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Playing Catch Up: Dead End in Norvelt & The Returning March 5, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Book Reviews.
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Overall, I thought I did pretty well with my preparations for the ALA Youth Media Awards this year: I had at least heard of every book that won a major award and most of the honor books too. But one of the fun parts of the ALA awards is that there is no shortlist; it’s entirely possible for winners to come out of thin air. There’s just so much out there. So now I’m playing catch up. Here are some thoughts on two of the books I hadn’t managed to read by January 23.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos. Winner of the Newbery Medal.

Now, I had heard of this book before it won the Newbery. I had even started to read it. And now that I’ve finished it: WOW. It’s definitely not a perfect book, but I’m a lot happier than I was when I finished reading the award winner last year. Jack is a perfect protagonist: a basically good heart, a tendency to end up in less-than-perfect situations, a body that betrays his anxieties with gushing nosebleeds. He goes through a wonderful journey over the course of the book. Having never had any reason or inclination to think about his town and the people who live there, he gets a crash course in history, human nature, and storytelling through his new job typing obituaries for his neighbor Miss Volker. At times I wished Miss Volker were a little less verbose, as the story seemed to drag with perhaps one too many dead citizens to be memorialized. Aside from that, however, this was a book that kept the laughs coming and made me think about history, citizenship and (perhaps a little too often) our own mortality as human beings. I have at least two students who will be getting this book pushed in their faces as soon as I can get a copy. Bravo, Jack Gantos! And Bravo, Newbery Committee.

The Returning by Christine Hinwood. Winner of a Printz Honor.

After last year’s slight debacle on the Printz Award front (I correctly predicted the winner, but had heard of none of the honor books), I was happy that I had read both the winner and two of the four honor books this year. Printz books, be they winners or honors, usually make me think and The Returning was no exception.

The Returning centers around a boy named Cam Attley, the only man from his village to have made it through a war alive. Set in an unnamed place and time that feels medieval, the reader meets various characters who have some connection to Cam and who have all been touched in ways large and small by the conflict. The first half of the book is made up of vignettes of Cam’s village and a few flashbacks to his decisions in the midst of the war. The second half of the book focuses on just Cam as he travels to find the man who spared his life during the war, and why. His growing relationship with this man, now Lord of both Uplanders and Downlanders, provides the only real action or plot to the book, and in some ways, I wished that the vignettes had continued, as the action felt a little tacked on for show. I also wished we had heard from more of the people in the city of Dorn-Lannet, or the Lord’s palace where Cam eventually ends up. Except for a few main characters, we mostly see them through the eyes of others. While the terms ‘Uplander’ and ‘Downlander’ imply a North/South relationship, by the end of the book, I was detecting strong hints of Far East or Japanese culture in the Uplander customs, such as lacquerware, and floor matting. However, the use of the fantasy land made the themes of war, change, and choices ring all the more true. One more book to prove that Australians write some of the most inventive fiction out there for a Young Adult audience.

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