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Posts Tagged ‘Rotten Ralph

The designation of Dead End to Norvelt by Jack Gantos as historical fiction feels like a misnomer. The plot is so outrageous, the characters are so idiosyncratic, and the humorous style so often draws upon exaggeration. How can this be historical fiction? Indeed, most of the time I suspect you won’t even think about or remember this categorization. Instead, you’ll just enjoy the romp.

The type of historical fiction with which I am most familiar involves an author researching a time period or person with minimal connection to them except that the subject is of interest. Some classic examples would be offerings from Scott O’Dell or Elizabeth George Spear. Of late, I have been reading a type of historical fiction which is new to me. It is one which involves an author drawing upon the setting of their own childhood to write a story which may rely more or less upon real events from their own life to weave a tale. My first introduction to this format came from Gary Schmidt. This approach also describes the Norvelt books, a fact that I didn’t know at the time that I purchased them.

One thing I’ve noticed about this approach is that while readers are given clues which establish the setting, rarely is the setting blatantly stated. In novels which follow a more traditional approach, the jacket flap, the forward, or the first chapter almost immediately list the year in which events occur. Moreover, because the story often happens in an unfamiliar, remote, or faraway place, you instantly know it’s not your average realistic novel. In contrast, Dead End to Norvelt starts out with a young boy doing average stuff in an average American backyard at the start of what seems to be an average summer. No date is listed. Unless you count the main character’s obsession with war toys and movies, the first solid clue to the historical setting is a reference to John Glenn having orbited the earth earlier that winter. If you’re unfamiliar with space travel history, it might take you a few more references to historical people and events to figure out that the time is the 1960’s.

Why have I spent two paragraphs writing about this new approach? Because I am trying to figure out what I think about it. To be honest, I tend to get slightly taken back when several pages into a novel, I realize that the setting is different from what I expected. At the same time, I suspect the approach makes historical fiction more palpable. Not everyone likes historical fiction. And so this approach, which is a mix of autobiography and history and fiction, is akin to adding sugar to medicine. It may also allow authors more liberty to tell that story that they most desire to tell. The 1960s might help create the backdrop to Dead End to Norvelt, but the story of Jack being grounded, helping ailing neighbors, and developing an appreciation for his dying town is universal.

I’d be remiss if I ended my review without discussing what actually makes Dead End to Norvelt such a fun read. The plot could spiral into a boring fest of historical stories. Except Miss Volker always spices up the obituaries she writes with details that no one else takes the time to seek out. Moreover, those obituaries attract the attention of Hell’s Angels who are bent on revenge in the town. And, when those obituaries became a daily occurrence, it becomes apparent that murder is afoot. Jack could come off as a typical boy who doesn’t think enough about his actions. Except he has this quirk of getting nose bleeds whenever the least little thing startles him. And not just little ones. As a result, he never has any clean clothes. He also has this sympathetic blend of acting cowardly but wanting desperately to be a nice guy. And, finally, the style could slow the story to a snail’s pace. Or, just as bad, the style could feel so over the top that it wears one out. Gantos won me over with Jack’s sometimes awkward, sometimes mature, and always realistic adolescent narration.

Dead End to Norvelt is full of wisdom, heart, and laughs. It also has the “WOW” factor. In other words, besides being well-written, everything about Dead End to Norvelt pulls you into its pages and keeps you there until done. And, even days later, characters and incidents still come to memory. Dead End to Norvelt is a beautiful tribute to small towns everywhere, along with being an incredibly entertaining story.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?


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:

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.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?


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.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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