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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

From Norvelt to Nowhere & Better Nate Than Ever


While we’re spending some time in the upper age ranges of the Newbery, I wanted to talk about Jack Gantos’ FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE.  Jonathan touched on it in his post Revisting Sequels, where I was tickled to hear him confess he likes it better than the first, since I’ve been toying with that thought myself.  With the same characters and the same jaw-dropping wildness, the plot has a very different shape here; though it starts off in the episodic vein of its predecessor, it quickly turns into a Keystone Kops mad-cap mystery road-trip.  I like that the narrative tension teases with the concept of going too far, even for Jack.   That the story does, over and over, but the characters (with the exception of the bad guy) never quite do, seems like a pretty neat trick.  It does play around with reader’s memories of the first book, and this is part of its strength.   It will be a challenge to discuss at the Newbery table, but you know how I feel about that.   I wonder: can it be an expectation, if talking about a sequel, that committee members read the previous book(s) upon which the book at hand depends?  Not so that the other works can be discussed, but so that the sequel can be understood and discussed as a sequel?

I brought up BETTER NATE THAN EVER in regards to Debuts, where many of you commented, often citing that you thought very highly of it but hadn’t thought of it for Newbery…maybe because it was so funny? TeenReader admitted “As I picked it up to reread some of my favorite passages, I was surprised to see how emotionally honest and heartbreaking it could be” and Hannah pointed us back to her October Nomination, in part: “This book is funny and smart. I was rooting so hard for Nate and his character has stuck with me — the levity doesn’t take away from the character development at all; in fact, it adds to it.”  I read BETTER NATE THAN EVER in a single day and evening, which is unusual for me: it’s a fast read, but not thin.  I snuck an extra long lunch and read past my bedtime to finish it;  the pacing so airtight that it never dropped me. Although it was a fast-clip there were artful turns and ebbs to let us catch our breath, notice something new, and refocus.    Both Nate’s voice as narrator, and the dialogue, were equally believable and unique.  And the little twist at the end is an added bonus; readers get the benefit of both endings being true: the Nate who is ok going home, and the Nate who doesn’t have to, thank goodness.

Is the Gantos too weird and funny, the Federle too warm and funny, to be considered Newbery material?  I think they are stellar examples of funny, and the perfect treatment for the boy-turning-young-man-independent-road-trip story.


Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I’m not sure it’s fair or realistic to expect someone on the committee to read books that aren’t from their year. In this particular case, it probably won’t be an issue – I’d be surprised if anyone hasn’t read Dead End in Norvelt because, well, obviously it just won the gold a few years ago. Then again, you never know. And I don’t think those people should have to go back and read Dead End if they haven’t read it already. If the arc of story is too dependent on the first book, or the characters are not so much developed in the 2013 book but more over the course of the two books combined, then tough toe-nails, as they say. And I’m fully aware that this could very well spell doom for one of my personal favorites from this year, P.S. Be Eleven, which is absolutely wonderful… but the emotional impact of the letters from Cecile really would be hampered, I think, by one not having read the first book. But I guess that’s a tangent for a different thread, right?

    I found myself completely charmed by BETTER NATE THAN EVER this weekend, but despite my affection I would be shocked to see it receive Newbery recognition. Not because I don’t think warm and funny ought to be considered, but because I’m cynical about the chances of a book that includes two men kissing (even for the briefest of moments as a door swings shut). Do I think Nate’s feelings of uncertainty about his own sexual identity are authentic and age-appropriate? Absolutely. (Although I don’t entirely buy the disingenuous way he confirms that Freckles is gay – that particular conversation read as a little young). Personally, I think NATE solidly falls into the Newbery age range, but I would expect THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY levels of drama if it were to receive Newbery recognition. Should the committee consider this? Of course not. In fact, I think that Nate’s feelings and treatment about his perceived sexuality contribute to the excellence in exploration of theme. But would the committee agree? Could a person who believes that discussion of same-sex attraction puts a book firmly in YA be swayed by the books other strengths (the character of Nate, the comedic pacing)?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Amanda, I would be shocked (royally) if the committee discussion went this way. Discussion of same-sex attraction exists in many many children’s books. So does discussion of heterosexual attraction. I see what you’re saying, but I think the committee is beyond this.

      • Thanks, Nina, that’s reassuring. I was hoping that I was being too cynical, and I do think that Nate’s experiences being bullied actually contribute to the book’s strengths.

    • One of the strengths of NATE is his ambivalence about gender attraction. It seemed right on the nose for the age. However I do think some of his self-awareness a little too developed.

      I am noticing some discomfort among my students with the title, but do not in any way think that should effect the discussion. My kids have it drilled into their heads that they are free to stop reading any book they don’t feel comfortable with.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    I read BETTER NATE THAN EVER some time ago, but waited until I’d finished FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE before commenting. I guess that doesn’t make much sense.

    I did like BETTER NATE THAN EVER. I thought it was frequently very funny and the sympathetic characters are deeply so. But I remember a line in the book to the effect of, “I have to Tweet this,” in reference to something Nate does at audition, and in some ways, this book reads like a compilation of such tweets: as if Federle took all his best observations and anecdotes and inflicted them on his protagonist in an extreme case of “write what you know.” Can such writing be a “significant achievement?” Is this an author capable of producing a different (non-sequel) book? Or is this more a product of, “you’ve got so many hilarious Broadway-insider stories, you should write a book!” Does it matter? I guess it shouldn’t matter where a book “came from” inside the author, only the final product. But there is some suggestion in the Newbery criteria that the “process” of writing the Newbery book is partially what is rewarded in its use of terms like “development,” “delineation,” etc. But I’m worried I’m just being unfair, that I developed a prejudice having seen Federle’s book jacket bio before reading the book. I believe I would have felt the same way reading this knowing nothing. I believe I would still have felt that the writing isn’t quite top-notch, and that the innovation and appeal comes mainly from the “insider” elements. But I don’t know.

  4. Leonard Kim says:

    There are sequels that clearly continue unfinished stories (LORD OF THE RINGS, the later Harry Potter books) but most are largely self-contained stories using pre-existing characters and/or settings in new situations. FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE begins like the second type, and it was a bit puzzling because Jack doesn’t strike me as the kind of strongly-voiced, root-for character one normally wishes sequels for (P.S. BE ELEVEN, HATTIE EVER AFTER, the upcoming BETTER NATE THAN EVER sequel.) Jack is more of a hapless witness and straight man to all the craziness. Then the book slowly transforms into a sequel of the first type, and I’m not sure that was welcome either. DEAD END IN NORVELT seemed to have a pretty clear resolution, and so it wasn’t all that satisfying to learn, no wait, it really wasn’t resolved, and here’s the continuation. So I felt a little bent-out-of-shape reading this one. What’s more, did this book really close out matters? No. The plot seems to wrap up, but having the example of the first book, it’s not so neatly done to assure one that it’s all over. I don’t think I’m alone in loving my series based on characters – we want to revisit old friends. This doesn’t have my allegiance: the black comedy is amusing but having elements of grotesquerie in all the characters almost works against it from a series sympathy standpoint.


  1. […] Francisco and Pittsburgh before moving to New York to dance on Broadway. His debut novel for kids, Better Nate Than Ever (2013), described as “Judy Blume as seen through a Stephen Sondheim lens” by The Huffington […]

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