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February 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Books and Authors: Talking with Jack Gantos
“Read or rot. Your choice.” That sums up Jack Gantos’ philosophy, although because he is such an avid proponent of writing and journaling, he might add “Write or rot” as an additional precept. Journaling provides important material for his books because—in some form, and with embellishments—elements of his unusual childhood, family, and activities show up in almost everything he writes, usually depicting bizarre and hair-raising events with his quirky humor tempered by unconditional love and support. A self-described “Bluebird” (slow reader) in the first grade, Gantos knew he wanted to be a writer by the sixth grade. His books motivate readers—who often see elements of themselves and their own wacky lives in his books—to read, to write, and to look for the good stuff in life.
I first encountered Jack Gantos while working at a branch library in Southern California. Lacking a children’s librarian, the library had staff take turns doing storytimes for a few months. I was not planning to be a children’s librarian and knew nothing about children’s books when I started looking for material to use in my programs. I found Rotten Ralph, published in 1976 and illustrated by Nicole Rubel, and something about the cat that was “hard to love,” the reassurance that Sarah loved him anyway, and the bright, quirky illustrations appealed to me and connected me to the children in my group. Just as Gantos was embarking on his career as a professional writer, Ralph helped me recognize that the career I was starting would be as a children’s librarian.
Gantos’ career has already spanned almost four decades, and he has written for every age of reader, from picture books and easy readers to young adult books and even a book for adults. He is a prolific writer who also writes novellas and short stories, and only a few of his early attempts, written while he was in college, were rejected by publishers. Starting with Rotten Ralph, most of his books have enjoyed literary as well as popular acclaim. In fact, all but a handful of his more than 45 books are still in print, and his short stories are included in anthologies, such as Guys Read: Funny Business, edited by Jon Scieszka (2010). In addition to receiving numerous state awards, starred reviews, and placements on annual “best” lists, Gantos’ work includes a 1998 National Book Award finalist for Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, and Joey Pigza Loses Control was chosen to be a Newbery Honor Book. In 2003, Hole in My Life was named both a Printz Honor Book and a Sibert Honor book, and in 2012, Dead End in Norvelt won the Newbery Medal.
Although his writing shows that he has a serious side, it’s actually a little tough to have a conversation with Gantos; he is so funny that it’s hard to stop laughing! I managed to track him down during his recent travels to pose some questions to him, which he answered between school visits and writing deadlines.
BKL: You know that I say that Rotten Ralph made me decide to become a children’s librarian. What is it about Ralph that makes him such an inspirational and enduring character?
GANTOS: First, I’m always flattered that Rotten Ralph had a positive effect on your bookish career. They say opposites attract, and I believe you and Ralph must have been love at first sight. As for Ralph’s endurance as a character: in every long-standing book, it is always the characters who outlast even the story they inhabit. Ralph, as a character, delivers plenty of rottenness, and when quizzed, young readers will certainly mention the antics, but in the end, it is the theme of unconditional love that keeps them going back to Ralph. Every child has made mistakes or gets carried away or just indulges in the pure pleasure of being naughty, and young readers see that Sarah—despite her best efforts to teach Ralph manners or even how to make good choices—still loves Ralph in the end despite his faults. His weaknesses are understood by her. Her hope that he improves is understood by Ralph. And his need of her forgiveness brings out the humanity between them—and is transported to the reader.
BKL: You don’t like to follow the rules, do you? You turned a trilogy into a quartet with I Am Not Joey Pigza. What other rules do you break?
GANTOS: I don’t intentionally set out to break the rules. I’m really not much of a trickster, but rather deliberate in my plans. But with Joey Pigza, I could only see the arc of the first three books, and when I finished the third, I felt very satisfied that I had brought Joey to a better place, a safer place. And I had, but it was a place where he would have to avoid his dysfunctional family in order to protect himself. And though that sounds logical, it is still an incomplete solution because he does have a family, and avoiding them—keeping them at a distance—would ultimately be emotionally corrosive for Joey. He is a young boy who needs a family, and he is also a hopeful boy, and it seemed to me that in family relationships where there is no room for forgiveness, then it does not result in a “better place, a safer place.” So I realized that I was going to have to push forward and write I Am Not Joey Pigza and take on the mending of Joey’s relationship with his father. As you can see by the end of I Am Not Joey Pigza, the book has been about the rocky road to exploring forgiveness and granting it. But the end of that book doesn’t satisfy all that I have to say about Joey. Finally, there will be a fifth Joey Pigza book (I have yet to write it), and it will be the final installation that will leave Joey in a fully settled place within himself. I love him as a character and will not allow him to come to any harm. But I cannot say more about the theme and story of the final volume and become a “spoiler” for my own book—now that would be breaking the rules!
BKL: You’ve said that the Jack books are the most autobiographical, but how much of you is in characters like Joey or Ralph?
GANTOS: The Jack Henry books are five books of short stories all organically written from the composted events of my youth, which I wrote down in journals as a child. The material is certainly autobiographical, but it is also partially fictional (in order to properly build out the stories), and though I may add fictional events, the heart of the character is true to me. When I look at other characters, such as Rotten Ralph or Joey Pigza, I certainly am aware that I am not them—but they have aspects of me that are exaggerated and out of proportion. Like Rotten Ralph, I can be a bit rotten, and like Joey Pigza, I can be a bit out of control. Their creation is but a slice of their creator.
