Allison's Book Bag

The Key to Journaling: Spy Maps

Posted on: October 23, 2014

Jack Gantos was one of several of the featured authors at the 2014 Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival whom I selected to see. Obviously, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear the 2012 Newbery Award Winner! His presentation topic, how to make an effective use of a journal, also seemed potentially beneficial to me both as a teacher and as an author. What follows are the highlights of his talk.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Adults often get a journal. They feel that otherwise they will forget the family stories. Some might even buy an expensive journal. Money will shame them into at least writing in a few of the pages.

The first night is the best. One has so much to write. One can start with the simple sentence: “I was born.” Throw in some dialog and your memoir will really begin to pop. The next night, one writes down a few more lines. But then the days start to tick away. Once in a while, you might jot down a few lines but, before you know it, there’s a skin of dust on the journal. You put it away as a historical thing.

For Gantos, when he got his journal, he started out by looking at it. And the journal looked back at him. It was like looking into a vacant life.

One needs to make a journal so exciting, Gantos explained, that it becomes a creative experience. If you have a blank page, it’s hard to do anything. What Gantos started to do is to make neighborhood maps. When he read Harriet the Spy, Gantos loved how Harriet made spy maps. He himself enjoyed spying on people! Especially if one sits quietly and listens, one gets to hear racy and juicy family stories.

For example, his father was a Elks club member. Every Saturday, his mother would allow Gantos to go with his day to the club for the day. Gantos would drink about twenty cups of Pepsi, play pinball, and LISTEN. Men like to gab! And to add details. Stories were always part of life for Gantos, although it took reading the Harriet the Spy to inspire his map idea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGantos decided to create a map inside his journal of everything he knew. To illustrate, Gantos shared some of his own stories. He started with his house and the orange stain….

Gantos had eaten three plates of spaghetti. It was too much. He strolled into the living room and announced, “I’m going to be sick.” His mother told him to go to the bathroom. Gantos ran there, dropped to his  knees, and aimed for the middle. When he put my hands on the seat, however, it was still warm. His sister had been the last one to use it. He staggered back to the kitchen. And threw up. L His dad was laughing behind the paper. His mom grabbed the paper and said, “I’m trying to set some rules and you’re not helping.” Gantos knew that being cute could help when in trouble. He started to swing the spaghetti and pull it out. His mom yelled, “THAT IS NOT CUTE!” Gantos had to wash the walls, but couldn’t get the stain out. The vomit smell never went away.

From the story of the orange stain, Gantos proceeded to tell other stories from his childhood. He talked about the family pets. An alligator got one of them. The second stayed by the side of the road to watch cars and got hit. A third went crazy around the hole for the grave. He fell into the hole and broke his neck.

Next, Gantos described the time when an airplane crashed into their yard. His brother had been playing bang, bang, bang. Gantos decided to have some fun and tell his brother that the sirens were the police coming for him. His brother ran and hid. He thought he had shot the plane down. Gantos had him point his finger at different stuff and see that nothing got damaged.

Gantos also told of a kid who used to ride a bike around a swimming pool. He hit his head on the side. Gantos pulled him out. The kid got up, fixed his handles, and did it a second time. L Black leather jacket, no shirt, jeans, greased back red hair, black shoes…. Gantos adored him and got a similar outfit.

After sharing several of his own stories to illustrate how spy maps can help one with keeping a journal, Gantos next told how to turn these entries into full-fledged stories. He started with the day he dropped a cockroach into his sister’s mouth.


  • Characters: Jack, Pete, Betsy
    Setting: House
  • Problem/Situation: sibling rivalry
  • Action/Plot: brother and sister make a truce, brother tries to please sister, she isn’t impressed, he stops trying to please her and plays a trick on her, she gets revenge on him
  • Crisis: sister locks brother out of house when he is naked
  • Resolution: father comes home, lets brother in house, tells him he got outsmarted
  • Physical End: brother gets dressed
  • Emotional End: he realizes his sister will always be smarter


My sister and I always bickered. One day she just walked into my room and said I’m tired of bickering. I agreed. We made a truce and shook hands. She said whoever is mean to the other person first will suffer a severe consequence: The loser has to run around the neighborhood naked. For a time, my life changed. I woke up loving my sister and wanting to do nice things for her. I cleaned the fish tank. She said, “So what?” I decided it had just been a bad day. Second day, I fixed her doll house. She just replied, “Big deal.” Third day, I cleaned her pile of laundry, ironed it, and even hung it up spaced evenly apart. She retorted, “What do you want? A medal?” The next day I decided I don’t love my sister. I got up late. When I headed downstairs, I saw her taking a nap. I thought of my Florida cockroaches, which I used to drive on cars to Roachville, and got one. My sister woke up and said there is only one person sick enough to do it. Now I had to suffer the consequences. I ran outside naked and around the neighborhood. When I got back, she had locked the door. My neighbor had laundry and I decided to take it to cover himself but she caught me. I dove into bushes until my father came home. By then, I was covered with leaves. I jumped out, my father hits the brake, and I rat on his sister. My father just asked, “Did she make you do this stuff?”OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After sharing the long version, Gantos notes that one now has a first draft. It doesn’t matter whether or not the story is any good. One should be learning the structure of a story. Content will get better, as long as the structure is solid.

Of course, by the time one gets to a second draft, one wants to be done. Not going to happen! Gantos points out that he could easily revise a story one hundred times. Each draft one should tweak, using the suggestions outlined in the slide.

You can read more about Gantos’ approach to journals at:

2 Responses to "The Key to Journaling: Spy Maps"

I love this! My journaling can feel so tired at times. Like, am I even saying anything different from the day before? I’m definitely going to try this mapping-out suggestion.

The story map idea was a huge success with my students. They went from students who struggled with knowing what to write to students who ask for more time to write.

As for myself, several years ago, I started trying to write one entry about each individual family member (including pets) on a daily basis. Taking that focus helped rejuvenate my journal and made a manageable routine too.

Where I think the story map idea will most help me is with description and settings. I regularly force myself to practice those skills, but in such a random way that I always give up. If I were to write about places to tell their stories…. that might work!

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