Allison's Book Bag

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an inspiring young writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he agreed to help crew a boat loaded with drugs from the Virgin Islands to New York City., setting sail on an ill-fated expedition that eventually landed him in federal prison. Gantos finds himself stuck behind bars armed with nothing but his dreams of college and a desire to write.

Hole in My Life, cover blurb

Yesterday I wrote a mini-biographical post about Jack Gantos, which only briefly referred to the above incident. Today I’ll elaborate about the time in Gantos’s life based on information taken from his memoir entitled Hole in My Life. As promised earlier this week, I’ll also include also a write-up about a creative activity which Gantos introduced at this year’s Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival and another review. Save the dates: October 23-24 !


I have learned this: It is not what one does that is wrong, but what one becomes as a consequence of life.

–Oscar Wilde

Gantos starts by writing about where he thinks he went around the bend. To begin, he was nineteen and still stuck in high school. How did this happen? During his junior years, his family had moved from Florida to Puerto Rico. Initially, Gantos choose not to attend school. Not knowing Spanish, he couldn’t attend public schools. His family couldn’t afford private school. So, Gantos decided to work instead as an electrical subcontractor for his dad’s construction project.

Eventually, Gantos found that electrical work wasn’t for him, and so he decided to get his high school diploma. After six months of saving money, he could afford private school. The problem is none would accept him. His grades were too mediocre.

And so Gantos returned to Florida, where he lived with a family who were desperate for extra cash, and attended school. After about six weeks, however, everyone realized that Gantos was a live-in party crasher. He went out drinking with his buddies and then come home late to play his stereo loud, smell up the house with cigarette smoke, and make long-distance calls. After he threw up one night over half their house, the family kicked Gantos out.

Next step was a motel, operated by the great-great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett. There, Gantos pulled his life together enough to give serious attention to his writing career. Not having the grades to gain acceptance into his high school’s creative writing program, he tried on his own to get organized by arranging his journals into sections. First, Gantos simply captured his thoughts. Second, he challenged himself to copy entire pages of favorite books. Third, Gantos listed words that he wanted to learn. Fourth, he noted ideas. Unfortunately, it never took Gantos long before he would give up, thinking that he had nothing interesting to write about.

One day, the principal called the entire school down to the auditorium to meet some special guests. A traveling foursome of lifers from Raford State Prison came to address them regarding the perils of criminal behavior. Gantos reflects in Hole in My Life about how he felt that he had nothing in common with them. He didn’t use drugs. He didn’t steal. He wasn’t a rapist. Yes, Gantos felt adrift inside, but that didn’t mean he could end up in prison. Those were famous last words.


Where there is blood, there is ink.

–anonymous newspaper quote

Gantos moved back in with his family, who were now back in the United States, and helped his dad in the construction business again by building crates. He also read biographies, searched for significant material to write about, and… accepted an invitation to smoke drugs. The latter were available everywhere.

Soon afterwards, as part of the crate-building business, Gantos met up with a man who would change his life. Rik was in his late twenties, blond, shag haircut, green eyes, and a silver dollar sized circular burn scar on his forehead. When Gantos asked his dad about him, his dad took one look and pegged him: “He’s a dope smuggler.”

Gantos didn’t care. He agreed to package a stack of plastic containers for Rik. Ones that Gantos knew contained hash. Later, when Rik invited him to sail with him to New York and take six weeks to deliver these packages, Gantos agreed. It helped that the offer included earning 10,000 in cash.

The rest of the section pans out like most stories about the drug culture scene and so I’ll briefly summarize it. After their six-week sailing adventure, the two had to dock. And every boat Gantos heard, every noise he heard, every searchlight that spun its bright eye made Gantos jump. Even when the two arrived safely at their hotel, Gantos remained paranoid, except this time he worried more about the people who used the drugs rather than being caught with drugs. One night, he even snuck out of his room and slept outside to avoid a potential bloodbath. The latter didn’t happen, but while on the road they end up being followed. Then when almost all the drugs had been sold, the FBI showed. And Gantos ran, leaving his friends behind to take the fall.


