The creator of such beloved characters as Rotten Ralph and Joey Pigza, Jack Gantos received the Newbery Medal in 2012 for “Dead End in Norvelt,” which features a 12-year-old boy named Jack Gantos. Several of Gantos’ other works and characters are also based on his life, such as Rotten Ralph, an aggressive cat he had as a pet. “A Hole in My Life” is an inspirational book that has helped many teenage boys in trouble. Gantos’ new book is “The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Macmillan). Joey is a boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
What sparked your imagination for your book – Dead End in Norvelt?
I was born in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, which is a 1934 Homestead town founded by the great Eleanor Roosevelt to help the many coal miners and farmers and out-of-work folks in Western Pennsylvania during the Great Depression. It was a town built on community values, and of people helping people, and collective farms, and an attitude that everyone had to pull together for the good of the entire community. But after World War Two the town changed. Everyone wanted their slice of the American Pie and the community-based work gave way to individual ambitions. So I’m writing about the end of an era, but with a lot of humor and mystery.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
The challenges generally remain the same from book to book—that is, the habit and discipline of writing. And so I set up goals for myself, and make sure I get a certain number of pages written each day, and do my rewriting, and my supportive reading (because you always have to match up your reading to your writing). In the beginning a new book is often slow to get going as I’m trying to figure out what I’m creating, and how to steer the novel, but after a while I find my way and establish good discipline and stick with the book. You can never give up on it, as you would just be giving up on yourself, which is about the worst thing you can ever do to harm yourself.
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
The first tip is to get a good journal or small notebook—not too big as you want to be able to slip it into your back pocket. Then get a decent pen. Then I want you to draw a map of your house, or a map of your neighborhood, or map of your school and I want you to draw where everything funny, serious, insane, unexpected, heroic, lousy, triumphant and tragic took place. And then I want you to think about your life as the best material in the world, and each one of your small drawings where something interesting happened will be the opening material for your story. Your discipline should start with ten minutes per day—start small and meet your goal. Then extend your goal as you wish.
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
My suggestion is for them to remember the last ten times they had a really good laugh—and then write about why they laughed. I want each young writer to be at the ‘center’ of his/her writing life.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I could go on forever with this question as there are many fine books published. I would say this to the young writers about their reading: Any book you begin to read that gets your imagination to swell, or opens a door to an important insight into your heart and behavior or the hearts and behavior of others, or sparks within you the memory of something great that happened to you—any book you read that makes you want to pick up your journal and write is a great book and a true friend to you. Some books are important because of their information and I like those books. Some books are great because they provide the writer with inspiration—and those books are essential.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
Generally I have a flexible idea about what I want a book to be about—but the theme does not form up until I have the voice and motivations of the character. I’m always aware that the theme should radiate from the character and events—and not the other way around. With Dead End in Norvelt I wanted the book to express the decline of small town values, which is a very general notion. Not until I had the characters and action did the theme expand to fit the profile of the town and people.
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
Research is important. For instance, when I wrote the Joey Pigza series of books I had to research ADHD in children as Joey is a boy who has the disorder. It is important to be accurate in this instance because I want the character to be realistic, plus I know that there are real kids who have ADHD and I don’t want to offend them with inaccurate facts. When I wrote The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs I made sure to do a lot of research on taxidermy as well as the American Eugenics movement in the early twentieth century. And when I wrote Dead End in Norvelt, even though I know the town, I had to do the background research on the town in order to feel confident that I had my facts straight (even though I added fictional elements).
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
All parents know they should read to their children so they should go to their public library, or school library, or bookstore and get books and read them together. As a child, when I watched my parents read and they would laugh, or groan, or cry or shift in their seat I knew that was a book I wanted to share.
Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?
Generally speaking, I’m always working on a new novel and a picture book and a few short stories—not at once, but over the course of a year. I have a few Rotten Ralph picture book ideas to flesh out, and my novel is still a secret, but its good.
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
I was a Professor of Creative Writing and Literature for many years and always enjoyed my work with students. I would most likely return to teaching.
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
Thank you for asking: www.jackgantos.com It lists my short bio and books and offers Reader Guides to many of my books, and a few articles on writing. Good luck with your reading and writing.