Book Review - Dead End in Norvelt

Author: Jack Gantos
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (BYR)
Released:  September 13, 2011
Format:  Audiobook
Source: Personal Copy
Audience: Middle Grade (10 to 14 years)
Fiction * Historical Fiction

Description from GoodReads:
Dead End in Norvelt is the winner of the 2012 Newbery Medal for the year's best contribution to children's literature and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction!

Melding the entirely true and the wildly fictional, Dead End in Norvelt is a novel about an incredible two months for a kid named Jack Gantos, whose plans for vacation excitement are shot down when he is "grounded for life" by his feuding parents, and whose nose spews bad blood at every little shock he gets. But plenty of excitement (and shocks) are coming Jack's way once his mom loans him out to help a fiesty old neighbor with a most unusual chore—typewriting obituaries filled with stories about the people who founded his utopian town. As one obituary leads to another, Jack is launced on a strange adventure involving molten wax, Eleanor Roosevelt, twisted promises, a homemade airplane, Girl Scout cookies, a man on a trike, a dancing plague, voices from the past, Hells Angels . . . and possibly murder. Endlessly surprising, this sly, sharp-edged narrative is the author at his very best, making readers laugh out loud at the most unexpected things in a dead-funny depiction of growing up in a slightly off-kilter place where the past is present, the present is confusing, and the future is completely up in the air.

My reflections on the book:
I will admit that based on the title and cover I would have completely passed over this book.  Then a friend shared that she liked it so I added it to my list to read.  I was still passing it over for other books and when the announcement came that it had won a Newbery.  At this point, I questioned the decision of the committee's choice.  And still I hadn't read it.  *sigh*  I know I shouldn't judge a book or a committee's judgement by the cover.  However, I still wasn't moving the book any higher in my TBR pile. 

After listening to the interview with Jack Gantos on NPR's Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me, and learning that Gantos, himself, narrates the audiobook, I decided to try a different approach.  Maybe listening to the book would be a more successful endeavor.  It didn't take more than about one chapter to realize that the audiobook was an excellent choice.  I hadn't stopped laughing as I listened to Gantos read those first chapters of his fictionalized autobiographical story.

The challenge with an audiobook is that is typically takes longer to get through the book.  I listen in the car (though I don't have a long commute) and a little bit in the morning and again at night.  However, I found that as I listened I kept wanting to listen and wanting to find out more about Jack, and the other members of the Norvelt community.  At one point, since I can read faster than the audiobook, I even tried switching over to the book, but by that point I preferred Gantos' voice to my own and just switched back to the audio.

Dead End in Norvelt is a unique book.  As I listened, I couldn't help thinking that it was a book more for adults who want or need to reminisce about a different place and time that no longer exists.  Gantos captures the special nuances and eccentricities of growing up in a small working class community.  It is 1962.  Norvelt which was founded in the 1930's is dying out - figuratively and literally.  Twelve year old Jack is sentenced to a summer of confinement in his room when he gets caught in his parents' feud.  His only reprieve from being in his room or doing chores is when an elderly neighbor with serious arthritis needs his help to write/type up the obituaries.  For Jack, this isn't as bad as it may sound.  Jack likes history and with each death of an original Norvelt community member,  he learns from Miss Volker the history of the individual along with historical facts that she weaves into the write up.  

I liked Jack.  He's a good kid with very frequent nose bleeds, an interest in history, and a penchant for finding himself in unusual situations; some that get him into trouble particularly with his mother.  His friendship with Miss Volker is especially entertaining.  Every time the phone would ring, and Jack would be called to come down to Miss Volker, I would wonder what odd scenario he would find himself in this time.  And the situations are even stranger because parents and adults today would never allow children to do most of these things.  A child driving a car, or purchasing rat poison, or traipsing around checking on dead people is close to nil.  It finally occurred to me that the reason I loved listening to this rather than reading it was that it reminded me of the times when my dad and uncles would sit around the table and talk about the things they would do as children.  

Yes, I loved this one, but I especially loved listening to it.  I also appreciated the extra section in the audiobook where Gantos tells a little bit about what in the book was factual/autobiographical.  

I am afraid though that this one is going to be hard to sell.  The audience for this book is supposedly 10 to 14 year olds.  I am fascinated when I hear a teacher mention that some of her "boy" readers are really enjoying this one.  I always want to know where they are from.  I wonder if this one wouldn't do better with boys in small towns in the Northeast.  Or better yet, I think it would have more success with Baby Boomers who lived through this time period.  

I still am not a big fan of the cover.  And I still wonder about the decision of the Newbery Committee.  However, when I say that now, I can at least back that up with having read the book.  And I, at least, can now identify how I will present this book to children in a way that they hopefully will experience it as a slice of history (even if it is fictionalized). 