What we have here is a failure to communicate.

–anonymous prison wall quote

For a time, Gantos wasn’t ready to admit to his mistakes. When he called home and realized that the FBI were looking for him, Gantos actually asked, “Do I have to turn myself in?” After being convinced that this would be the wisest choice, Gantos still took his good time in doing this. Gantos read newspapers which featured articles about the drug bust in which he had been involved. He checked back into the hotel room, where he had stayed with drug dealers, and searched it for his journals, money, and even hash. After a long rest, Gantos brought some new clothes and showed up the office of his assigned attorney.

The next few chapters feel like a courtroom drama. The most interesting part is reading about all the emotional changes Gantos underwent. For example, at first, Gantos felt less guilty than stupid. He was angry his drug friends had ratted him out. For a time, he reached for anything which allowed him to escape his reality, which for him meant buying Chinese food and a collection of horror stories. However, as Gantos began to realize that being just a kid might not help his case, his stress began to increase.

One of the most riveting scenes is when the judge gave him a chance to talk for himself. Gantos admitted to making a mistake. The judge countered with the question: “A criminal mistake? Or just the mistake of getting caught?” Gantos couldn’t respond. In his heart, he knew the truth. And that this truth could doom him.

Another gripping scene occurs between Gantos and his dad after sentencing has been handed down. Gantos acknowledges that at this point, his pain is still what remains foremost in his mind. But, Gantos also realizes his dad is stunned. And is feeling anguish over the fact that his son is being sent off to federal prison.

Next, there are a few chapters which pan out like most stories about the grittiest stories about prison life. There were lice. Routine checks of being counted. No books to read but just writing on the wall. Lots of offers for protection against sex. And, on his part, plenty of guilt.


Gantos was fortunate to escape the worst by landing a position as an X-ray tech. After a time, Gantos also found relief from all the hatred and despair which surrounded him by thinking back on his childhood. By now, he had also been given writing tools and so was keeping a regular journal. And…. because he couldn’t escape his doubts by running away, drinking, or getting high, Gantos began to realize that he did have a rich life to write about.

Obviously, there is a lot more details to his story, but I have covered only the highlights. If you ever have made bad choices in your life or are simply a fan of author memoirs, you should check out Hole in My Life to read.

Jack Gantos has written books for readers of all ages, from picture books and middle-grade fiction to novels for young adults and adults. His works include Hole in My Life, a memoir that won the Michael L. Printz and Robert F. Sibert honors; Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a National Book Award Finalist, Joey Pigza Loses Control, a Newbery Honor book, and Dead End in Norvelt, the 2012 Newbery Award Winner.


Jack Gantos, first grade

Jack Gantos, first grade

Born in Pennsylvania, Gantos grew up in the town of Norvelt. His parents moved so often that Gantos attended 10 different schools between kindergarten and twelfth grade. The Gantos family rented a variety of homes in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, and the Caribbean.

When Gantos was seven, his family moved to Barbados where he attended British schools and found learning fun. Back in the United States, Gantos found his new classmates uninterested in their studies and that his teachers spent most of their time disciplining students. He retreated to an abandoned bookmobile parked out behind the school’s sandy ball field and read for most of the day.

You might be surprised to learn that Gantos was in the Bluebird reading group in his Norvelt elementary school, a group he later found out was for the slow readers. In About Jack Gantos, Gantos states that to this day he’d rather be called a Bluebird than a slow reader. You might also be surprised to learn that Gantos remembers playing a lot of “pass the chalk” in Mrs. Neiderheizer’s class in first grade. This is apparently a game to increase student involvement in a classroom which contains reluctant speakers. After the teacher introduces a topic, the teacher will “pass the chalk” (or marker) to signal the student has the floor.