BKL: In an era of Facebook and Instagram, where we can chronicle every mundane moment of our lives, is there still a place for journaling? Do you still write in a journal? Do you still have the journals you kept as a child?
GANTOS: I’ll answer you in reverse. Yes, I still have my childhood journals, and yes, I still keep a journal. There are plenty of mundane moments recorded in my journals. But I don’t share my journals or have any impulse to invite the world into my private life, except on my terms. People still keep journals. They write letters. They send thank-you notes. All is not lost. The digital age will change us, and those changes will be woven into future creations across the arts. It’s just engineering and human evolution at work, and that has been going on for centuries.
BKL: You write for a full range of readers, from cradle to grave, as they say. How does your approach to your work change when you are shifting from the Ralph books to a young adult novel?
GANTOS: The writing has to serve the reader in certain practical ways, so when writing a picture book, I measure the audience just as I measure the sentences. Rotten Ralph is heavy on humor and gags, and he has a one-beat note of contrite introspection. So the story, as a whole, is very external: a lot of action—and very little introspection. When I move into a Joey Pigza book, then the dimension of the external story is equaled by the dimension of the interior world of the characters—so there is a lot of action and an equal amount of emotion. The audience for the Joey Pigza books demands more depth. They are older readers and have greater understanding of their own emotional depth, and so they expect to find that articulate emotional depth in the books they read. When I wrote Dead End in Norvelt, I gave the audience everything I could: large characters, lots of action, lots of interior emotions, family drama, international and local history, morals, values and ethics, friendship and fear, and life and death. In short, I gave them the full range of “Jack Gantos,” and the results were very satisfying for both the reader and the writer.
BKL: You have described your family life growing up as “a fairly typical arrangement on the surface,” but many of your experiences sound like they were far from typical. Could you write the stories you do if you had experienced a more traditional childhood?
GANTOS: The stories I write are specific to my experiences. I don’t think those experiences made me a writer, but they did offer me material. If I had had a more stable life, I would have found a way to inject interest into stability. Young writers all have differences while having common experiences. My writing may reveal stories that are different from the reader’s life, but part of the dramatic goal in writing is to capture the reader with what we have in common.
BKL: You’ve written quite a few Ralph books. Are those your only picture books? Do you want to write other stories for very young children?
GANTOS: Yes, there are about 20 Rotten Ralph picture books, and all of them are wonderfully illustrated by Nicole Rubel. We work together as cocreators of Ralph—but we also did a lot of other books together that, sadly, are out of print: Sleepy Ronald, Fair-Weather Friends, The Werewolf Family, Aunt Bernice, Greedy Greeny, and Swampy Alligator, just to name a few.
BKL: With four Joey books, five Jack books,
and more Ralph books than cats have lives, how do you keep these characters not only separate and distinct but also fresh over the years?
GANTOS: Keeping them distinct from each other is pretty straightforward, as they all live on different shelves within my mind. Keeping them fresh requires real effort. I think Rotten Ralph may have run its course. Most of the books will stay in print, but I think I have had enough fun with Ralph, and it is time to move on. Joey Pigza has one more volume, and then I’ll move on or else I could be in danger of repeating my themes, and thus the books might become stale, and that would haunt me. With the Jack Henry books, five volumes captured about all I had to say. I may write a “Best of Jack Henry” volume with some additional new material, but I’ll be quite satisfied to top off Ralph and Jack Henry and Joey Pigza and Norvelt and move on to journals full of other ideas that have not been fully fleshed out.
BKL: Hole in My Life, the memoir of your, thankfully, short career as a criminal and the events that led to your incarceration, has been optioned for film. Who do you think should be cast as Jack Gantos?
GANTOS: I think Daniel Radcliff should play Jack Gantos. I think Steve Buscemi should play Hamilton—and Gary Oldman should have a say in it, as well as Johnny Depp.
BKL: You say you were a Bluebird, or slow reader, when you were in school. Are you still a Bluebird? And how does a Bluebird become a proficient reader and creative writer?
GANTOS: I’m still a Bluebird. But I’m a thorough reader, and I choose my books carefully. I would much rather be thorough and allow a book to tunnel into me as I read it. I read for pleasure, and I certainly read books with the expectation that they will transform me in some way, small or large. I see no benefit to being a fast reader if the book does not transform the reader, as self-transformation is the growth engine of creativity.
BKL: What’s next for you?
GANTOS: I’m working on From Norvelt to Nowhere and will finish that two-book Norvelt set. After that, I’ll finish The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza, and then . . . ?
Best in Show for Rotten Ralph. Illus. by Nicole Rubel. 2005. 48p. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374363581). Gr. 1–3.
Dead End in Norvelt. 2011. 352p. Farrar, $15.99 (9780374379933); paper, $7.99 (9781250010230); e-book, $9.99 (9781429962506). Gr. 5–8.
