Dead End In Norvelt – by Jack Gantos (2011)

Dead End In Norvelt

What’s an eleven-year-old boy to do if he’s grounded for the entire summer? It’s tough being at home all day, especially with parents who are constantly spatting. Jack’s father hates the town of Norvelt and wants to move elsewhere. His mother is devoted to the senior citizens of the town, and cannot imagine living anywhere else. She grows corn, which she then sells to make money for her casseroles-to-the-elderly meals. When Jack’s father tells him to get out the tractor and mow down Mom’s corn field so that he can make a bomb shelter to hide from the “Commies” if needed, Mom goes ballistic. In her desperation to divert Jack to something other than helping build an underground bunker, she arranges for him to help one of their elderly neighbors, Miss Volker, for the summer.

Miss Volker is the town historian, and she faithfully writes the obituary of anyone in town who dies. But her hands are so crippled with arthritis that she needs a helper at home and a scribe. So Jack becomes her right-hand man. At first he is squeamish about death, but as the summer goes on, he comes to understand it as part of life. In the end, Jack becomes just as fanatical as Miss Volker in making sure that each of Norvelt’s citizens are given a glorious write-up in the newspaper upon their passing.

I love the 1960s flavor that oozes from this novel. The hysteria of the Russian threat. Women taking care of the elderly in the community. Kids being allowed to roam around town unsupervised. The small-town newspaper that everyone reads. The old folks who remember when Eleanor Roosevelt helped to start the town during the Great Depression. (Note: Mrs. Roosevelt did help to build the actual model town of Norvelt.)

The book is categorized as juvenile fiction, but it’s really not suitable for kids to read because of things we don’t want them to try doing. Like Jack driving around Miss Volker’s car with no driver’s license. Or Jack’s friend sneaking him into the local funeral parlor to see a dead person for the first time. Or kids buying rat poison at the hardware store and sprinkling it on top of cookies. Also, the theme of death and dying that permeates the book makes it more suited for teens and adults. Despite the seriousness, there is enough humor in this novel to make it a fine read.



Running Out Of Time – by Margaret Peterson Haddix (1995)

Running Out Of Time

Margaret Peterson Haddix is best known for her book series “Shadow Children” and “The Missing”. But her earliest book – a standalone novel – is “Running Out Of Time”, the story of an Indiana community in 1840. The main character is 13-year-old Jessie, one of six children. Her father is the local blacksmith and her mother the midwife. Although life is full of hard work and no luxuries, Jessie is content with her life.

When several of the neighbor children fall ill with diphtheria, Jessie’s mother begins to act strangely, then quietly tells her daughter a secret: it is actually 1996, not 1840. Years before, the adults in the community made a choice to live without the conveniences of modern life. They agreed to be part of a historic reconstructed village that tourists could view through hidden cameras. The adults all know the truth, while the children are blissful ignorant. Families were supposed to be able to leave any time they wanted, but things have changed and now no one is allowed to leave.

Jessie’s mother is desperate to get some modern medicine for those who are ill, and keep the diphtheria from spreading. She tries to describe the outside world to Jessie, and quietly sends her out to seek a person she believes will rescue them. The new world is a confusing and scary place, but Jessie knows she needs to find someone to help the village before people start dying.

This is a great first novel from Ms. Haddix. There are different recommended reading ages, from 3rd to 8th grade. Personally, I think some of the concepts would be a little overwhelming for third and fourth graders. I would say the book is suited for anyone 5th grade and older.

Dragon Teeth – by Michael Crichton (2017)

Dragon Teeth

The newest Michael Crichton novel, published by his wife almost a decade after his death, is a gem of a book. However, don’t expect “Dragon Teeth” to read like most of his other books. Instead of technology, you will find a young man growing up. Instead of pure fiction, you will find a story based on real people who feuded with each other in the 1870s. Instead of the future, you will find the past.

The tale begins with William Johnson, a pampered young student at Yale University in 1876. When another student says he would never survive in the Wild West, William impulsively joins Othniel Charles Marsh’s archeological team to search for dinosaur bones in Indian territory. Part-way through the trip, he is abandoned, and joins a rival paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope. What began as something fun for William turns into life and death, and by the end of the story the Wild West has made him tough as nails.

I loved the fast pace and the simple plot of the story. There was nothing complicated about it, no great mystery, just a great historic novel about human rivalry and the challenges of growing up.


A Single Pebble – by John Hersey (1956)

A Single Pebble

What happens when you cross a young American engineer looking for the best place to build a dam on the great Yangtze River with a country steeped in 8,000-year-old beliefs? You get a story like “A Single Pebble”.  The entire book is a bird’s-eye view of what it was like for a Chinese merchant ship to get past the dangerous sections of gorges on the journey. The junk (ship) has a team of 40 trackers, men that walk along the shore and pull it with long ropes. It’s a job on par with building the pyramids of Egypt – backbreaking, dangerous, and thankless. The engineer feels sorry for their miserable lives, and tries to convince them that the modern dam could make life so much easier for them.