The seeds for his writing career were planted in sixth grade, when Gantos read his sister’s diary and decided he could write better than she could. Gantos begged his mother for a diary and began to write in them obsessively about everything he saw and felt and wondered. He wrote about kids he knew. He remembered conversations he’d heard and put those in his journal. He also collected anecdotes he overheard at school, mostly from standing outside the teachers’ lounge and listening to their lunchtime conversations. From the time Gantos received his first journal to elementary school, he probably has filled 200 of them. As an adult, Gantos has incorporated many of these journal entries into stories.

Gantos tells Scholastic that the fact that the diary had a strap and a lock and key was the most exhilarating thing about it. It was like a lockbox or a pirate’s chest. He lived in a household with three siblings. His journal was one little corner of the world that he had control over.

In junior high, Gantos he went to a school that had been converted from a former state prison. Again, he spent most of his time reading on his own and spying (like Harriet) on all his neighbors. Gantos says he wrote down their activities, which he summarizes in About Jack Gantos as a lot of gore and broken bones and bizarre games.

After his family moved to Puerto Rico, Gantos spent his senior year of high school. During that year, Gantos worked at a grocery store, bought a car, and lived in an old motel run by Davey Crocket’s great-great granddaughter.

Making a last-minute decision not to attend the University of Florida, Gantos instead moved to the Virgin Islands to work on construction projects with his father. While hanging out in a bar one day, Gantos was approached by a man with an offer he couldn’t refuse: sail a small boat from the Caribbean Sea to the United States for $10,000. That much money would pay for four years of college and more, but the catch was that the boat was filled with 2,000 pounds of hashish.

This decision landed him in prison at the age of twenty. During his 18 months behind bars, Jack Gantos read, wrote, and vowed to turn his life around. And so he did. After getting out of prison, Gantos moved to Boston and enrolled in college. He and an illustrator friend, Nicole Rubel, began working on picture books. After a series of rejections, including one for a book about an alligator, they published Rotten Ralph which I reviewed here yesterday. Rotten Ralph was the beginning of Jack’s career as a professional writer.


JackGantos_adultWhat was the inspiration behind Rotten Ralph? According to Teaching Books, Gantos started out by writing conservative books. Stuff like: A Visit to Grandmother’s House where a little girl takes a plant to the grandmother, they dust the plant, they water the plant, they name the plant, and they plant the plant. Publishers would tell him that his writing was nice, but that the books lacked any zip.

After probably a dozen rejections, Gantos decided to write a book about a cat. As Gantos explained to Reading Rockets, he thought, “Well, there’s this rule in writing called write about what you know about.” In other words, if Gantos is going to write about a cat, he needs to actually own a cat. Gantos opened up the Boston Globe, thumbed to the pet section, and found cat giveaways. One cat hailed from Harvard University and Gantos figured he might as well get a smart one. Gantos called the owners who were from Australia, but had finished their degree, and so were planning to move back home.

Apparently, the cat never liked Gantos. He described it as a sociopath. One day, while Gantos was sitting in his home, and this vicious thing was scratching his leg, Gantos decided: “Instead of writing about sweet fluffy, I’m gonna go the other way.” Gantos decided to write a book that contained the violation-to-redemption cycle, as well as utilized his sense of humor.

After taking Rotten Ralph to a few places, and receiving a few more rejections, Gantos took it to Houghton Mifflin. Walter Lorraine read it and said, “I like the cat. I like this part. Write a new story.” That being the most encouragement Gantos had ever received, he went home and wrote a brand new story. In response, Lorraine said, “Like that line. Like that line. Like that line. Get rid of the rest. And keep these lines. Write a new one.”

I must’ve done that 50 times. I swear it took the whole summer. I would just rewrite furiously every night. Finally at the end of the summer, he said, “You know what? I think you need a contract for this.”