Hole in My Life. 2002. 208p. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374399887); paper, $8.99 (9780374430894); e-book, $9.99 (9780374706104). 813.54. Gr. 8–12.
I Am Not Joey Pigza. 2007. 224p. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374399412); paper, $6.99 (9780312661007); e-book, $9.99 (9781429935784). Gr. 5–8.
Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue. 2003. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374399870); paper, $7.99 (9780374437183). e-book $8.99(9780374706135). Gr. 4–7.
Jack’s Black Book. 1997. 176p. Square Fish, paper, $7.99 (9780374437169); e-book, $7.99 (9781429978118). Gr. 6–8.
Jack’s New Power:Stories from a Caribbean Year
. 1995. 224p. Farrar, $16 (9780374336578); paper, $8.99 (9780374437152); e-book, $8.99 (9781429936323). Gr. 5–8.
Joey Pigza Loses Control. 2000. 208p. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374399894); paper, $6.99 (9780312661014); e-book, $6.99 (9780374706159). Gr. 4–7.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. 1998. 160p. Farrar, $16.99 (9780374336646); paper, $6.99 (9780312623555); e-book, $6.99 (9781429936262). Gr. 4–7.
The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. 2006. 192p. Farrar, $17 (9780374336905); paper, $9.99 (9780312380526); e-book, $9.99 (9781466824751). Gr. 10–12.
The Nine Lives of Rotten Ralph. Illus. by Nicole Rubel. 2009. 32p. Houghton, $16 (9780618800469). K–Gr. 3.
Rotten Ralph’s Rotten Romance. Illus. by Nicole Rubel. 1997. Houghton, $17 (9780395739785); paper, $7.99 (9780618494866); e-book, $7.99 (9780547771694). PreS–Gr. 1.
Sidebar: Common Core Connections: The following are suggestions for implementing the Common Core State Standards with books by Jack Gantos. You can find more information about the standards at www.corestandards.org.
In the Classroom: Jack Gantos still keeps a journal, and he uses his journal to recall incidents and moments in his life that help him tell a story. Have students start their own journals. Set aside class time for students to write in their journals at least three times a week. Have them focus on interactions with friends, family, and pets. Journals may be kept private.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
In the Classroom: In Jack Adrift, Jack’s teacher asks her students to write about their lives. Heart mapping is one way to help students generate ideas for writing exercises. Have each student draw a heart shape on a piece of paper. Instruct them to use the heart to map out sections for people, places, things, and events that are important to them. Once these ideas are mapped, they can serve as inspiration for an autobiographical writing assignment or for a class presentation, in which students present the meaning behind some of the images in their hearts. Younger readers can create a heart map after reading or listening to Rotten Ralph’s Rotten Romance.
Common Core ConnectionsCCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.3.4. Report on a topic or text, tell a story, or recount an experience with appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details, speaking clearly at an understandable pace.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.4.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.In the Classroom: Although most of his books are fictional, Gantos’ material is often drawn from events in his life. After students have read one of Gantos’ novels, have them choose an autobiography that can serve as a mentor text as they write their own life stories. Bill Peet: An Autobiography, by Bill Peet, is an excellent mentor text to demonstrate how personal illustrations can help illuminate life events. Students could either draw their recollections of important or influential events or cut out pictures from magazines. Chuck Close: Face Book, by Chuck Close, includes an excellent time line that can serve as a model for students outlining their own lives. Students can use family photos to highlight the people who have been important in their lives. In Animals Welcome: A Life of Reading, Writing, and Rescue, author Peg Kehret uses an important life interest, animals, as the focal point for her memoir, while Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio, by Peg Kehret, can show how to tell the story of a single, important year in a life. In discussion or writing, students can summarize their chosen autobiography before beginning their own life-story writing exercise.
Common Core ConnectionsCCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.8. Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences.
In the Classroom: In Jack’s Black Book, Jack says that a writer turns his worst experiences into money. Ask students to think of the worst experience in their lives and write a short story about it. Common Core ConnectionsCCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.3b. Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, and pacing, to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.3.4. With guidance and support from adults, produce writing in which the development and organization are appropriate to task and purpose.
In the Classroom: In Hole in My Life, Gantos talks about the books that were important and inspiring to him. He often refers to books that he was reading when certain things happened in his life. Ask students to think about their own lives and memorable events and to make a list of the books that have been important to them. Divide students into groups and have them present their lists and discuss similarities among their experiences and whether or not those experiences share themes with Gantos’.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1c. Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.
In the Classroom: In Dead End in Norvelt, Miss Volker writes the “This Day in History” column for the newspaper. After students have read the book, assign each person a year and have the student research a shared, predetermined date to find out what has happened on that day in history. Each student will be looking for information on the same date but in different years. Have students write a short piece (150 words) about the researched events as if writing for a newspaper column.
Common Core Connections
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.CCSS.ELA-Literacy.WHST.6–8.2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/experiments, or technical processes.
Sidebar: Web Connections: For interactive links that offer students additional opportunities to learn more about Gantos’ books, visit www.booklistonline.com and select “Web Connections” under “Book Links” on the left-hand navigation bar.
Jeanette Larson is a library and literature consultant and an author. Her latest title is Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas (2011).
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