Title: Dead End In Norvelt
Author: Jack Gantos
Publication Info: Square Fish 2013
Plot: Norvelt is a small town in western Pennsylvania that has seen its best days, but the long time residents are too stubborn to let it die. With the arrival of summer, Norvelt resident Jack Gantos (the character, not the author) is hoping to spend it playing baseball and sneaking peeks at the war movies at the drive in theater. Jack’s plans are disrupted when his neighbor Ms. Volker requests his assistance typing up obituaries for the local paper. On top of that, his father ropes him into a scheme to construct a fallout shelter and airfield in their backyard. Throughout this strange summer, Jack learns a good deal about his hometown and its quirky residents.
My Take: Author Jack Gantos writes excellent realistic fiction (or perhaps historical fiction in this case, if you consider the early 1970’s history!) and has a talent for bringing the quirks of characters and locations to life. He also writes humor very well and I found myself laughing in many parts of this book. As I got deeper into the story, I began to wonder what was the point of it all. I don’t mean this as a criticism, but rather as a strength of the novel. Gantos captures the slow summer days and strangeness of a dying town in the early 70’s, something he could not do if he had a heavy agenda for his characters. I appreciated this book, but younger readers with shorter attention spans may find it a slog. Recommend this book to seasoned readers looking for some funny realistic fiction.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to his website, Gantos really grew up in Norvelt. In school, he was “in the Bluebird reading group, which he later found out was for the slow readers.”
Title: Ophie’s Ghosts
Author: Justina Ireland
Publication Info: 2021 by Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins0
The Plot: In 1920’s Georgia, Ophie and her mother experience traumatic racial violence and decide to start a new life up north. Ophie realizes along the journey that she is able to see and interact with ghosts. After arriving in Pittsburgh, they procure jobs as housekeepers for a well off family named the Caruthers. Ophie soon befriends a ghost named Clara who met a tragic end at the house. Ophie decides to use her ability to commune with the supernatural to solve the mystery of Clara’s murder against the wishes of the Caruther family.
My Take: I felt that this book was slow for almost the first half. When we finally become fully engaged in Clara’s tragic story, the pace picks up and the story becomes much more interesting. By the end, I was won over and felt that the effort was worth it. Author Justina Ireland does an excellent job portraying the racial divisions of the time period. Those readers seeking a historical fiction mystery with a heavy dose of the supernatural will most likely enjoy this book.
About The Author: Justina Ireland has also written several books set in the Star Wars universe.
The Plot In 5 Sentences Or Less: When Crow was an infant, she washed ashore onto a tiny island located off of the coast of New England and a man named Osh found her and raised her as his own daughter. Local rumor held that Crow had come from the leper colony on Penikese Island, but there was never any proof of this. Now older, Crow has begun to question her origins and wants to know who her biological parents are. She and Osh visit Penikese and there find the beginnings of a mystery that will bring great wealth but also great danger to their small island.
My Take: I greatly enjoyed Wolk’s novel Wolf Hollow and was excited about Beyond the Bright Sea. I was impressed by Wolk’s description of the Elizabeth Islands and I thought that she did an excellent job of situating the reader into the rhythms of Crow and Osh’s life on the ocean. Wolk makes a good choice of framing the narrative around 3 characters, each with their own rough charm and simple decency. Some of the mystery turns on events that are a little too neat and coincidental, and I believe that book would have been stronger with a twist along the way. However, this remains a solid choice for young readers looking for a mystery or a historical fiction.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Lauren Wolk lives on Cape Cod and has visited many of the Elizabeth Islands.
The Plot in Five Sentences Or Less: Bud Calloway is an orphan who never knew his father and whose mother died a few years ago. Bud springs himself from his next foster home and manages to hide out for a few nights outside the local public library. But the road beckons, and soon Bud is on his way to Grand Rapids to find his father. Along the way, he meets a lot of quirky characters who help him along in his quest. He eventually encounters a grumpy jazz musician who doesn’t fit his model of fatherhood.
My Take: This is the first book that I had read by Curtis and I was not disappointed. No landscape writer, Curtis’s strength lies in his ear for creating a character through the sound of their words. I can certainly understand why this book won the 2000 Newberry Medal Award. Bud is an artfully sketched out character who is as adept at survival as he is with the English language. I appreciated Bud’s rituals to stay out of trouble with adults and his humorous “Rules and Things for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself.” I recommend this book to any 5th grader and above who can appreciate Bud’s interesting view on life.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to his website, after graduating high school in Flint, Michigan, Curtis worked in Fisher’s Body Plant #1, hanging 80 lbs. car doors onto Buick’s.
The Plot In Five Sentences Or Less: Jack Hughes and Terrence Mullen are low level crooks in the late nineteenth century who make their living pushing counterfeit money a.k.a. “coney.” With the capture of their engraver, Hughes and Mullen devise a crazy scheme to raid Abraham Lincoln’s grave and hold his remains for ransom. On their trail is Secret Service Agent Patrick Tyrell, who plants a ‘roper’ or turncoat in their midst to keep an eye on the grave robbing gang. The action climaxes at Lincoln’s tomb one night when Hughes and Mullen attempt to pull off their heist.
My Take: Sheinkin successfully bottles lightning in a jar again. In Lincoln’s Grave Robbers, he recreates the fast pace and interesting narrative of his previous book “Bomb” (please see my review of that book here). I would recommend this book to any teenager interested in a little known episode of history. This book will hold their interest.