–Jack Gantos, Reading Rockets

After that, Gantos reread his childhood journals and began to use his early writing as inspiration for more complete stories about his adventures, his family, and his school life. Over time, Gantos established himself as an award-winning author of a wide variety of books. He wrote picture books for young children. He wrote chapter books for middle-grade readers. By 2002, Gantos finally felt comfortable publishing a book about the time he went to prison.

In addition to writing, Gantos began to teach courses in children’s book writing and children’s literature. He developed the master’s degree program in children’s book writing at Emerson College and at Vermont College. He also speaks to young people in classrooms, libraries, and prisons. Today he lives with his wife and daughter in Massachusetts.

This week already, I have reviewed Rotten Ralph. Please return throughout the week for more reviews and also a write-up about a creative activity which Gantos introduced at this year’s Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. Save the dates: October 22-24!

How could I have taken so long to discover Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos? In 2006, Rotten Ralph celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. To date, there are at least nineteen books about Rotten Ralph. Moreover, Rotten Ralph had at one time been so popular, a thirty-minute television show based on the characters aired for one year. Yet this October is the first time I read this humorous tale.

The story line of Rotten Ralph, the book for which Jack Gantos gained his fame, is an interesting one. Gantos starts out by providing various examples of how Ralph is a rotten cat, with each one taking more paragraphs to explain and showing increasingly worse behavior, until readers have to decide how much to stomach. Next, in a clever twist on the traditional plot, Ralph’s exasperated family decides to leave him with the circus. At this point, the story takes on a questionable melodramatic air: Ralph is made to work. And work. And work. And when he refuses, he is locked up and taunted and tormented. He then runs away, and gets cold and sick and lonely. In one sense, this part of the story feels as if it were written by a young person. In another sense, it feels exactly how a young person would view the world. So, I’m left feeling as if Rotten Ralph has a charm which works for a standalone book but also as if I’d like to read subsequent stories to see if they become more sophisticated.

Now let me talk about Rotten Ralph as a character, because it makes for the most questionable part of the series. Rotten Ralph is certainly the type who could give cats a bad name. Ralph taunts Sarah, goes after mother’s favorite birds, and ruins a birthday party by taking a bite out of all the cookies. I wonder if Ralph more epitomizes naughty boys than bad cats. After all, Ralph also knows how to blow bubbles through a pipe, smash a bike, and even use a saw to cut down a tree branch which boasts a swing. At any rate, Ralph certainly is rotten. And the colorful and kinetic drawings by Nicole Rubel help with that depiction.

The question isn’t about how developed of a character Ralph is, but how are readers to feel about him. Should we view him in the same vein as Garfield, that lovable fat cat in whom many of us see ourselves? Or in the same vein as Alexander and Max, childhood book characters who had wicked temper tantrums yet were lovable? The difference is that none of the aforementioned icons were outright mean.

Ralph instead seems closer in spirit to the Herdmans, a family who has never been held up as an exemplary model of behavior. Yet I think we are supposed too sympathize with the Herdmans, because for all their rambunctiousness they had a vulnerable side. Anti-heroes will always be controversial, because they display more bad sides than good. Yet the reality is that in every mischievous child, there exists an Alexander and a Max and a Ralph. Moreover, in every bad moment or day, there lies the chance for even adults to act like any of these characters. And so I think that’s why, despite all his questionable antics, Ralph has dedicated followers.

Do I want all my shelves filled with books about characters like Ralph? To be honest, no. Do I regret my purchase? Not at all. There are moments when my students or even I myself need a story about the individuals who fail more often than they succeed. For we all have both of those types of moments in our lives.

If you love bats, Brian Lies is an author whose books you need to know. And if you don’t like bats, Brian Lies is one author who might just change your mind with his enchanting rhymes and mesmerizing artwork. Recently, I had the opportunity to purchase Bats at the Beach and Bats at the Library. My reaction is based on these two books.

