Novel Thoughts: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

Children across the globe are familiar with the summer doldrums that inevitably set in once the initial rush of vacation has worn off, and Jack Gantos is no different. In his book, Dead End in Norvelt, Gantos relates a story of his youth in a creative way that is both relevant and relatable to children today.

Gantos’ tale is semiautobiographical in nature, and the writing contains no pretension that every written word in the story is true, an admirable quality in a book of biography or autobiography. The author creatively weaves throughout the story both real elements of his life and fictional conversations and reactions regarding the events that take place in the story. He also places heavy emphasis on the importance of asking why things happened with regards to history. The protagonist is a very curious boy, but he never allows himself to take the things he reads or hears at face value. For children, the delineation of that which is true and that which is fiction is an important lesson to learn for the future, and Gantos successfully brings that lesson to the attention of the reader without being heavy-handed.

The setting of the story, both physically and temporally, is an important facet of the story, and Gantos helps his reader to situate (her)himself in that setting without stating the pertinent information outright. Readers are given clues as to the time period and the location throughout the first pages of the book, and it is only then that they are able to piece together that most basic element of the story. This technique will keep reluctant readers motivated to get through the first ten percent of the book by which time they will be thoroughly enthralled.

While the parents in the book do bicker with each other, it becomes evident towards the end of the book that they have settled into their marriage and the paces through which they must be put. At one point, Jack’s mother is concerned that her actions may have been a contributing factor to the main conflict of the story, and she worries that she will “never be able to grow old” with Jack’s father. The family dynamic in the book is one with which many readers today will be familiar, as Jack’s dad is a war veteran who served in the Pacific. Although the war has been over for some time, its effects are still visible in the behavior of Jack’s father. He is absent a lot of the time, and Jack seems reluctantly concerned with his reaction to Jack’s behavior. He knows that his dad is an authority figure, and he wants to please him and gain his approval. But Jack seems to know throughout his adventures that the source of parenting and guidance he seeks, whether consciously or not, will come from his mother. His relationship with his father is distant and tenuous at best, and at the end of the story, readers come to understand just how different the two of them are from each other. The children of today’s veterans will encounter a protagonist here in whom they may see themselves in terms of familial relationships.

As the 2012 Newbery Medal winner, Gantos’ book Dead End in Norvelt encapsulates a relatable and familiar experience for children in a way that seems more realistic because of its autobiographical elements. The lesson to be learned by the end of the novel is both clear and relevant, and getting to that point of understanding will be a delight for both the child and the adult reader.

Writing Miss Daisy

Patience is not a virtue of hers. She is far too busy for that. Miss Daisy barely has time to sit down and introduce herself to you, which may or may not bode well for her future joywrites. So before she scampers away, take the time to get to know her:

Hi. My name’s Daisy. What’s yours? Oh nevermind. I’m too busy for that. What’s that over there? A leaf! Oh my gosh it’s a leaf! That’s so exciting! What? Introducing myself? Oh yeah. I’m Daisy. I’m super-curious which means I’m super-busy. A squeaky toy! I’ve been looking all over for this thing; it’s so my favorite. Except when it isn’t. Huh? Right…super-curious…

I’m not very organized, and I’ve never really thought about trying to tell people about something. Isn’t that what blogs are for? Oh my gosh, that person looks friendly…I could be friends with them. Ugh…right, organization. Anyway, I don’t really know what I’m gonna say to you folks, and I’m kinda glad I only have to do this once every other week. Because really, I don’t have the time!!

You should know that I’m real friendly. I consider you my best friend. Right now. As you sit reading this. Until the next person comes along, then hello new best friend!! What can I say? I’m fickle. No, not fickle. Just busy. Oh my gosh!!! It’s a butterfly! I just love butterflies. They’re so pretty, and I like to look at them and try to catch them…but yeah, best friends.

Another thing about me: I LOVE attention. I mean seriously, if I’m in the room, it is MY room. I own it and the people in it. And you just better tell me how cute I am. Don’t worry. If you forget to say it, I’ll remind you for sure.

