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When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton

When the Whistle Blows is a surprising first-novel that will especially appeal to your boys and young men. It is a growing up novel that includes scenes reminiscent of Richard Peck’s Long Way from Chicago and has a classical mannerism that will steam its way on to state award lists all over the country. 

Rituals at midnight. Launching cabbages at the enemy. Eerie cemetery scenes. Death. Humor. Families joining together to thwart the tyrants in charge. The joys of living in the Appalachians especially hunting, swimming, and being outdoors. Looming changes hanging over your head as you are growing up.

I particularly love the way author Fran Cannon Slayton incorporates changes in technology (from steam engines to diesel train engines) to show how all of life in a community is impacted. This will lead to a great discussion of how economies are impacted when "improvements" occur. Students who are facing the question "what will you do when you graduate?" can empathize with main character Jimmy as he sees his life-goals changing and options disappearing for the life he imagined. 

Each chapter begins on All Hallow’s Eve which happens to be Jimmy’s father’s birthday. Starting in 1943 and ending in 1949 Fran Cannon Slayton shares not only growing up, but also the intensity of a father-son relationship that changes as Jimmy becomes a man. The tension grows throughout as you, the reader, realize Jimmy’s father is ailing. You want to warn Jimmy to appreciate every moment, each year, but you rejoice as you see him growing and becoming his own man. 

This novel is fresh, smart, witty, warm, well-written, funny — all those great adjectives you want to see and that help tip you over the purchasing edge. But it is also SO BOY. I love that. It is something to embrace and to not be ashamed. There is drama and there is football. It is a celebration of living with each new "birth"day chapter, but it is also a recognition of the part of death in our lives. Death is a mystery, a crossing point, a cry, a laugh, a letting-go, a grieving, and a ritual part of living. 

Sometimes you don’t realize how much a book impacts you until someone else asks you what you thought of it. So is the case of When the Whistle Blows by Fran Cannon Slayton. I read it in one sitting and could not put it down. I thought about it and thought about how to review it, but kept putting it off to think. Then, another librarian asked me if it was any good.

What? Any good? This is an amazing novel. You won’t get to see it until June, 2009, but you will want to go ahead and pre-order it. To the Teachers at my school who read over my shoulder, I am sorry but you cannot have my advanced reading copy. I like it so much that I actually wrote in it, dog-eared pages, and flagged some of my favorite scenes. Do I want you showing students that sometimes these sacred library books become more than clean pages to glance over and preserve? Do I want you showing students that fictional novels can become an important part of determining who you are? Do I want students to know that books are worthy of study, thinking, and re-reading? Well, maybe I’ll let you borrow it but only until I can get the final hardcover.

You will definitely want to check out Fran’s website. She includes teaching information for librarians and teachers plus the extras we want to see in this ever connected world. Be sure to read about Fran’s secret dream when she was writing When the Whistle Blows. There are some wonderful advance reviews out which made it hard for me. I wanted to purely read and develop my own opinion so any gushing on my part is purely involuntary and not just "me-too"ing. After reading, I did love the details in the Goodreads review by Jennifer Stradling from fame. You’ll be happy to note that Betsy Bird of AFuse#8 has reviewed this, also.

"The freezing water weighs down our clothes, but our hearts float high in the current, arms linked as we cross the river side by side. It’ll take hours for our clothes to drip-dry as we sit and talk on the bridge, but we don’t mind. We’ve got no place to go. We’ve got nothing but time. It’d be okay by me if this night just went on and on forever. And my father will never know."

So ends one chapter in the middle of this warm and witty debut novel by Fran Cannon Slayton. I’m sharing that quote because it shows throughout this 176 page novel the beautifully written language that sneaks into this story of life, death, change, and growing up in West Virginia. Yet at the same time, it brings us back to growing up and the impact this father has had on the main character. 


  1. Anybody else think it is funny that When the Whistle Blows was also the name of the horrible fake sitcom on HBO’s Extras?

  2. Jessica Burkhart says:

    I can’t wait to read it! It sounds like an excellent book.

  3. S. M. Williams says:

    I got to read a borrowed ARC and I totally agree with your review. I’m buying a copy, even though I’ve already read it. When the Whistle Blows is one to keep!

  4. Linda Gerber says:

    Excellent review. I’m looking forward to this one to share with my son!

  5. jenny gardiner says:

    i’ve been so looking forward to Fran’s novel and am excited to see her first (fabulous!) review!

  6. I was also able to read an ARC just last week and, you’re right, it’s one of the best boy books I’ve read, not to mention beautifully written.

  7. Mary Ann Scott says:

    I can’t wait for this wonderful book!

  8. Melissa Walker says:

    Sounds wonderful!

  9. RM1(SS) (ret) says:

    Sounds great! I’ve added it to my list of books to be recommended to our public library.

  10. Granny Sue says:

    I’m writing a review tonight. It’s a great book, and one that will grab boys. Like you, I could not put it down until I finished it, and even then didn’t want to leave the people and the places in the story. I’ve visited Rowlesburg and it was interesting to have this historic perspective on a small, struggling Appalachian town. Great read.

  11. I read the book and enjoyed it very much. I live in Rowlesburg and this book gives me a better understanding of how it used to be in our town. Thanks for these great stories.

  12. I read the book and enjoyed it very much. I live in Rowlesburg and this book gives me a better understanding of how it used to be in our town. Thanks for these great stories.