The stories, which are told in rhyme, show a skilled writer at work. Lies has talked in interviews about how he doesn’t want to add to the canon of bad rhymes. Lies loves language and words and so he tries to create what he calls “chewy” language. For him, one of the big challenges but also great joys has been to avoid focusing so much on the last word that the rhymes end up hitting readers over the head with the rhyme. Instead he works on discovering little ways of dragging the ear away from the last word by using alliteration or assonance or something like that in the heart of that sentence. To my delight, I believe he has succeeded. And if you read some of the below examples, I think you will agree with me.

This first stanza comes from Bats at the Beach:

There’s really no more thrilling ride

than surfing on a summer tide.

Or sailing in the wing-boat races,

with salty sea spray in our faces.

This second stanza comes from Bats at the Library:

Some of them will drift away

and figure out a game to play,

like shaping shadows on the wall,

or wing-tip tag around the hall.

Opening up any of the bat books feels like walking into an art gallery. Each full-page spread has been beautifully illustrated with acrylic paints, but the medium isn’t what most impresses me. Rather, it’s the care which Lies has given to crafting realistic bats that astounds me. In interviews, Lies has discussed how when he creates animal characters, he doesn’t stick to just sticking animal heads and paws onto humans. Instead Lies puts his best effort into creating the actual anatomy of bats, ensuring that they look different from other animals and from humans. It doesn’t surprise me to read that people have told Lies that they like that there is so much science in his books.

I also feel amazed each time I turn a page at how detailed the scenes are. In Bats at the Beach, one sees the bright glow of campfires both up close and far away. The flecks of water feel so real, I can imagine myself being sprayed by the ocean waves. And then there’s the humorous close-up of bats toasting marshmallows with flies inside of them! In Bats at the Library, can you imagine the hours which must have gone into creating shelves upon shelves with books on them of different heights, shapes, colors, and even textures? The dabs of yellow, orange, and brown make the carpet feel so real, I can imagine its tingle on my hands. And then there’s the delightful image of the bats throwing their shadows onto a screen with a projector. There is a rhyme on one page which talks about the bats being completely swallowed up and living inside the books they read. That seems like an apt description of Lies’ own bat books, because of his incredible illustrations.



Especially if one risks buying a book by an author, it’s easy to quickly feel regret. Thirty or one hundred pages in, the book has failed to spark interest or even has caused nausea. One can also feel a different kind of regret, the one which I have about the bat series. At Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, when one faces stacks of books by well-established authors, it’s difficult to know which authors to buy books from and how many of their books to purchase. The entire bat series by Lies was available the day of the festival to be bought and signed. I regret now that I choose only to purchase two instead of all four, because each of his books has been a reading feast.

Author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series, Brian Lies gave an inspiring presentation at the 2014 Plum Creek Literary Festival earlier this month. In sharing his path to publication, he talked about letting kids know it’s okay to make mistakes and informing them that authors/illustrators have to work hard at their craft to make a publishable book. I’ll have a guest post on these latter subject, but for now let me share highlights about his life.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALies grew up as an ordinary kid in a really rural town in New Jersey. He and his friends ripped down hills on bikes with no helmets and with bare feet and they wandered through cornfields. In the winter, they sled the trails. Lies dubbed it a “Tom Sawyer” experience.

He told of a neighborhood girl who acted as the ringleader of games. She knew how to play all the different types of tag. She also taught them with her fists how to pick who went first. :-) Lies had a crush on her and still recalls to this day how she was inventive, but one day she stopped coming to play. She even refused all invitations. His last memory is of sounds. A car picked her up and boys came to date her. She had become a boy crazy person and Lies felt sad. He remembered not wanting to lose the spirit of play, but wanting to grow up and keep the magic alive.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To Lies growing up, authors and illustrators were from another world. There were none of them in his parents’ circles and so he thought that books were mystically handed down.

His older sister influenced his desire to write. She always wanted to be one and is now a reporter in Tokyo. Initially, throughout his childhood, Lies competed against her but then decided that he actually enjoyed the process of writing stories.