Anyway, as much as I would like to stay here and chat, I have spotted some dust motes that require investigation. And maybe that sock over there. That wasn’t there a minute ago. Oh well. Belongs to me now. Just busy, busy, busy…

Look for Miss Daisy’s coming joywrites. Who knows how many there will be…

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What’s New?: The Newbery

Every year around this time we start rolling out red carpets and handing out award trophies. We dole out accolades with adoration and commendation, both genuine and feigned. We watch with rapt attention to see who is wearing the best dress. And the worst. We throw themed parties and make bets with friends regarding the outcome of various award ceremonies. We indulge ourselves in the notion that watching and reading and discussing these events actually makes us a part of them.

But not all awards this season exist purely for the recognition of the silver screen. Every year around this time, the American Library Association (ALA) lends its seal of approval to the most notable children’s books of the year. In between the excitement that was the Golden Globes and the anticipation leading up to the Oscars, the ALA inserts its voice into mainstream media culture to remind us all that there is still something to be said about literature for children. That it is indeed important for us to remember and recognize the authors and illustrators who continually produce fodder for growing imaginations.

Yesterday, the winners of the prestigious awards were announced. There was no red carpet. There were no camera crews or flash photographers. There were no E! programs devoted to them. No trophies. The winning books have nothing more than a small foil seal on their covers. But that seal is proof that the tradition of recognition and acclaim is still alive and well in both the publishing world and in the world of children’s literature.

Since 1922, the ALA has been awarding the Newbery Medal to an outstanding work of literature for children written by an American author, published in an American publishing house in English. It became the first official award for children’s literature in the world, and each winner carries the heft of that prestige. Despite the growth of technology, children’s literature has come into its own as a genre worthy of recognition and study. Since the inception of the Newbery award, the evolution of Literature in general (particularly children’s literature) has created the need for various other awards, marking the journey of American culture and the culture of childhood.

For more information about the ALA and other children’s literature awards, click here. For more information about this year’s Newbery winner, stay tuned for this week’s Novel Thoughts post.

Under the Overpass

There’s an overpass at an intersection in El Paso, Texas that’s just like any other. It’s built the same. It serves the same purpose as all the other overpasses ever built. It’s not made of anything fancy, and it doesn’t help you get to anywhere thrilling or exciting (unless, like me, you think that Target is the happening place to be). But this overpass is special. Different. It has something that makes it unique.

It has the peanut waver.

The peanut waver stands, day and night, on the corner underneath one of the traffic lights. He rests his bicycle, which is missing the rubber on one of its wheels, up against the light pole, and at night he turns on flashing red lights. Whether for the safety of the bike or himself remains unknown. He wears a reflective vest all day everyday and glasses and shorts (more often than pants), and he is relentless.

He waves his bags of peanuts vehemently at passing motorists. Methodically, rhythmically. Swinging his arm back and forth. I wonder sometimes if he would notice if the peanuts were not there. And it’s always peanuts. Except during the summer when, for a few brief weeks anyway, he chooses to wave bottled water instead. Back and forth. Back and forth. He watches as we pass. The look on his face is neither resigned nor passionate but rather vacant, as though he isn’t really looking at us at all. Back and forth. Day in, day out.

One might be tempted to assume this man is homeless. Isn’t that the category into which most people under overpasses are placed? But I can’t help wondering:

What if he isn’t?

What if this peanut-waving man has a home. And a family. What if he’s a retired air traffic controller and has nothing better to do? What if he’s trying to raise money for medical research? Maybe he has a rare disease, and he’s actively seeking donations to pay for an expensive treatment that will make him well again. What if he’s a graduate student at a major university? He could be a student of sociology doing an experiment on human interaction and perceived neediness. Maybe he’s a multi-millionaire killing time while his international corporations rake in the necessary funds for peanuts and bottled water waving. Maybe he’s bored. Or maybe he really is homeless.

The truth of the matter is that we rarely think about the circumstances of other people’s lives until they intersect with our own. People, it seems, like categories. We like labels. We like to know where each person fits in the web of social experience. Very seldom do we ever take the time to try and understand someone else’s situation. We see what we see, and we file it away neatly into a variety of social folders. Our descriptions very rarely overlap, and we don’t know what to do with them when they do. We don’t like ickiness and discord when it comes to social labeling. We like things neat and tidy.

