In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott says, “For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

My hope is that this is what books become to you—as important as almost anything else on earth. This blog is about helping you find the miracle in these small, flat, rigid squares of paper while you are in middle school and beyond. Once you read alongside me, you are forever a member of my tribe of readers. No matter how you old you are, when you need to be reminded of the power of a good story, you will find me here, waiting to place one in your hands.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


copyright date: September 2011
primarily marketed for: intermediate readers (age 10 and up)

I bought this book prior to the announcement that it won the 2012 Newbery Award.  I have to admit, once I heard it won the award I was less interested in actually picking it up to read it.  I mean, sure an award of that caliber denotes a certain standard of literary quality, but it doesn’t always ensure the same high standard of interest.  In short, I expected Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos to be: boring. 

Luckily, I was wrong.

What finally nudged me to pick the book up was seeing Jack Gantos speak in Springfield at the Illinois Reading Council Conference.  He is a master storyteller, and he is filled with stories to tell.  He spoke to a room filled with us teachers about how to get our students to turn their personal journals into stories the way he did. 

Here he is with his current journal of choice:

This is the map he drew of his childhood neighborhood:

He suggested we teachers use a map like this as a springboard as well.  He encouraged us always to find a way around the student who claims he can’t do that for whatever reason by suggesting that students who are unfamiliar with their neighborhoods can simply draw a map of their home or even just the place where they sleep. 

He also shared this list of common story springboards to use with students:

All it took was a few stories inspired by his neighborhood map to draw me in and make me hunger for more.  I had no idea the dog Bo Bo from Jack’s Black Book was based on his actual dog.  That was a brutal death I thought only a twisted imagination could contrive.  Sadly, Jack the author actually lived through that dog’s death—Bo Bo broke his neck falling into a hole the dog himself had dug.  And that wasn’t even the worst Bo Bo death (he had three dogs all named Bo Bo) he experienced.  He also witnessed his dog get carried out of his backyard in the jaws of a crocodile (or maybe it was an alligator). 

You see how I was hooked?

Anyway, one of the first books I picked up when I returned home after the conference was Dead End in Norvelt, which is a largely autobiographical story (like many of his other books) about one summer in the author’s childhood.  I couldn’t wait to dig in to more of his crazy tales.  The book reminded me of Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck in the way it was told through mini-stories that all added up to create one overall story.  It is jam-packed with hilarious and unbelievable stories.  I learned from listening to Jack Gantos speak the stories that are most unbelievable are most likely the stories that are true.  Like the time he played with his father’s war souvenirs and accidentally fired the gun.  True story. 

Jack’s summer in Norvelt places him smack in the middle of a disagreement between his parents, which ends up causing him to be grounded for the summer.  His only escape is to be called by an old lady neighbor who is in charge of writing obituaries, but is unable to write due to severe arthritis.  This escape turns out to be a welcome distraction from boredom and writing obituaries proves to be far more adventurous than it first promised to be.  Jack ends up shooting a rifle, driving a car, bleeding profusely, viewing dead bodies, flying in a plane, running from Hell’s Angels, and helping solve crimes. 

Although this is intended to be a book for younger readers, the stories are just outrageous enough to engage an audience of any age.  Even with a Newbery Award sticker plastered to its cover. 

It is even available in audio format, read by the author himself!  Click below to hear him tell part of his hilarious story the way only Jack Gantos can tell it.

1 comment:

  1. All I know is that I need to get my behind to an Illinois Reading Council Conference. I appreciate reading about the various breakout sessions; they sound so good!

    And if I had to choose a particular book award to follow, it would definitely be the Michael L. Printz.