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Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

2012 John Newbery Medal Winner

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers


Small town living provides mystery, drama, and lessons in history in Jack Gantos’ Newbery award-winning novel Dead End in Norvelt. A summer of crazy adventures begins when a young boy prone to nosebleeds, becomes involved in plots of high drama which include casseroles, a funeral home, a Girl Scout, Hell’s Angels, the mysterious deaths of Norvelt’s widow population, and a top secret plan to build a homemade J-3 plane…and that’s only the beginning for a 1962 summer in a dead-end town.


Twelve-year-old Jack Gantos is plagued by nosebleeds. Shocking news or sudden exposure to disturbing images such as Miss Volker’s wax covered arthritic claws, uh… hands, will easily incite a blood flow. Sensitive and easily swayed, Jack finds himself pulled in different directions by the adults surrounding him. Whether it’s helping his mom deliver casseroles to the elderly Norvelt residents, or covering for his dad who’s secretly building a plane, or typing up the obituaries Miss Volker writes for the Norvelt paper, Jack is caught up in the lively events in what he thought was a dying town.

Norvelt, a town steeped in history, was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt during the Depression as a place for displaced workers and their families. Miss Volker, a Norvelt original, made a promise to the town’s namesake that she’d write down the history of the first Norvelt residents before they died to keep the town and its history alive. Meanwhile, as the widows of Norvelt are starting to die at an accelerating pace, Jack’s relationship with Miss Volker becomes his means of escaping pressure and expectations from his parents. He can’t type fast enough to keep up with all the deaths and adding to the excitement Jack encounters a Hell’s Angel seeking revenge, examines dead bodies with Miss Volker, and avoids cranky old Mr. Spizz and his adult-size tricycle.

Unpredictable antics, mysterious deaths, and more than a few nosebleeds wrap Jack up in enough historical summer adventure to keep Norvelt alive for a very long time.

Awards for Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt is the recipient of two prestigious awards - the 2012 John Newbery Medal given for the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature and the 2012 Scott O’Dell Award for outstanding contribution to historical fiction for young people.

Author Jack Gantos

Brilliant, funny, and unashamed of his past, (see his memoir A Hole in My Life), Jack Gantos is an author who knows how to use personal history to tell a meaningful and unique story. Born in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, Gantos lived in the nearby town of Norvelt until he was seven when his family moved to Barbados where he attended British schools. After fifth grade the family moved back to the United States and settled in Florida where Gantos finished his education.

Gantos first decided to become a writer in sixth grade when he asked his mom for a diary and began collecting stories and anecdotes from observations made at school. While in college, he collaborated with his friend, illustrator Nicole Rubel, to create his first picture book, Rotten Ralph, in 1976.

Success quickly followed and since then Gantos has written books for children, young adults, and adults including his award-winning memoir A Hole in My Life and the Newbery Honor book Joey Pigza Loses Control.

A former professor, Gantos is now a full time writer, conference speaker, university lecturer, and a popular presenter at educational workshops. (Source: Author’s Website)

My Recommendation

Let the gushing begin…I loved this book! Not only is Jack Gantos a talented writer, but I admire his gift for teaching life lessons disguised as charming dialogue, endearing characters, and outrageously funny plot twists. This story has heart, humor, and historical value.

Characteristic of Gantos’ delightful writing style, his latest book delivers large doses of funny dialogue, memorable shenanigans, and a humorous approach on the value of learning from the past (check out Gantos’ memoir A Hole in My Life). Clearly, Gantos values history and the way it ties communities together as he threads historical trivia throughout the story including the truth about Eleanor Roosevelt’s role in the founding of Norvelt. I found myself wanting to learn more about his “dead end” town. Look on a map and you’ll find this town still exists. (Source: Explore PA History)

In one of many funny moments between Jack and his friend Bunny Stella Huffer, tough Girl Scout and walking dictionary of all things related to dead bodies, Jack explains his love of history by opening a book and saying, “Smell a book and know its history.” To which Stella responds, “You’re history for making me smell the crotch of a book!” (p. 239). And the history and the humor just continues…This is a wonderful book to be read at a book club or in a classroom, and the publisher provides a curriculum guide for teachers. (Source: Macmillan Reading Guide)

Anyone looking for a folksy, humorous, historical book that is witty, charming, and not shy about wrapping up a good idea in strange but believable adventures will love Dead End in Norvelt. In the tradition of memorable characters like Richard Peck’s Grandma Dowdel and Gary Schmidt’s Turner Buckminster, Jack Gantos’ young Jack is an unforgettable character well on his way to keeping some excellent company. For its historical value, delightful characters and zany adventures, I recommend this book of middle grade fiction for ages 10-14. (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, 2012. ISBN: 9780374379933)

Additional Newbery Recommendations From Your Guide Elizabeth Kennedy

For a variety of types of high-quality children's literature for middle grade / middle school age readers, I recommend you take a look at some other Newbery honorees. Since these books all differ in theme and tone, only some of them will probably appeal to your kids, although all are worth a look. Below is a list, with links to their reviews.

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