But life isn’t like that. It seldom allows neatness and tidiness free reign. And while these organizational systems of classification seem effective, rarely does a single person fit neatly into one social folder. Human nature is multi-faceted. It doesn’t lend itself well to one-dimensional classification. In filing people away like this, we limit our ability to interact with each other in any more than a superficial way. In filing people away like this, we cannot pretend to know what their lives are like. We cannot pretend to know why they are the way they are, what made them who they have become. We cannot pretend that we have anything in common with them. An isolating idea, no?

Although I’ve never seen anyone actually purchase a bag of peanuts or a bottle of water, I have seen them roll down the window and pass change, money, and a variety of ambiguous food items to the peanut waver for which he seems neither truly grateful nor truly disgusted. He simply grabs another bag of peanuts. Back and forth. Back and forth they swing.

It’s been awhile since I’ve been to El Paso, but I’m sure if I went to the overpass under which the peanut waver makes his stand, he would be there. There’s something to be said for his consistency. It’s more than most people have going for them. And while I’ve never asked him specifically about his background or history (indeed, I’ve never spoken to him at all), it’s reassuring to know that the possibilities are many, that his story is interesting regardless of society’s arbitrary categories.

Novel Thoughts: Separate Beds by Elizabeth Buchan

Elizabeth Buchan’s Separate Beds weaves together many different stories to which many of her readers will be able to relate. Annie and Tom, arguably the main story’s protagonists are struggling with marital, familial, and economical woes, and their children are not faring much better. The story is realistically told and the characters realistically constructed in a way that adequately portrays the hardships with which they are dealing without over simplifying or hyperbolizing.

Buchan takes a tone of hopeful realism in relating the various tribulations of the family in the novel. Readers will find them sympathetic and relatable given each different set of circumstances. Since the reader’s life could potentially mirror that of any character in the novel, the predictability and tidiness to be found at the book’s end become assets instead of liabilities.

However, while the story ends nicely enough, it takes its time getting there. After awhile, readers might become overwhelmed by the sense of boredom associated with books that have become long-winded. Most subplots are given far too much attention, causing the story to drag its feet across the finish line, and one of the most important subplots, arguably THE most important, while embedding itself in some way into every subplot, is only superficially dealt with at the book’s end.

Despite its eventual slow crawl to its finish, Separate Beds gives readers a chance to interact with characters similar to themselves without the gloom and doom imposed so often on them by reality. Readers will find themselves contented and hopeful at the novel’s end, an end that engenders positive feelings for the reader’s own life.

Meet Mr. Peay

For many people, blogging offers a source of catharsis, a way to release that which we keep pent up within ourselves, a therapy of sorts. But as with anything else, every now and then change becomes necessary. The blogosphere is great for that. Adaptable and fluid, a blog offers its writer the chance to grow when he or she wants to or to remain in a virtual comfort zone indefinitely.

Unquestionably, offering new and various perspectives is a great way to keep things fresh. Bringing on guest bloggers opens up new possibilities and outlooks and can help to remind us of the things we take for granted. For that reason, it is my hope that both of the guest writers you see here will offer a unique perspective on the world as he and she see it.

So without further ado, meet Mr. Peay:

That’s pronounced Mister Peeee. It’s European. Hello and welcome. Where to begin explaining myself I’m not quite sure. So allow me to start at the beginning. I was born in a small town in Tennessee. My family was not what you would call close, and we never see each other. Despite a questionable childhood, my sensibilities remain fully functional and, normally, fully employed. Some people prefer to call me nervous, twitchy. I, however, view myself as alert and attentive. Someone has to be, you know.

I have lived in a number of places, some nice and some not so nice. I try not to let geography dull my abilities to maintain order and a sense of correctness, and most of the time I am successful.

In terms of personality, you should know that I appreciate and demand order. I do my best to constantly order my surroundings, and I make every attempt to create some sense of organization in the lives of those around me. Despite their resistance. It is my firm belief that the only way to live a productive, healthy life is to live in as regimented a way as possible. You could say I love a good routine.

