John Corey Whaley & Randi Anderson’s “Random Word Challenge”

OMG, this just in, January 23: John Corey Whaley has won BOTH the Printz AND the Morris Awards (YALSA’s highest honors) for his first novel, “Where Things Come Back.”  Whew.  And YARN is the only place you can read his “Random Word Challenge” poetry.  How awesome is that?

YARN is super excited to bring you this won’t-find-it-anywhere else writing by 5 Under 35 winner John Corey Whaley, and his friend Randi Anderson.  We know you’ve seen Corey’s novel “Where Things Come Back,” the first YA novel to be recognized in the National Book Founation’s 5 Under 35.  Now you can read him in a whole new genre–the scariest of the scary, poetry….


The Random Word Challenge

So, a few years back, Randi and I decided that we both needed something to kick start the creativity in our writing.  I was teaching public school English and Randi was working on her collection of brilliant artworks—so we both challenged each other to write, since writing was one of the reasons we’d become friends several years before at Louisiana Tech University.

I’m not sure whose idea it was to exchange lists, but that’s exactly what we did: We devised a plan to give one another a list of ten random words, with one bonus word.  The assignment was this: Use each word to write an original poem or short story (flash fiction—one page or less in length) by a certain date and then share each with each another.

We couldn’t find both lists that resulted in the works included, but here is the list that Randi sent me so many years ago (care of Gmail archives).

Image courtesy of (

1. window
2. atlas
3. wire
4. opaque
5. casserole
6. figurine
7. thistle
8. storage
9. chink
10. hackney
Plus: snorkel

The assignment was an instant boost of creativity for me, and I think for Randi as well, because both of us had no issues in completing the assignment within the allotted time.  (I want to say we gave each other a week or so, maybe even less time).  This was a great way to share original works with a friend without the pressure of judgment or harsh criticism.  The project, after all, was mostly for fun and nothing else.  But, as you can see, I think each of us found a few words from one another’s lists that inspired some deeper level of meaning and inspiration—and that’s something that has stuck with me: That the most random, off-the-wall, seemingly meaningless things can still inspire creativity and force one to look inside of oneself for something that he/she may not have known was there, waiting to be written and explored.


The sheer opacity we’re experiencing together has led me to conclude the following:
We are all alone.
So alone
In fact,
That we’ve been fooled into thinking we’re not.
And that’s when they get you.

I don’t ever see you or her or him or any of us anymore.
I see words on a screen
And I hear beeps in my earbuds
And I feel my heart breaking as the light reflecting on my face is filtered slowly out.

There is a dimmer switch on the world that we all turn down together.

Image courtesy of PaulS (


I can see my house from here
And I smell crayons
And Teddy Ruxpin
And thick plastic that you can’t bend or break
And there’s a Lego in my nose
And my brother’s G.I. Joes are all over the floor
And my mom is screaming
And my dad is gone
And it’s my house,
I can see it

Clear as day.

I can draw it on a map

With scented markers that don’t smell like any chocolate I’ve ever smelled

And I can send it to you with a pigeon from my pirate ship.


I wish I could save you onto a flash drive that dangles from my key chain
And plug you into any computer I come across
And you’d be there
With me
In all of your glory
And I’d ask you if you’d like some music
And you’d say
Why yes I’d love some music
And I’d download Sufjan Stevens songs into your brain
And we’d hum “Chicago” while I work on my portfolio at a coffee shop
And pretend to be more important than everyone else
And when I make a typo you would stop me and say something like
Hey, now, you know better than that mister
And I’d laugh
And you’d laugh
And then I’d threaten to delete you
Because that’s the sort of games we’d play
If you were on my flash drive
And I was in complete control
But you know
And I know
That I would never delete you
That it’s just a joke
Because that’s what we do
And how we are
We joke about being deleted
And I joke about downloading porn onto your flash drive
And you don’t laugh like I expect you to
And one day I open up a Word document that you’ve created
And it reads as follows:

Dear you, I think that porn joke was very inappropriate and I’d appreciate it if you’d just go ahead and cut and paste me into an email and send me to one of your more attractive friends who doesn’t use his sense of humor to make people feel uncomfortable so often.

And I’d secretly make a copy of you for old time’s sake
And send you to Phil.
Phil is a stand-up guy.
And he has a Mac.
And I don’t think you’re compatible with that format.

And by Randi Anderson…..


Image courtesy of scubadive67 (

I walked in and it smelled
Like lemons.
There was a new hand towel
In the bathroom
And lines in the carpet
From the vacuum
And I knew you’d made this effort
On my account—
And I loved it.

You fixed me a glass of water
And offered me a cookie
Because that’s what nice people like you
Do when they have guests
They offer them cookies
And small talk.
Only your talk wasn’t so small.
It was deep.
And I loved it.


Image Courtesy of (

“Be on your best behavior,” she said.  And that is what she meant.  There was to be no jostling or giggling or chattering.  No horseplay or humming or twiddling of thumbs.  This was the kind of place where arms belonged at one’s sides and hands were safest in pockets or laps.  This was a formal, fragile place intended for people who were stiff and still.  It had only been a little thing in this fragile place on a shelf.  One very small, but beautiful object of glass with an inner glow.  And only one finger had risen to touch this object’s smooth glass side.  But as finger and glass connected, it seemed to tip on its own.  It tumbled headlong right off the shelf, landing next to his shoe.  A thousand tiny pointed shards sprinkled across the floor and that lovely, soft glow was gone.  As he looked down at the mess he’d made tears softened what he could see and blurred the sharp edges of all the broken pieces.  He cried for the beauty now lost, but more than that he cried for himself and the punishment this would reap.  “Be on your best behavior,” she’d said.  And that is what she’d meant.


John “Corey” Whaley grew up in the small town of Springhill, Louisiana, where he learned to be sarcastic and to tell stories. He has a B.A. in English from Louisiana Tech University, as well as an M.A in Secondary English Education. He started writing stories about aliens and underwater civilizations when he was around ten or eleven, but now writes realistic YA fiction (which sometimes includes zombies…). He taught public school for five years and spent much of that time daydreaming about being a full-time writer…and dodging his students’ crafty projectiles. He is terrible at most sports, but is an avid kayaker and bongo player. He is obsessed with movies, music, and traveling to new places. He is an incredibly picky eater and has never been punched in the face, though he has come quite close. His favorite word is defenestration, which is the inspiration for his second book. “Where Things Come Back” is his first novel.

Randi Anderson is an artist and stay-at-home mom who currently resides in Texas with her husband, Josh, and their two-year-old son, Frazier. She loves running, traveling, and writing when time allows.

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  1. […] you see, and my favorite YA, hands down. Additionally, Mr. Whaley himself recently contributed some otherwise unpublished poetry to the online literary journal I intern with. Double […]

  2. […] Oakley on Modern-Day ThoreauMichael L. Printz Awards, 2012 « her life with books on John Corey Whaley & Randi Anderson’s “Random Word Challenge”Jill Ann Bixel on Modern-Day ThoreauA Fig Published in YARN’s Literary Magazine! | Figment […]

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