One Interesting Note About the Author: When he was doing research for this book, the curators of the Lincoln Monument showed Steve around the grounds and let him see places that most tourists never get to see– “like the old dirt floor labyrinth under the monument where Tyrell waited, gun in hand, for the robbery to begin.”
The Plot In Five Sentences or Less: Hobie Hanson is a 5th grader in Seattle, Washington during World War II. His father is away fighting the Germans, so Hobie spends most of his time with his friends and his German Shepherd Duke. Life is not easy without his dad around, and only becomes harder when Mitch Mitchell, the school bully, sets his eyes on him and challenges him to give up Duke for the Dogs for Defense Program. Much to Mitch’s surprise, Hobie rises to the challenge and soon Duke is part of the war effort and on his way to the Pacific. Hobbie finds that he now must adjust to life both without his dad and his dog.
My Take: I found this to be a very straight forward book about a boy’s experience and sacrifice on the home front during World War II. My one criticism would be that Larson could have risked introducing more strangeness into the story. There was a lot of baseball and paper routes, what one might consider stock 1950’s Americana. Still, for those looking for a good read about the connection between and boy and his dog, this is a good pick.
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kirby was born at Fort Lawton Army Hospital in Seattle, Washington. She cost $5.
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: Clem lives in the mining country in the Ozarks of Missouri. After his 13th birthday, he must leave school and join his father in the mines to make much needed money for the family. Clem detests mining and is tempted to join his friend Linda Jean in her family bootleg business. A string of family tragedies, however, reinforces the need for Clem to work the mines and he subsequently wonders if his life will ever change.
My Take: This was a convincing and compelling account of families caught in the economic trap of lead mining in Missouri in the 1920’s. Through the characters of Clem and his family, we appreciate how awful that life was and how few choices people had in that area of the country. Long’s writing is plain and never devolves into sentimentality. I applaud her for using the 3rd person point of view, rather than the more common first person. Towards the end there are a few plot points that tie things up perhaps a bit too nicely, but overall this is a pleasant and educational read for ages 10+.
One Interesting Note About the Author: As a child, Susan had the interesting habit of rating her days along a spectrum of 1-10. Her rating was based on the requirements of “doing [her] homework, eat[ing] well, exercis[ing], practicing the flute, and doing something nice for someone.” She no longer rates her days, but you may find out more about her at her website.
Fallout by Todd Strasser
The Plot in Five Sentences or Less: Recounts the experience of one middle American family during the nuclear standoff of 1963. The plot alternates in time between the family preparing a nuclear fallout shelter and then actually using it during a nuclear strike. 9 people make it into the shelter and tensions run high as time passes. The story is told from the point of view of a teenage boy whose father constructs the shelter.
My Take: Fallout is enjoyable and also educates readers on the widespread fear during the early sixties of a nuclear strike. Strasser does an excellent job of building up the anxiety and claustrophobia in the fallout shelter. He also does not dodge the difficult topics of burgeoning teenage sexual feelings nor the bathroom issues involved with 9 people trapped in a room. This cannot be considered strict historical fiction as there was never a nuclear strike on American soil during the 1960’s.
One Interesting Note About the Author: Fallout is based on Strasser’s father constructing a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard in 1962. Strasser revisits this in the author’s note at the end of the book.
The Plot In 5 Sentences or Less: Bitty is a canary that lives in the town of Coalbank Hollow, West Virginia in 1931. Caged with other canaries in a boy’s room, the birds are daily taken to the mines and used as methane and carbon monoxide detectors. The mines are dangerous for man and bird and alike, so Bitty concocts a plan to escape. After springing himself, he makes his way to Charleston where he plans to somehow petition the state government to make mining safer. Along the way he meets lots of new friends, makes some enemies, and learns that changing the status quo is not easy.
My Take: This is a solid anthropomorphic book in the spirit of E.B. White or Dick King-Smith. I learned a lot about mining and also about birds (before reading this I couldn’t tell a grackle from a crow). Some readers may quibble about a bird somehow knowing to make their way to Charleston to legislate for mining conditions, but, hey, its a children’s book. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note about the Author: Madelyn’s first children’s “book” was called “Mommy’s Flying Birthday Cake.” You may view a copy of it here.
The Plot in 5 Sentences or Less: After she failed at running her Uncle Chester’s farm, Hattie Brooks is now working in a boardinghouse in Great Falls, Montana in 1919. Seeking to become a big city reporter, she makes her way to San Francisco with an acting troupe. She also wants to meet one Ruby Danvers, who apparently was very close to her uncle, and find out the background of their relationship. Through her pluck and determination, Hattie makes great progress in her career as a reporter, taking a ride in a new Boeing airplane and even meeting Woodrow Wilson. But Hattie must eventually make a choice between staying in San Francisco or following her true love Charlie.
My Take: Having not read Hattie Big Sky, I still felt that this was a fine, well written book about a girl trying to make it in the big city in the early 20th century. I can’t say that it was the most exciting book that I’ve read, the narrative is driven more by the relationships that Hattie makes rather than any action, but girls will find a lot to like in the character of Hattie. Ages 9+
One Interesting Note About the Author: According to her website, Kirby Larson originally wrote Hattie Big Sky inspired by her great-grandmother’s homesteading experience in eastern Montana.