While it takes me awhile to warm up to new people, once I accept you as one of my own I am deeply loyal and (probably) overprotective. Some people mistake my suspicion as aggression, but let me be clear: I am not an aggressive being. On the contrary, I am gentle and loving. I feel I need to be clear about this because it bothers me to no end when people assume my personality is something it isn’t. It makes me fretful and needy, and I dislike feeling vulnerable that way.

As far as interests and hobbies are concerned, I appreciate a good movie. I can stare at the screen for hours, completely captivated, and I am particularly fond of animal movies. While movies are certainly my favorite, I sometimes fall victim to the allure of a good television program. My only quarrel with television would be the commercials; they break my focus, and it becomes difficult to remember where I left off.

I am new to the computer craze, and I am fascinated by its ability to perform so many tasks. When it first debuted itself in my life, I sat watching the woman with whom I live pounding away at its keys, hoping someday I might know it well enough to do the same. While I’m still learning, I feel I’ve made tremendous progress, if I do say so myself.

This is to be my first attempt at blogging or, indeed, communicating on a grand scale via the Internet, and I’m hoping to make it a success. I do love a good, well-deserved pat on the back. It is my sincere hope that my perspective will bring both enlightenment and humor to the reader’s daily life.

Until we meet again,

Mr. Peay

Meet Mr. Peay:

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What’s New?: The Golden Globes

Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived an actor. And an actress. Many of them, in fact. These cinema folk created multiple worlds and multiple realities for both themselves and those of us too lowly to enter the bubble that was Hollywood.

People speak of old Hollywood, of Carey Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, of MGM and Universal, as though it were a mythic place filled with god- and goddess-like people. Those who populated the Hollywood of old became more than mere humans to those who watched their performances on screens across the country. They became legends. Icons. Untouchable.

But we on the outside soon learned that believing in such places and investing such people with such heavy importance would only leave us disillusioned by their humanity. They were people. Just like us.

From the start, however, we saw fit to honor these stars with various awards for their work. They entertained us and took us away from the lives we were so willing to leave behind, if only for a couple of hours, and for that we saw fit (through various boards and guilds) to reward them for the accomplishment. Thus became the Golden Globes. The Oscars. The Academy Awards.

For sixty-eight years, actors and actresses have been awarded golden statues for their work. They have walked the red carpet in dresses and tuxedos designed to make the rest of us envious and swoony. They have attempted humility upon accepting their awards, knowing that it could just as well have been someone else. And we have watched, enamored, drawn to the mythical land that once was Hollywood.

Eventually, however, the novelty wears off. Old stars burn out, and new stars take their places. These stars have access to Twitter. And Facebook. They are not afraid to put themselves out there in honest and misguided ways, making their private lives not so private, lending themselves to spectacle and speculation. Politics, sex, marital woes, and children are no longer considered off limits by the stars or those who hound them. A story is a story, all the better if the subject gives it freely. Old Hollywood glamour has become a thing of the past, a myth in Americana.

Through it all we continue to applaud and award actors and actresses for their work. Award season comes and goes every year, bolstered by the pomp and ceremony with which it was vested so long ago. It is the last embodiment of Old Hollywood hanging on tenuously in the ever-changing entertainment industry.

This year’s Golden Globes saw the traditional red carpet. Viewers oohed and ahhed over the dresses, and once again we were reminded that actors are people too, albeit well paid and somewhat removed from reality. But the show itself seemed disorganized, unrehearsed, and lacking in overall glamour.

Stars were out of breath as they gave their acceptance speeches and met with confusion upon attempting to exit the stage. Teleprompters failed to accomplish the task for which they were built. The humor and merriment seemed forced at times, a reminder that while many of them can act, most of them cannot write. Jokes and references to the economy fell flat with viewers who were incredulous regarding the proximity of those in attendance to the economic woes that are reality to so many of us. What, we found ourselves asking, do these people know of economic hardship today?

In a time when most of us are jaded and disillusioned regarding most other aspects of our lives, when we find ourselves looking more than ever to television and movies as an escape, is it too much to ask that those frivolities that have remained so constant over the years continue to do so? For many of us, watching the Golden Globes or the Oscars gives us something to smile about. It reminds us that there was a time when Hollywood was a truly glamourous place to be. When it is cheapened by poor organization and cheap laughs, uncomfortable chuckles and feigned merriment, we no longer have that sense of wonder that makes Hollywood seem so dream-like. It becomes just another place, the actors just other people. What then? Where will we seek escape and relief from the norm?

