Dead End in Norvelt

Book review by
Sally Engelfried, Common Sense Media
Dead End in Norvelt Book Poster Image
Charming story of a small-town boy's unlikely adventures.

Parents say

age 10+
Based on 3 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 7 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Jack doesn't like school but he loves history, and he spends his summer reading about bygone civilizations. He is astute enough to understand that just because a book tells him Cortés was a great man for destroying the Aztec civilization doesn't mean it's true. Jack gives much thought to the lessons of history and tries to apply them to his own life and the town of Norvelt.

Positive Messages

The town of Norvelt was founded by Eleanor Roosevelt to give common working people a helping hand, and this theme runs throughout the book. Frequent references are made to historical efforts to achieve rights and equality for slaves, peasants, and other subjugated peoples.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jack is an extremely responsible boy with a genuine interest in everyone around him. Though he gets into trouble, he willingly accepts his punishment and, to his friends' dismay, even begins to enjoy his job serving the elderly Mrs. Volker and learning about Norvelt's history.


Anytime Jack feels nervous, his nose bleeds. This "nose problem," as his mother refers to it, spatters blood throughout the book, but most of the violence has an underlying comic feel. Jack accidentally shoots off his dad's war rifle in the first chapter. As the elderly women of Norvelt start dying off, one by one, the circumstances become increasingly suspicious. When a visiting Hells Angel is killed by a passing cement truck, his gang retaliates by setting fire to a house in town.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this book is filled with comic violence and unlikely scenarios, but it also includes an overriding theme of the importance of social justice. Current or former Girl Scouts may be bothered by the fact that a friend of Jack’s sells Girl Scout cookies in order to earn money for herself.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byThe Literate Mother May 18, 2012

The Literate Mother reviews Dead End in Norvelt

I thoroughly enjoyed Dead End in Norvelt, especially its very quirky characters and small town setting. It reminded me of the small town where I grew up, except... Continue reading
Adult Written byshanerocks April 5, 2012


very good book.
Kid, 11 years old March 25, 2021

This book is so good!!!

I love all the characters, Mr. Spizz and Miss. Volker are so entertaining! This book has a lot of dark humor, and it is SO FUNNY. This is a great book. It even... Continue reading
Kid, 11 years old March 24, 2021


Okay. You will never find ANY book funnier and more clever than this one. Oh my goodness, every single character has so much personality. Mr. Spizz? Genius. Mis... Continue reading

What's the story?

In the small-and-growing-smaller town of Norvelt, PA, in 1962, Jack is looking forward to a summer playing baseball with his friends. Instead, he ends up grounded, his only opportunities to leave the house occurring when his elderly neighbor requires his assistance writing obituaries for the newspaper. To his surprise, he begins to look forward to his sessions as her scribe, and strange and wonderful adventures ensue, including 11-year-old Jack driving an ancient car, a home operation on the kitchen table to stop his nosebleeds, frequent visits to the undertaker's, and, ultimately, a murder mystery.

Is it any good?

There’s a touch of the tall tale in DEAD END IN NORVELT, reinforced by the fact that the main character shares the author's name. (Though this is by no means an autobiography -- the author lived in the real Norvelt only until age 7.) The book's Jack is charming and earnest and serves as a willing foil for Norvelt’s wacky residents. There’s the undertaker's daughter, a small, fearless girl named Bunny, who knows a million dead-person jokes; the tricycle-riding, self-righteous Mr. Spizz, who hands out citations for overgrown weeds; Jack's father, who enlists Jack’s help in building a bomb shelter; and especially Mrs. Volker, the eldest-living Norvelt resident, town coroner, passionate writer of obituaries, and crusader for human rights. Though the characters are wonderfully colorful, the episodic structure sometimes bogs the story down. Still, the humor will carry most readers toward the end when the pace picks up and moves toward an exciting conclusion. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Jack's mother and father give him conflicting instructions, and disobeying either will get Jack into trouble. How would you handle a situation like this?

  • Do you think Jack's being grounded for the entire summer was fair punishment? Do you think Jack minded his punishment?

  • Why do you think the author named the main character after himself? How realistic do you think this story is?

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