This morning, I read the first two chapters of Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos (recent Newbery winner) to two classes of 6th grade boys. In one class, once we hit the part where the narrator, Jack, says “cheeze-us crust” as a substitute for the swear “Jesus Christ,” the laugh-fest began and continued off and on for the rest of class. When I set the boys free to look for books in the library, I heard many exclamations of “cheeze-us! cheeze-us crust!” It’s funny to me how I can never predict what the kids will go crazy over.
This is a great book to read aloud, because the voice of young Jack is so strong and so genuine. Jack is young boy living in the small town of Norvelt, Pennsylvania in 1962. He has problems with nosebleeds that, in his own description, spurt out of his nose like water from an elephant’s trunk; some very humorous scenes in the book involve his unruly nose and its spewing of blood. Jack has been grounded for the summer as punishment for firing his father’s Japanese sniper rifle without permission and then mowing down his mother’s cornfield (at his father’s insistence, but just try to get his mother to have sympathy for that!). He is only allowed to leave the house to help his elderly neighbor, Miss Volker, type obituaries for the town newspaper (her arthritis has made it impossible for her to type them on her own).
There were several things I liked about this book. As I said, I loved the voice of Jack. The humor was great; I laughed out loud several times, and it was the sort of humor that middle school kids would appreciate. I enjoyed learning a bit about the history of Norvelt and how it fit with the New Deal and a series of planned government communities. Seeing the history and learning about it through Jack’s perspective, as well as through the conflicting opinions of his parents, made it interesting.
So, I liked the book, and I think it will appeal to kids who like humor mixed with history. However, I do not think I would have picked this to win the Newbery. There were parts that dragged a bit for me, and I just did not think this book had the emotional punch of something like A Monster Calls or the beauty of Breadcrumbs. It’s a solid little book, though, and if the laughter in class this morning was any indication, it’s a book that knows its audience and hits the mark.
Update: Here is a short audio clip of Gantos himself reading the beginning of the book. Thanks to Macmillan Audio for the link!