The problem is that as a kid, Lies thought he couldn’t do anything and this discouraged him. He thought adults came the way they were.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn fifth grade in the United States, student are assigned to write and illustrate a book. Lies looked forward to the project and totally ripped off BC. He wrote about a dinosaur who lived in an apartment.

A wonderful thing about this project was that the students had an author visit. The author who came was Harry Devlin. He was impressed with the student creations. As for Lies, he sat transfixed but quiet throughout Devlin’s presentation. He found Devlin’s work amazing! He also wanted to be an author like Devlin. And why not? After all, Lies loved to write and draw.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Except…. Lies believed that he couldn’t draw. So as quickly as he began to dream, he also stopped. “The moment of dreaming is so fragile. I didn’t have faith in my artwork and so I drew for myself.”

His mom was a teacher and his dad was a chemist. The television wasn’t on at mealtimes. The kids read books. Although different books influenced him, his favorite was Richard Scarry’s Best Word book. By matching its pictures to words, Lies learned to read. He can still recall the day when “those little black marks gave up their secrets”.. Lies also credits Richard Scarry for all the details that he puts into books. Actually, the book not only taught him to read, but Lies even wrote an essay on it that got him into college.

In college, Lies drew for the school paper. Others in his class were doing daring things such as archeology digs and Broadway projects while he just worked in a hometown grocery store. And so Lies decided to become a political cartoonist. He sent out 140 hand-made portfolios and received 141 rejections. (One company rejected him twice!)

Lies learned from this experience. He realized failure isn’t everything. “Failure is only permanent if you let it keep you down. I reread the rejections. It said not now. That doesn’t mean never. They just didn’t like my art.” So Lies enrolled in art school and learned traditional art.”

Classmates would slam him in critiques, but Lies persevered. After winning a $2000 painting prize, Lies applied for a job at Christian Science Monitor who assigned him his first freelance illustrations. He did a couple thousand with many overnight deadlines.

At some point, Lies started thinking again about books. While he still didn’t believe in himself as an artist, this time he could tell himself that he was getting published all the time. So, he started working on an alphabet book. And had some miracles. For example, one day the lady ahead of him in line at a gift store asked, “Did I hear you say that you’re an illustrator?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” She said, “Have you ever done any children’s work?” And I said, “Well, I’m working on a picture book right now.” And she said, “I’d really like to see your portfolio. I’m the Art Director at Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston.” Even weirder is Lies had intended to send his alphabet book to her on speculation. He contacted her and one day got a message on his answering machine telling Lies that she had a book that he could design.

Much more information exists online about Brian Lies through interviews. Before I switch over to a discussion of his writing background, I’ll share the five tidbits from my research.

  • Lies grew up surrounded by old farmland which was slowly giving way to housing developments. He spent a lot of time building dams and forts in the woods across the street with his best friend, inventing things, and writing with his older sister.
  • At various times during his childhood, the family had newts, gerbils, and rabbits as pets.
  • One of the tricks his mom taught him was to go into the library and, at random, choose a bookshelf then read the title of every single book on that shelf. As a young person, standing back and looking at an enormous room full of books overwhelmed him. But when he boiled it down to one shelf, it became doable.
  • Going back through my school reports, he has discovered an awful lot of comments saying, “Brian could do very well in this subject if he only applied himself.” Lies considers himself a curious kid who asked a lot of questions—and who probably talked too much.
  • During high school, he painted with oil paints and made stained glass windows. He even sold some of these projects!


As part of his presentation at Plum Creek Literacy Festival, author and illustrator of the NY Times bestselling bat series, Brian Lies talked about how he came up with ideas for his books and the process for creating them. I’ll review the first two books in the bat series tomorrow. Save the date: October 17! Below I’ll share highlights of the origins of the series.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe whole bat thing…. got sparked by his daughter. The family lives near a beach. His daughter who by now was in second grade was having a tough start getting ready for school. The bus was about to arrive. She still wasn’t ready. Lies went upstairs, found her at the top grinning, and she showed him a frosted window: “Look dad, it’s a bat with sea foam wings.” If one looked at the shape with imagination eyes, Lies said, one could actually make out the shape of sort of a happy bat with its wings stretched wide and playing in the ocean. He got her on the school bus and, as he was going back up to my office, he saw the ice pattern again and thought, “That sounds like a story.” This moment sparked the idea for Bats at the Beach.

