Book Review: Dead End in Norvelt

Dead End in Norvelt1. Bibliography

Gantos, Jack. 2011. Dead End in Norvelt. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 9780374379933.

2. Plot Summary

Summer starts with a bang for Jack – grounded for accidentally firing his father’s WWII rifle and mowing down his mother’s cornfield, Jack now faces a summer of solitude and chores. His one relief? Helping his elderly neighbor write obituaries for the quickly-dwindling original inhabitants of Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Founded by Eleanor Roosevelt as part of the New Deal, Norvelt was once a thriving community-centered coal mining town, but now faces its imminent death. But one question hangs over the summer: Why do people keep dying?

3. Critical Analysis

Dead End in Norvelt is exactly that – a dead end. Boring from page one, there was nothing about this story to hold my attention. The characters and setting were entirely unrelatable. The story advances at a snail’s pace, with the main problem of the story not becoming apparent until well past the half-way mark of a 341 page study in triviality.

While accuracy may be the most important part of historical fiction – and this story certainly excels in that aspect – works in the genre should be more than a fictionalized history book.

4. Review Excerpts

2012 – Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award

2012 – Newbery Medal

2012 – ALA Notable Books for Children

2011 – Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book

From School Library Journal: “Students will identify the causes of the Great Depression, its impact on Americans, and the major features of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.”

From Booklist: “When things pick up again near the end of the summer, surprise twists and even a quick-dissolve murder mystery arrive to pay off patient readers.”

From Publishers Weekly: “Gradually, Jackie learns to face death and his fears straight on while absorbing Miss Volker’s theories about the importance of knowing history.”

5. Connection

-Recommend to patient American history lovers

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

Book Review: The Wednesday Wars

Wednesday Wars1. Bibliography

Schmidt, Gary D. 2009. The Wednesday Wars. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. ISBN 9780547237602.

2. Plot Summary

Holling Hoodhood, a sole Presbyterian in a class full of Catholic and Jewish students, believes his teacher, Mrs. Baker, hates him – hates his guts. When his classmates leave school on Wednesday to attend Catechism or Hebrew School, Holling now finds himself alone with Mrs. Baker every Wednesday afternoon, where they begin to study Shakespeare together. As the year goes on, the news from the Vietnam war grows progressively worse, as do the relationships between Holling’s family members. Seventh grade romance, embarrassing costumes, parental expectations, escaped rats, and the point of Shakespeare – Holling grapples with them all while trying to determine if Mrs. Baker does, in fact, hate his guts. Maybe she’s a real person, after all?

3. Critical Analysis (Spoilers)

Gary Schmidt brings his A-game to The Wednesday Wars in this funny-yet-serious coming of age story. His characters have depth and grow as the story progresses, most notably the main characters. The largest question to Holling’s believability is whether or not a normal 7th grader could read and understand Shakespeare’s plays as well as Holling does. The portrayal of the frequent cruelty of junior high students, however, is spot-on. Holling faces death threats on a regular basis and is the subject of ridicule when an older student plasters pictures of Holling in an embarrassing costume all over the school. Yet readers also see the bravery junior high students can show, as well, especially when Danny Hupfer defends Mai Tai as she is subjected to racially motivated bullying.

Set in Long Island, New York, during the 1967-1968 school year, The Wednesday Wars depicts an accurate representation of American life during the 1960s. The fear of atomic warfare and the uselessness of hiding under desks; the political tension from the Civil Rights Movement; the anxiety of loved ones serving in the Vietnam War. While the authenticity of the story is generally high, I must wonder: Did Schmidt choose the less probable outcome when the story ends happily with Mrs. Baker’s husband returning after being missing in action? Was it not much more probable for Lieutenant Baker to have never been found? This is my only challenge to the story’s authenticity.

4. Review Excerpts

2007 – Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book

2007 – Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

2008 – ALA Notable Books for Children

2008 – Newbery Honor

From School Library Journal: “A moving, compelling, often humorous novel.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Ultimately, Mrs. Baker steps out from behind her desk as a multilayered individual who helps Holling (often through their discussions of Shakespeare’s plays) to dare to choose his own ending rather than follow the dictates of others. Schmidt rises above the novel’s conventions to create memorable and believable characters.”

From Publishers Weekly: “Unlike most Vietnam stories, this one ends happily, as Schmidt rewards the good guys with victories that, if not entirely true to the period, deeply satisfy.”

From Booklist: “Holling’s unwavering, distinctive voice offers a gentle, hopeful, moving story of a boy who, with the right help, learns to stretch beyond the limitations of his family, his violent times, and his fear, as he leaps into his future with his eyes and his heart wide open.”

5. Connections

-Read in a language arts class at the same time a social studies class studies the Vietnam War.

-Read in a language arts class at the same time a social studies class studies studies Martin Luther King, Jr.

-Recommend to library users who enjoy a good laugh.

-Listen to the music that Holling’s sister, Heather, liked to blare from her room.

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)

Book Review: Willow Run

Willow Run1. Bibliography

Giff, Patricia Reilly. 2005. Willow Run. New York: Random House Children’s Books. ISBN 9780385900966.

2. Plot Summary

Meet Meggie, an 11-year-old from Rockaway, New York. As WWII rages on, Meggie’s family moves to Willow Run, Michigan, so her family can help with the war efforts at Henry Ford’s factory. During the harsh realities of adjusting to a new wartime lifestyle, Meggie must learn to be brave as she deals with prejudiced bullies, moving away from her grandfather, owning up to her mistakes, and facing the unknown. Through it all, one question haunts her whole family: Is her brother in the army safe?

3. Critical Analysis (This contains spoilers)

Patricia Reilly Giff weaves together historical accuracy and the fictional seemingly effortlessly in Willow Run. Even secondary characters are presented in a relatable, believable way, bringing to life this rich era of history. Meggie’s friends Patches and Harlan are typical tweens, telling tall tales to make themselves seem tougher than they actually are; throughout the story, though, we see both characters grow to where they can reveal the truth about their stories: Patches “screamed so loud when [she] had stitches” (119), and Harlan has “never been to New York” (120).

The plot and the theme are intertwined in such a way that the call to bravery does not scream at the reader, but is progressively revealed as the story progresses. The harsh realities of prejudice and having loved ones in the military are not covered up: bullies paint a swastika on Meggie’s grandfather’s house simply because he emigrated from Germany, and Meggie’s brother is missing in action in France. Through all this, Meggie learns higher degrees of bravery: removing the swastika, making new friends, warning “Arnold the spy” that his ice cream is being stolen, talking to Arnold as a person instead of a spy, facing each new day her brother is missing, and confessing to Arnold that she stole the ice cream.

Willow Run is authentic to WWII America. While no bibliography or cited resources are included, the facts are consistent with my knowledge of WWII.

4. Review Excerpts

2007 – Prairie Pasque Award (nominated)

2008 – Grand Canyon Reader Award (nominated)

From School Library Journal: “Giff’s engrossing, heartwarming story will help readers understand how personally war affects people.”

From Horn Book Magazine: “Giff presents a main character with many admirable qualities — Meggie is stalwart, competent, and thoughtful — but very much a regular girl, not a superhero.”

From Booklist: “Tough and tender, this is an excellent addition to World War II shelves.”

5. Connections

-Read in a language arts class in conjunction with a social studies unit about WWII or the 1940s.

-Read with Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (ISBN 9780547577098).

-For those who enjoyed Willow Run, recommend the American Girl series about Molly, also set during WWII.

(Created in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the TWU course LS5603.20 Literature for Children and Young Adults)