What will we do when Hollywood and everything in it ceases completely to be a bastion of entertainment and creation? To what will we turn when we can no longer cling to the idea that glamour still resides there?

What, more importantly, will happen to Oscar?

Opposites Attract

As a general rule, the library should be a place of immense potential. For adventure. For mystery. For just about anything we find outside our particular realm of experience. The books we find there often become more than the lost relics of a time when a charger or USB port wasn’t necessary to embark on a literary journey. They become, in effect, a way to escape ourselves. They become old friends, comfortable yet strangely new with each subsequent read.

The children’s section of the library in the small town in which I grew up held limitless potential. At least for the first month, give or take a day or two. It was at that time that I realized I needed more. I was no longer satiated by the picture books and elementary chapter books. I wanted more. At the time, there was no such thing as Young Adult Literature (at least not where I lived). Teens and tweens had to find literary solace in the small spinning towers located just to the left of the large print picture books. They were dusty and squeaky from neglect and were generally avoided by most patrons. It was because of these towers, rather the literature contained therein, that I was forced to confront an eternal fact of life.

The towers held a particular series of books with which many people, I’m sure (I hope), are familiar. In these books, the reader is often given two courses of action at the end of a chapter. Upon choosing choice one, the reader is directed to a different page in the book. Choice two directs the reader to another page and another outcome. In this way, the reader is given some agency in the outcome of the story. The end result becomes the choice of the reader.

These books were fascinating to me. So often I would read a chapter book only to be disappointed by its outcome. The chance to dictate that outcome seemed logical and completely natural to my young mind. But I quickly discovered that endings are not always as precise as we’d like them to be. I learned that making a choice does not necessarily mean achieving my desired outcome. Therein lies the fact of life, something we all eventually grapple with for better or for worse:

For every decision we make, there is an opposite choice with a completely different outcome. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have and hope that whatever lies on the other side of it is precisely our aim. We soldier through life making these decisions, both large and small, and we deal with whatever fallout occurs. For the most part, we convince ourselves that we are happy with our decisions, or if not, we tell ourselves that the experience was a lesson learned and promise never to make the same mistakes again.

So how do we deal with the nagging voice lurking in the back of our minds which asks, “What if you’d chosen differently?”

The books at the library always took me twice as long to read as any others because I wanted to read them twice, once with my initial choice and once to see what I’d missed. I don’t remember being disappointed in any particular ending. And my child’s sensibilities were satisfied, knowing all possible outcomes, knowing the fate of my protagonist one way or another.

I haven’t seen those books for a long time. I’m not even sure they’re still available. But I think about them every time I’m forced to make an important decision. I wonder what lies on the other side of each decision, and I lament the fact that there are certain pages of life beyond which I cannot see the end results.

What would life have been like if I had chosen differently? Where would I be today? Who would I be today? Occasionally I ask myself these questions, not with regret but with childlike curiosity. But the truth of the matter is that life is a web of both possibilities and outcomes. The most we can hope for is that we fail to entangle ourselves beyond our capacity to continue weaving it.

Novel Thoughts: Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor

Fluidity isn’t always necessary when it comes to fiction; in fact, sometimes it actually detracts from the story. However, in Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light the lack of fluidity makes the story inaccessible and its main character less than empathetic. At first.

Molly, as she calls herself, is ambiguous at best when the novel opens. We don’t learn anything about her or how she came to be in her current position until much later in the novel, and the absence of information creates a barrier between the reader and the one with whom they should be identifying. We are too infrequently informed of the time period with which we are dealing, so we don’t know how to relate to our protagonist or her circumstances.

Narrative voice in the story doesn’t quite help Molly’s case. O’Connor writes in second person for much of the novel, and instead of creating a bond between reader and protagonist, the technique only serves to make the reader feel disoriented and disconnected. Readers may find themselves wondering why they’ve been personally drawn into a story in which they have no firm footing.