Fifty-six years after this novel was written (in 2012), the Three Gorges Dam was completed, producing more energy than any other dam in the world up to that point. A few years later the ship lift was also finished, making merchant travel on the Yangtze what the young engineer had envisioned. But it came at a great price. One and a quarter million people had to be re-located. Many archeological sites were lost. Erosion became a problem, as well as landslides. The dam caused some deforestation, which led to the decline of certain plants and animals. Progress has its cost.

Countdown – by Deborah Wiles (2010)


This book, with its “historic fiction” sticker, caught my eye as I walked through my local library. The setting was one not often tackled – what the Cuban missile crisis was like for a kid in 1962. Frannie is 11 years, living with her family just outside the Andrews Air Force Base. Her father is a military pilot, her mother a  housewife, her brother Drew a science nerd, and her older sister Jo-Ellen a person of secrets. Uncle Otts, a traumatized World War II vet, also lives with them.

Life is normal until they start having air raid drills at school, and they see ads for family bomb shelters. Frannie is confused by some people telling her everything will be okay, and others believing that they could be blown to smithereens at any moment.

Mixed in with Frannie’s story are photos from 1962, quotes from President Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev,and civil service announcements. The addition of all these pictures make the story more real. It gives the reader a window to see what people were actually seeing in 1962. It was indeed a terrifying thirteen days.

Excerpt from page 201:

(Frannie speaking)
Was it just today that Margie and I had that terrible fight, that I threw up in Mr. Mitchell’s office, that Uncle Otts came home from the hospital, that Gale invited me to her party? All on the same day I found out that I might not live long enough to wake up in the morning? I’d better wrap up everything while I have a chance.

Excerpt from page 254:

“I know all about atoms,” says Drew. He turns his face to me. He’s crying. “Atoms are supposed to be our friends,” he hiccups. “I’m supposed to go to the moon! We’re supposed to use atoms for peace – it says so right here in this book! An atom is like a genie in a bottle, and we can use that genie to go into space and make new discoveries. But we’re making bombs to kill people! People who are made of atoms! It’s all in this book – protons, neutrons, electrons, Madame Curie, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, reactors and rockets and spaceships and stars and planets and the moon!”

Drew is overwrought.

“I’m never gonna get to the moon, because we’re all about to get blown up!”

East Wind, Rain – by Caroline Paul (2006)



Imagine that you live on a small Pacific Island during World War II, and that your island has no contact with the outside world. Then imagine that a one-man Japanese fighter plane crashes on your island. You are one of only three people who are of Japanese descent and speak the language. The pilot tells you that Japan is at war with your country, the island will soon be invaded, and you need to cooperate with him.

It did indeed happen. A Japanese Zero plane crash-landed on the privately owned island of Niihua, shocking all 130 inhabitants, most of whom were native Hawaiians. The islanders captured the pilot, and waited for Mr. Robinson, the owner of the island, to come and figure out what to do with him. As the days went by, Mr. Robinson did not come and the people became increasingly distressed. Only the three Japanese islanders knew the truth, and they found themselves torn between their loyalty to the United States, and their desire to save themselves from death when and if the Japanese invaded..

The author did a powerful job of taking these facts and adding dialogue and personality to the people of Niihua island. The book is definitely more fact than fiction. The only thing that I found odd about the book was that the author chose not to use any quotation marks, just small dashes at the beginning of dialogue. But if you want a book that is really different from your average fiction, and you enjoy history, this is your book. Look for it at your favorite public library or bookstore, making sure you have the right author, as there are multiple books with the same title.



The Candy Bombers – by Robert Elmer (2006)

Candy Bombers


The year is 1948. The war is over, but for German cousins Erich and Katarina, life has not returned to normal. Berlin is bombed-out, neighbors and relatives have died, and the food supply to the city has been cut off. They go looking for food to help feed their families, but get caught. Erich hates the Russians for oppressing them and blocking food trucks, and he hates the Americans because he believes they killed his father. But when he meets an American photographer, his feelings toward Americans slowly begin to change.

Although this is fiction, the book is based on an American pilot/ photographer, Gail Halverson, who participated in the Berlin Airlift. American pilots dropped crates of food supplies into the city of Berlin for the starving residents. Hungry children lined up against the airstrip fence, and Halverson passed his candy and gum rations through the fence to them. He decided to carry it further, and began dropping small bags of candy from the plane, attached to handkerchief parachutes. Word spread, and folks back in the US started collecting gum and candy for the children of Berlin. Other pilots joined the effort, and over 23 tons of candy were dropped by the “Rosinenbombers”, or candy bombers. It didn’t solve every problem for the German families in Berlin, but it showed that the people they viewed as enemies could also be kind-hearted.

Although the book is geared toward kids 4th grade and up, people of any age can enjoy this story. It is the first book in “The Wall” trilogy.