Check out the book trailer for Dead End in Norvelt:   

Humming Room Blog Tour: Interview with Ellen Potter

In celebration of the release of The Humming Room written by the amazing, Ellen Potter, MacMillian is running a blog tour and giveaway.  Ellen was kind enough to stop by the blog to answer some questions.  Also, one lucky winner will receive a copy of The Humming Room - see details below.

The Secret Garden was one of my absolute favorite books as a child. When I found out that The Humming Room was similar, I was so excited to read it. Did you worry that people will overlook Roo's story because they would be looking for comparisons with The Secret Garden

Oh, I was full of worries when I wrote this book, but then I’m a natural-born worrier. The idea of reinventing a classic was as exciting as it was nerve-jangling. The fact that The Secret Garden was one of my favorite books of all time really amped up the pressure. Still, out of this miasma of anxiety, the character of Roo emerged so powerfully that I knew her story could stand on its own.

 When I finished reading The Humming Room, I immediately had to go look up the islands. What was your favorite part of doing the research for the book? 

All of it! Researching The Humming Room was bliss. The Thousand Islands region of New York is paradise—in the summer, at least. I wandered around islands, spied on osprey nests, and found out from a wildlife rehabilitator how to feed a baby bird (with a paintbrush). I guess my favorite piece of research was when I accompanied the island mail carrier on his rounds. We zipped through the St. Lawrence River on his little green boat, stopping to deliver the mail to the islanders. That boat went so fast I thought I might throw up. In a good way, I mean.

Your books are all set in present day. Do you ever see yourself writing a book in a different time period? If so, what one? 

I have this lingering fantasy that I’ll write a book set in England in the mid 1800’s. The thing is, though, I can’t even remember the combination to my gym locker, much less retain the tiniest details of everyday life in the Victorian Era. I suspect my brain would erupt in flames if I even tried.

With all of your books, I have come to love your characters. What is the secret to writing characters that readers will connect with? 

If I were at a party, my characters are the sort of people I would gravitate toward—for better or for worse. I write about people who fascinate me, so it’s possible that my obsession with them transfers to my readers.

I know I have mentioned this before to you, but your writing is truly lovely. What is your editing and revision process like? And have you worked with the same editor on a number of books or do you have a different editor each time? 

Like most writers, I revise A LOT. The first draft often resembles a puzzle that has been put together by someone who hasn’t had their morning coffee yet. I have to go back in many times to make sure all the pieces are snug and in the right place. I’ve been very fortunate with my editors. Jean Feiwel at Feiwel & Friends edited both The Kneebone Boy and The Humming Room, with a light, but magical, touch. She always seems to understand what I am shooting for in each scene, and with gentle nudges she aligns me with my intention.

When I interviewed you last, I commented about the wonderful cover for The Kneebone Boy. You seem to have some great cover karma. Now looking at the cover for The Humming Room - did you work with the same designer? A different one? And did you get any input on the cover? 

Cover karma! I like that. Yes, I must have done something really nice for an artist in a past life, because I am one lucky gal when it comes to my book covers. The Humming Room cover was done by the mind-blowingly gifted Jason Chan. He also did the stunning cover for The Kneebone Boy. Before Jason Chan came along, I used to worry about my covers (I told you I’m a worrier). Writers generally have very little control over what their covers will look like. But Jason is such a visionary that I would literally write a book based on one of his covers.

When I think about my favorite books as a child, I think of the ones that I took out from the school library or classroom library over and over again. It seems that everyone has at least one book that may have never made it back to the library because it was so well loved. Do you have one? 

Mine would have been A Wrinkle in Time. For the longest time, I would squeeze my eyes shut and try to “tesseract” to another plant. It never worked, incidentally.

If you could spend the day with a book character (doesn't have to be one of your characters), who would it be and what would you do?

Hands down, I’d spent the day with Roald Dahl’s The BFG, drinking frobscottle and making whizzpoppers.

Thanks Ellen for doing this interview....and I can't wait to get the book into the hands of students.

You can find out more about Ellen Potter at her website:

You can follow her on twitter: @ellenpotter

To find out where all the stop are on The Humming Room Blog Tour, click here.

Giveaway Rules:

1. Though comments are very much appreciated, please do not enter any personal information in the comments section (including your email, website, etc.).  If you do enter personal information, you comment will not be posted.
2.  You must complete the Entry Form to officially enter the contest.

3.  The Contest runs from 12:00 a.m. Pacific Time on March 2, 2012 to 11:59 p.m. Pacific Time on March 9, 2012.

4.  You must be 13 or older to participate in this contest.

5.  If you are selected as a winner, I will notify you by e-mail.  If you do not respond within 48 hours, I will select a new winner.

6.  US and Canadian residents are welcome to enter the contest.