Lies writes everything longhand on yellow lined refills. He uses the same materials everyday so that the materials don’t stand but the writing does. He filled six pads for Bats at the Beach. Most of it was junk. Even at the time Lies realized this, but he needed to generate material. After filling out his pads, Lies typed up the best material.

Rhyme isn’t how he intended to tell the bat stories, but the words came out that way and they started beating to a drum. Lies decided he couldn’t control it but he could shape it. The attitude in the industry is not to do rhyme. This is because everyone thinks they will the next Dr. Seuss. The result is a lot of bad rhyme. Lies didn’t want to add to it and so he worked hard on every word.

When Lies sketches, he doesn’t start out worrying about if it’s drawn well. Instead he just wants to figure out where everything will get placed. From start to finish, his process is to create sketchbooks of the image, then draw a thumbnail composition, next tighten up the artwork, and finally create one last final drawing which he transfers to good paper to color. Then he figures out the bright and dark areas, the angles for those colors, and everything else that comes in between. It takes him twelve to fourteen hours, or about four months, to create art for a book.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs for Bats in the Library, there were two influences. First, a local librarian said, “I probably should tell you that we once had a bat in our library.” Second, at presentations, boys often tell Lies that they don’t read. He finds that sad, because so much of who he is comes from books.

The idea of bats in the library instantly clicked with him but, when he started writing it, the story was really didactic. It was saying, “You should love libraries because you can find all these different things there” and felt leaden and dull. Then, Lies had a little bit of an epiphany. His father had died shortly before Bats at the Beach came out, and Lies remembered that his very favorite library building in the world was in the town where his dad grew up in Riverside, Illinois. Lies hadn’t been to that library in 27 years, but I had a memory of dark wood and beams stretching across the ceiling, stained glass windows, and deep red, leather chairs. He thought, “I’ve got to go back there. I have to see whether this building is as cool as I remember it. And, if it is, I think that’s the key into my story.”

Then Lies had one of what he referred to as several really freaky occurrences. He had not been to the library in 27 years but, as he was walking up to the front steps to the building, a mother and her little girl bounced out of the library door and staring him straight in the face was Bats at the Beach. This helped Lies feel as if he was on the right path.

Lies headed inside and instantly the library itself almost became one of the characters of the book for me. Lies crawled under sofas and even took pictures of latches and the water fountain. The librarians also let him climb up to the roof to take photos. He had three days to do everything. While there, Lies saw bookshelves with a bat shape. Suddenly, the book was a lot easier to do, and he was able to get rid of all of these “shoulds”. And so, the book became kind an homage to his father.

You can read more about Brian Lies at:

Allisons' Book Bag Logo

October: Plum Creek

Every fall for the past six years, I have attend the Plum Creek Literacy Festival. In previous years, I've written about the author presentations and plan to do the same in the weeks ahead. Unlike in the past, I also intend to review my book purchases. I'll also continue to include reviews I write for our local multicultural group and for our local dog club. Enjoy!

  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • Daisy to the Rescue by Jeff Campbell
  • Max and Ruby Bunny Cakes by Rosemary Wells
  • Bats at the Beach by Brian Lies
  • Rotten Ralph by Jack Gantos
  • Dead End to Norvelt by Jack Gantos
  • Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel
  • Bad Kitty School Daze by NIck Bruel
  • Have You Seen Mary? by Jeff Karrus
  • Tale of Jacob Swift by Jeff Karrus



Thirty days. Minimum average of 1666 words per day. A total of 50,000 words. I am a NaNo Winner for two years in a row and my novel in its second version.

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