cast iron skillet and cornmeal in his room? Why do you think his attempts always fail? What does the cornbread symbolize? How does Playa telling Will that his father’s cornbread “sucked” become a catalyst that helps him to express his grief? What does she mean when she says, “‘I guess love isn’t cornbread-dependent’”?
23. Grief and loss are two of the main themes in What I Leave Behind. Discuss how Will processes his emotions throughout the story. Discuss the significance of ghosts, including Will’s references to a cornbread ghost and invisible ghost catchers. Why does Will refer to Playa and himself as “ghost boy and ghost girl”?
24. Consider the title, What I Leave Behind. How does this relate to Will’s actions in the story? How is memory something that is left behind?
“Ground Control to Major Tom”
Lyrics from “Space Oddity,” a song by the late singer-songwriter David Bowie, appear throughout the story. Read the “Space Oddity” lyrics, and listen to the song. Discuss what is happening in the song on a literal level and how many of the lines connect to the story. How does the theme of “Space Oddity” relate to the characters and events in What I Leave Behind? http://www.lyricsfreak.com/d/david+bowie/space+oddity_20036711.html
The Blessings Store
Readers learn about the blessings store early in the text, but Will doesn’t visit until much later. Three blessings in particular speak to Will, and read like poetry: “To unbreak your heart/To make a cloud of safety around you/To light at night for peace.” Think about blessings that you would bestow upon someone special in your life. Following the above lines as a model, write a series of ten blessings that are meaningful to you.
One Hundred Pages, One Hundred Words
Author Alison McGhee constructed What I Leave Behind in a unique way: each of the one hundred pages of text contain exactly one hundred words. With your classmates, discuss how this structure defies the traditional way of writing chapters, and how it relates to poetry. Then write a short story that follows the same format, allowing only one hundred words per page.
Random Acts of Kindness
Throughout the story, Will helps people in need. Although he is grieving over his father, he still manages to care about others. As a class, brainstorm some local causes or organizations in your area. Then work in small groups to plan how you can come to the aid of these people in need, whether you donate time, gifts, or other means of support. Consider activities you can do together, such as making cards for sick children or collecting spare change to donate to a charity.
Will notices Major Tom’s snaggle tooth when he “smiles for real.” This moment leads Will to the following thought: “A story makes itself up in my head, him as a little kid and his mom making him grilled cheese and teasing him about his snaggle tooth, but in a nice-mom kind of way.” Write backstories for one or more of the following characters in the form of three to five vignettes, each depicting a possible memory of their pasts: Major Tom, Little Butterfly Dude, Superman, Mrs. Lin, or Playa. Share your pieces with the class.
Guide written by Colleen Carroll, literacy specialist, education consultant, and author of the twelve-volume series, How Artists See, and the four-volume How Artists See, Jr. (Abbeville Press). Contact Colleen at www.colleencarroll.us.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Alison McGhee is the New York Times bestselling author of Someday, as well as Dear Sister, Maybe a Fox, Firefly Hollow, Little Boy, So Many Days, Star Bright, A Very Brave Witch, and the Bink and Gollie books. Her other children’s books include All Rivers Flow to the Sea, Countdown to Kindergarten, and Snap. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Laguna Beach, California. You can visit her at AlisonMcGhee.com.