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: The Sea In Winter
Author: Christine Day
Publication Info: 2021 by Harper Collins Children’s Books
The Plot: 12 year old Maisie has done ballet for as long as she can remember. Her free time and social life all revolve around ballet and she dreams of one day becoming a famous dancer. When she tears her ACL on the eve of auditioning for a major production, her dreams are crushed. Months of physical therapy follow along with a family vacation to the coast of Washington. During this time Maisie must come to grips with her new life and identity.
My Take: This book was a slog for me, but I’m not the target reader. A tween girl would no doubt better appreciate this story of self discovery and healing. I was distracted by Day’s heavy exposition of the ethnic background of some of the characters. Their native heritage, while interesting by itself, always seemed tangential to the main plot. To be fair, Maisie’s struggle with her injury and loss of identity are convincing. I would certainly recommend this title to any young readers looking for a book about mental health struggles.
One Interesting Note About The Author: According to her website Christine Day is an enrolled citizen of the Upper Skagit tribe.
Title: The Shape Of Thunder
Author: Jasmine Warga
Publication Info: 2021 Balzer + Bray (Harper Collins)
The Plot: Cora and Quinn have been best friends since they were very young. Now 12 years old, their friendship has been ripped apart by a violent event. A year after the incident, the girls have not spoken, and Quinn obsesses on finding a way to “fix” everything. She lands upon the idea of time travel, perhaps finding a wormhole in a magical location and traveling back a year to prevent the violence. As she researches this idea, she realizes that she will need Cora to help her with this project.
My Take: This is a tender book that examines that damage to relationships after a violent event. Author Jasmine Warga does an excellent job making us feel the pain of these girls and their ache for putting things back the way they were. Canny readers will understand that their project is doomed from the start. Warga’s powerful message is that while we cannot undo the past, we can struggle to make sense of it and hold on to the love that we still have. Highly recommended for mature tweens and teens.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Jasmine Warga’s idea for The Shape of Thunder started from her concerns about gun violence, a public health hazard that afflicts many young people regardless of skin color or zip code.
The Title: Red, White and Whole
Author: Rajani LaRocca
Publication: 2021 by Quill Tree Books
The Plot: Reha is 13 year old Indian American living in the midwest in 1983. She feels pulled between the American world in which she is growing up and the Indian culture of her parents. Reha’s mom Amma is reluctant to let her daughter participate in youth activities such as the school dance. When Amma becomes ill, Reha feels pressure to be the perfect daughter for her parents, even if that means sacrificing relationships at school
My Take: I though that this book conveyed well the struggle of a young person who is the second generation of a family that has immigrated to the United States. Author Rajani LaRocca’s choice to write in verse allows her to focus on the emotional life of Reha and acquaints the reader with the challenges that the character faces. Those looking for a plot-based page turner will be disappointed, but a reader who wants a sensitive portrayal of the struggles of immigrant families need look no further. Anyone who enjoys Other Words For Home by Jasmine Warga will also love this book.
One Interesting Note About The Author: Much of Red, White, and Whole is based on LaRocca’s experiences growing up as an immigrant in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1980’s.