The protagonist of Jack Gantos’s Newbery Medal-winning novel, Dead End in Norvelt, who just so happens to be named Jack Gantos, spends a summer, grounded, learning about the history of his town from a quirky old woman who lives down the street. Miss Volker writes the town obituaries. She takes great care with the obituaries of the original residents of the town of Norvelt, because Eleanor Rosevelt herself entrustred her with the care of that town. She also takes great care to include a snip-it of town or world history in her columns, that lead Jack to a newfound respect not only for world history, but also for the town where he lives. Unfortunately, that utopian village is dying by the 1960s, when the book takes place. Norvelt is fading from living reality into the recesses of history before Jack’s (and Miss Volker’s) eyes.
I will quote a particularly beautiful passage. A biker gang is burning down houses in Norvelt, and the latest house is particularly dear to Miss Volker’s heart. Jack says, I held the binoculars up and focused on the small house. I could see the flames leaping into the air, and the confetti of glowing ash that floated above the flames as if a magical fairy celebration were taking place in some ancient world under a dark night. But it wasn’t a celebration. The blistering flames rising above the house were just waving goodbye to everyone who was watching. And even for those not watching it was a piece of history dropping to its knees before disappearing forever.
Ultimately, Jack learns that it is important to treasure our community history, but also to embrace change (not so much biker-gang related change–but the more natural changes that came with the 60s). Children are perhaps more sensitive than any other creature to the idea of change: think of any fairytale. Cinderella turns from a servant girl into a princess. The frog turns into a prince. Jack’s beans grow into magic beanstalks. And of course, all children must grow up. But as they grow, it’s important that they know where they come from. I remember when my children, growing up in Arizona, took field trips to the Anasazi caves and the Kartchner caverns, learning about the great cultures that had disappeared; the great geologies that came before us. At the same time, they learned about the history of their own community, and were fascinated. Did you know, they said, that dinosaurs lived in Tucson? Big ones!
Gantos reminds us of our childhood fascination with history, a different sort of fascination, I think, than we have with it now. Somehow, our connection to history seems more personal. Jack is constantly making connections between himself and, say, Pizarro and the conquered Aztecs. He is constantly imagining history. For him, everything is new; everything is happening at once.
And so, a writing exercise for you children’s writers, if you choose to accept it:
Write about a time in your childhood when you connected with a piece of community history (field trips are great sources). How did you connect with it? How did your new knowledge make you look at your community differently? How did it encourage you to look at life differently?
Go nuts! And if you find the exercise particularly fruitful, I’d love to hear about/read it. Just email me at email@example.com. Also, feel free to leave a comment.
One final note. “Norvelt” is in fact a combination of EleaNOR and RooseVELT. For an article on the history of children’s literature’s fascinating relationship with words, check out this link: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/wild-words-of-childrens-literature-from-runcible-to-rumpus/