Generally speaking, new characters are drawn into a story for some sort of effect. They somehow help to further the story, if only to make a suggestion about the future choices of the protagonist. In Ghost Light, these characters are haphazardly (or halfheartedly) written into the story; their presence isn’t explained, and they offer no resolution for any of the problems taking place therein. Take, for example, Molly’s daughter and son-in-law. She (or you, as O’Connor writes it) has obvious issues with her son-in-law, and there is reference made to an argument which, the reader can surmise, dealt with alcohol. Molly obviously has an affection for her family, but we are never told precisely why she is so distanced from them emotionally. Traveling is not within her means and is easily explained away, but the lack of communication stands apparent and important for both Molly and the reader.

No text is without some sort of redemption (I am ever the optimist), and Ghost Light is no different. Couched here and there within the wandering text is a poignant line, often when the reader is most in need of one. And eventually one does come to sympathize with Molly. Her everyday obstacles become more and more apparent and her struggles to overcome them more personal. We find ourselves cursing the obstacles along with her and chastising the people who place them there in the first place. By the end of the novel, Molly’s fate has become apparent to the reader, and it is with some difficulty that we relinquish our hold on her. Somehow, Molly has managed to endear herself to us in a way that provokes consideration.

In theory, Ghost Light tells a great story of a woman who overcame the odds and rose above the social position into which she was born. However, in practice, the techniques used to tell the story prohibit the reader from fully engaging with it.

Are We There Yet?

A timeless question uttered by innumerable children (and countless adults, if we are to be honest with ourselves). Generally when this question finds its way to the conversation, we are at our wits’ end. We have run out of the patience we promised ourselves we’d maintain upon embarking on the journey, and now it becomes all about the destination.

So what do we do when we arrive only to find that the journey, cliche as it sounds, was the best part of the experience?

This isn’t to suggest that the destination isn’t worth the journey. Take Carlsbad Caverns, for instance. The caverns themselves are breathtaking. Words large enough to describe what has happened there underground do not exist. It is both alarming and humbling to look up and see the literal weight of the world supporting itself right above your head. Yes, Carlsbad Caverns are unquestionably a destination for which making a trip is completely justified.

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Getting to the point, it is perhaps the people inside that offer as much amusement as the stalactites and stalagmites. Upon entering the caves, whole families wrought with the pleasure of being out of the car and the anticipation of what lies in store for them eagerly make the initial decent. Despite the warnings of the park rangers to “only whisper” because of the echo, children find it difficult to contain their enthusiasm, and parents find it equally difficult to contain their tempers. By the time these families reach the bottom, they are as ready to find themselves on the journey home as they were to find themselves making their arrival.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was more down here to see?!” the husband bellows to his wife (inasmuch as a person can bellow in a whispered voice).

“It says it right there on the sign,” the wife explains in that tone of exasperation so familiar to a woman who has endured both an exasperating car ride and a rather difficult and unexpected (why walk when they have elevators that take you all the way down to the bottom?) hike to a cave she did not want to see in the first place.

“I did not drive all this way to see only part of this thing. I wanna see the whole thing. Now, how do you get over to that part?”

His wife has apparently interpreted the question as rhetorical as she is no longer acknowledging her petulant husband.

Meanwhile, the children have run into one of the far reaches of the main cavern, forcing their parents out of their argument and into a frenzied effort to decipher the cavern map, and the other tourists are simply trying to avoid being caught in the crossfire.

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Further up the path, a young couple accompanied by a belligerent father attempt to captivate the moment via digital camera. The younger gentleman readies himself to act as photographer only to find the batteries have long since outlived their usefulness. Ever the helpful soul, the wise father makes an attempt to offer his sage advice:

“What’s the matter with that thing?”

“Well, Dad, it appears the batteries have died.”

“Batteries? I thought you replaced the batteries before we left?”

“I did, Dad, but I replaced them with old batteries from the drawer.”

“Old batteries? You mean used ones?”

“Yes, Dad.”

“Well, that’s just no good.”

Score one for belligerent old man. There is something to be said for stating the obvious, and an important lesson was learned by all. Hopefully.

Yes, the caverns are a sight worth seeing. And so are the faces of the families making their departure. They sullenly rip the doors open on their Minnesota minivans, resigned to the vicious ride that awaits them and thankful that family trips only happen once every summer.