I hate to be a tease but want to take the opportunity this week to tell you about a title I really enjoyed. We nerdy bloggers sometimes get this way, have mercy on us: Often receiving galleys months before they hit shelves, we can’t contain our enthusiasm. This is a novel from fall 2011 novel that I find well-crafted, coming from an author who consistently brings readers outstanding prose.
Discover more books to make you laugh among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
Jack Gantos. Let me count the ways… Actually, I’ve only got room to summarize—Gantos has a refreshingly wicked and sharp wit, he’s honest as hell, he’s fearless, and he knows how to tell a good story. “Off-kilter” is how one reviewer previously dubbed his style. Thank goodness for that.
It’s one thing to be praised, as he was with his Joey Pigza titles, for so convincingly nailing his characters’ thoughts. It’s another thing altogether to straight up name his protagonist “Jack Gantos,” as he does in his upcoming title, Dead End in Norvelt, out in September from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Mixing what I assume is fact and fiction, Gantos tells the story of…well, Gantos during the summer of 1962 in Norvelt, Penn.
It’s a very Cold War summer in more ways than one. Jack’s father fears a “surprise attack” from Russian Communists, telling Jack to dig a bomb shelter in their yard. The family has their own personal combat—Jack is grounded, and his parents argue all summer. Jack’s mother wants to stay in Norvelt, but his father is building at their home a landing strip for his new plane, wanting to move the family to Florida. Jack, whose “mind wanders…[so] my feet are always a few steps ahead of me,” manages to get out a few times to be with his best friend, Bunny (one of the funniest and most memorable characters in a novel full of them, “a girl the size of one of Santa’s little helpers”). Mostly, he assists elderly Miss Volker with her obituary writing. Jack types for the local newspaper the obituaries she dictates, and it’s one busy summer—old-timers in Norvelt are falling like flies.
Throw in some dastardly Hells Angels; lots of blood (Jack’s nose bleeds profusely when he’s anxious); the obsessed, asthmatic Mr. Spizz, an elderly man with “chunky monkey knuckles,” zooming around town on a giant tricycle; some “whisper history”; arms that may or may not be melting off Miss Volker’s body; burnt flesh at the insertion of red-hot wires into Jack’s nasal cavity; and, needless to say, gads of obituaries. A bit of sleuthing also occurs: It must be determined why elderly Norvelt citizens are resting in peace in such alarming numbers.These darker elements are wrapped up in the observant and funny tone you expect from Gantos and delivered with his signature quick-witted insight on adolescence. It is upon these foundations that he weaves compelling themes about history. With each obituary, Miss Volker tacks on entertaining biographical stories about other historical figures: “I guess you could say the obits,” she tells Jack, “are the honey to attract readers…we’ve got some important ideas to keep alive.” Jack, who tells Bunny history is alive and “everywhere you look,” also reads from the Landmark history series, relaying with wonder the bizarre stories of human nature behind historical events.
“Don’t ever forget your history,” Miss Volker repeatedly tells him, “or any wicked soul can lie to you and get away with it.” But Jack’s entire summer, whether he likes it or not, has turned into one giant exercise in the notion that “if you do something bad and forget about it, then you might do the same bad thing again,” not to mention the very concept of war and what it has to do with what he calls “future history.”
“Don’t forget your history,” Miss Volker tells Jack again at the book’s close, adding “life is a cycle.” It’s the reader’s pleasure to join Jack in his summer of learning this firsthand.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.