My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2012 winner, Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.

The story is set in the historical town of Norvelt during the summer of 1962, when 11-year-old Jack spends lots of time reading a set of history books, digging a fake bomb shelter for his dad, trying to keep his nose from bleeding, and helping his elderly neighbor write obituaries for the original homesteaders of Norvelt who may not be dying of natural causes.

In addition to winning the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Dead End in Norvelt also won the 2012 Newbery Medal.

History Lessons:

Norvelt–During the Depression, the government set up 100 homesteading communities in which poverty-stricken families, especially coal-mining families, could have a nice home and enough land to grow their own food. The communities had cooperative farms and businesses, and the residents helped each other build their homes.

Norvelt, Penn., was one of these communities. The residents eventually bought their homes and the businesses were privatized. It was Jack Gantos’ hometown, and it still exists.

Importance of history–Most historical fiction books just deal with one time period or location. However, this novel includes stories from many eras and places. And Jack and his neighbor, Miss Volker, connect those historical stories to Jack’s current story.

Dead End in Norvelt is a tribute to the importance of remembering our history, and it includes wonderful quotes about history. Here are a few:

  • “But if you don’t know your history you won’t know the difference between the truth and wishful thinking.” –Miss Volker
  • “History isn’t dead. It’s everywhere you look. It’s alive.” –Jack
  • “History began when the universe began with a ‘Big Bang,’ which is one reason why most people think history has to be about a big event like a catastrophe or a moment of divine creation, but every living soul is a book of their own history, which sits on the ever-growing shelf in the library of human memories.” –Miss Volker
  • “The reason you remind yourself of the stupid stuff you’ve done in the past is so you don’t do it again.” –Jack

Writing Lesson:

Comparisons–One way authors give a unique voice to their writing is by avoiding clichéd comparisons–metaphors and similes. As the narrator, Jack describes situations with original, and story-specific comparisons. All his comparisons come from what he’s been thinking about–and they are unique to him. None of the other characters in the book would make the same comparisons.

For example, one night Jack watches a house burn down. He compares the glowing ash to confetti at a magical fairy celebration in some ancient world. The flames leap and wave goodbye. The house “was a piece of history dropping to its knees before disappearing forever.”

For more info:

Jack Gantos website

Speech by Gantos at the 2011 National Book Festival

Join me June 30 to discuss what I learned from the 2009 Scott O’Dell Award winner, Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Have you visited Norvelt or any of the other homesteading communities? What are some quotes you love about the importance of learning history? What other books use unique comparisons?


  1. Jane Heitman Healy

    Thanks for sharing your observations about this book here, Deb. I have not read it yet, and had no idea there was such a thing as “homesteading communities.” I agree with Jack that remembering the past helps us avoid making mistakes now.

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