Allison's Book Bag

Instead of Sweet and Fluffy

Posted on: October 21, 2014

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!

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