A funny thing happens when you sit down to read an Award Winner. Call it the Oscar Effect. You read something knowing it’s been set apart from its peers, and it changes the way you read it. It reminds me of that scene at the end of the Simpsons episode where they parody Hamlet. Homer finishes reading the story to the kids, snaps the book shut and proclaims, “And that’s the greatest thing ever written!” The kids shoot him quizzical looks. They’re not buying it.
I finished Jack Gantos’ Dead End in Norvelt this morning, the 2012 Newbery winner, and I couldn’t help but hear that Homer-esque voice in my head say, “And that’s the greatest book written for kids this year!” Held to that standard, my first thought was that the book didn’t measure up. It becomes about expectations. We know something’s supposed to be Great (capital “G”), and we’re expecting a heartstring-tugging, epiphany-delivering tale that will linger in our consciousness forever. But, don’t you think that’s expecting a bit much? How many of those experiences have we had in our lives? A half dozen if we’re lucky?
Even though my first thoughts upon finishing Norvelt ran along these lines, they soon moved on. I thought about the main character, a fictionalized version of Gantos also named Jack Gantos. I thought about the central themes of the influence of the past on the present, how everything in life matters, how we must learn from our mistakes. I thought about the characters, of course Gantos – with his chronic, stress-induced nosebleeds and his soulful struggle to make sense of the world – and his unlikely best friend in the story, the aged Miss Volker. I thought about all the other unexpected touches Gantos renders to make this world feel real. None of it’s flashy; none of it’s trendy. But it’s all powerfully authentic and moving.
Isn’t this what stories for kids are supposed to do – hold up a mirror to their yearnings, struggles, pains, shortcomings, and say, “You’ll get there. It might take awhile, but you’ll get there eventually. We all do.” I admit, I’ve gotten a little bummed out lately, hearing editor after editor talk about what sells, hot themes, writing the perfect logline to get an agent’s attention, making your first 10 pages sing, and on and on. It can start to become your default programming after awhile, as an unpublished author. Gantos’ story is none of these things: hot, trendy, attention-grabbing in the beginning, incredibly original pitch. It’s slow-ish, meandering, and not a whole lot happens. Except for this: a teenage kid figures out an important truth about life through uncommon circumstances during an ordinary summer in a boring small town in Western Pennsylvania. Sexy, huh?
Maybe in all this rush to make sure the first 250 words are unforgettable, that the pitch is delicious, we’ve forgotten to give readers credit – they’re hungry for great stories that tell them unforgettable truths about who they are and where they’re going. Sure, an android love story set in a post-apocalyptic cityscape can do that. But so can a story about a kid with horrific, untimely nosebleeds who’s struggling to make sense of his world.
I don’t think it matters if Dead End in Norvelt is the Best Thing Written This Year. It’s an ordinary miracle, finding the magic in the everyday and showing it to us with suspense and pathos. I think that’s all it takes sometimes.
(Two of my favorite things: Sarah McLachlan & Charlotte’s Web):