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I think it is difficult to find great books that pre-teen boys will love. Boys age 9-13 are often quite uninterested in reading, but Dead End in Norvelt, will have them loving to read an actual novel, and learning some history along the way.
Here’s the story. Eleven-year old Jack Gantos lives in a very small, historic, dying town in Western Pennsylvania called Norvelt. The town was established by Ellenor Roosevelt, the former First Lady of the US, as way to provide homes and dignity to poor families. We learn all about the history of Norvelt, an actual town that Jack Gantos, the author of this book and a well known author of many books for boys, actually grew up in. The story might be semi-autobiographical, and probably much of it is fiction because no real eleven year old boy could have so much fun while being grounded for the entire summer.
Jack’s dad has just returned from World War II. He has many trophies from the war, many of them contraband that Jack has to keep hidden from his mom. His mother is a strict no-nonsense kind of mom. So, the kind of nonsense and strange situations that Jack Gantos finds in this town are actually laugh out loud funny.
Jack is persuaded by his dad to mow down his mom’s corn field so his dad can build a runway for a WWII airplane he is restoring. Mom is furious and grounds our friend Jack for the summer. The only things he can do are chores (such as digging a bomb shelter in the back yard), and helping the arthritic old lady next door type up obituaries for the other old people in this dying town.
The relationship between this arthritic and very cranky old lady, Miss Volker, who was appointed by Ellenor Roosevelt to be the town nurse and medical examiner, starts off bumpy but they become friends and accomplices in all kinds of crazy stunts. The old lady has a car, but she can not drive, so she has eleven year old Jack drive her everywhere in town. They check on the other old ladies in town to see if they are dead or alive. And many of them are dead, which does not please Jack. Miss Volker sends him to do her chores, and since he is grounded and loves driving a car, he loves working for Miss Volker. She can no longer write or type so he becomes her scribe as she dictates obituaries.
Miss Volker knows the history of the town and of the world. She pours both her heart and history into crazy, but loving obituaries for Jack to type up. Along the way, Jack learns history and learns that if don’t learn the mistakes of history, you are bound to repeat them.
Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos is not a new book. It was published in 2011 and is still just as perfect a book as you would ever want to buy or borrow for your pre-teen boy. You will find it at smart bookstores, in libraries with smart librarians (and aren’t they all?), at bookshop.org to support your local bookstore and on Amazon on the affiliate link I have placed below in the comment section above.