All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Jack Gantos

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Jack Gantos. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

Lifelong Renters

I went to ten schools in twelve grades, which is a lot of schools. And we moved around a lot in different houses. We were lifelong renters. So, lifelong renters, come with their own sort of obsessive moves. So, my dad thought: the grass was always greener on the other side. So, we're moving from place to place to place. And then my mom thought: the rental house is greener on the other side. So, even within the same neighborhood, we could possibly shift homes.

What comes with it are good things and not-so-good things. But one of the good things that comes from it is that you meet a lot of people. You're coming and going all of the time, and you have to find out how to be with people. If you're going to make friends quickly, you have to have some skills for doing this. You have to face up to people. You you have to be able to tell stories or talk — you know, you can't just be like the new kid who walks silently to a person's door and knocks and doesn't say anything. You've got to have a shtick, so that really helped, you know, to get some personality going.

Dear Diary

My sister had a journal, a little diary, and she would write in it. I was kind of a copycat — like a younger brother type and so I would watch her. And I thought, "Dang, she's so good at that." And then I thought, "Well, if I read it, I'll probably be as smart as she is," because she was always smarter than me.

And so then I did read it. I read her diary. It was a terrible, unethical thing to do, but I was compelled. And I read it, and it wasn't terribly interesting to me. I'm not trying to run my sister down, but it seemed to me that she was missing all the richness of life. Here we were moving from western Pennsylvania to Cape Hatteras to Barbados to St. Lucia to Miami. You know, lots going on! All these neighborhoods we would live in, all these crazy characters, and none of that made the diary.

And I thought, "That's really peculiar, because the world I'm living with and in is really interesting."

So, I got a diary, and then I started keeping notes. I started trying to set the diaries up in such a way that they would help me get started. Because when you look at that blank page and you put that on the desk, or open a diary, it's really hard. It's intimidating. It's begging you to improve upon it. And its hard, every time you put that pencil down, you've sort of sullied the page.

So, then I did this thing. First, I'm a reader. You know, I was a good reader. So, I'd read Harriet the Spy, and Harriet the spy had a diary, and she walked around the neighborhood spying on everyone. And I thought, "That is the greatest job in the world. I want that job: spy." Because I was good at looking in windows.

And so I went out and I got a big sheet of paper, and I drew a spy map of my neighborhood and then I started drawing where everything interesting happened. You know, the low-supervision family over here; my family; where my dog was eaten by an alligator in Florida, and where the other one was hit by a car; where the third one dug a hole, ran around the house, fell in, and broke his neck. We buried him in the hole he dug — little things like that, and all that kind of stuff.

And then I would write. I would open it up, see that map and knew right away that I could focus on those stories and write those stories.

Twelfth-grade Freedom

There came a time in my life — and we talked about it a little bit with moving — it was eleventh grade. I was going to school in Plantation, Florida. It was pretty much a large football program with a small academic institution attached to the side like a tick. And so, you know, it wasn't going very well for me, I didn't think.

Then my parents moved — again. One more time. And they moved to Puerto Rico. So, we all moved to Puerto Rico. So, halfway through eleventh grade, I move to Puerto Rico, and I go to work for my dad — construction work. And he has me become an apprentice to an electrician.

Somehow, the mechanics of electricity never really fully seated themselves in my mind, so I was burning the head off of a pair of Klein side cutters about every day, you know, and electrocuting myself — nearly — all the time. And I thought, "You know what? I'm not really good at this." Not only that; it was hard work.

And so right around the time that twelfth grade was about to start, I thought, "You know what? I ought to go to the twelfth grade and graduate like a normal kid."

But we didn't have money for private school in Puerto Rico, and I don't speak Spanish enough to really go to a regular school. So, then, we decided I should just go back up to Florida. My dad had arranged it with some people he knew for me to live with them, so I went up there.

And I had a car. I bought a car, but then I had a lot of freedom, too. And then I discovered beer, and it just seemed like, "Oh, my God." You know, "I can drink a lot of this," and then it was like, "Oh, my God." It would all come back, you know.

And so I think I kind of fell into a depression at that point, when I look back on it, and — and I was just churning. I was just churning. I wasn't going forward, wasn't going backward. I was just sort of drinking myself into this kind of inchoate state, you know. Finally, the people kicked me out, because I was just a wreck.

But it wasn't bad, because then I moved into this little rooming house. And you know how in all tourist motels these little U-shaped motels — you drive up to the door right in front of your room? It was one of those, called The King's Court. Davy Crockett's great-great-granddaughter ran it, and she showed me his wallet. And she was just great. She was a lovely, tough, old lady and she was just very sweet to me.

And then it was like a welfare situation. It was me and a lot of other people that I'd never met. And it was wonderful. They had kids, and I worked at a grocery store, and I'd bring home lots of dented cans and candy and stuff like that. So, there was a culture going on there, and I really liked it.

And then I realized, "Look at me. I'm in twelfth grade. I own my own car. I pay my own rent. I buy my own clothes. I'm running my own life. I'm making passing grades. I'm, like, an adult. This is good! I'm an adult!" you know. And I had that great sense of accomplishment.

My writing was, well, not very good, and it was erratic. You know how you get about three paragraphs into every idea, and then you go, "No. That's not good." The next day, you get about three paragraphs into something and say, "No, that's not good." You wake up in the middle of the night, and you write something down — scribbly, and it looks like seismic contortions on the paper. You drive down the street, and you're writing on the seat , on the seat of the car itself, because you were just seized by an idea — that sort of thing.

And that's what I was sort of pecked to death with. You know, like a flock of birds from Hitchcock had come over and were just pecking on me with creative ideas that I was never able to finish.

Later Gator

I was supposed to go to University of Florida, OK. So, I drove up to University of Florida, because we had no money. It was $300 a semester, I think, at that time — it was nothing. So, I drive up to University of Florida, and right away it looks vaguely like my high school — a large sports facility with an academic institution hanging off the side. And then I go for my interview and they give me a Gator football. They give me a Gator t-shirt. They give me a rubber gator to put on the antenna on my car, Gator decal, a Gator towel to swing around. And I realized: I'm just being recruited to sit in the stands every Sunday and scream my lungs out for the Florida Gators.

No pen. No little pad. No nothing. Plus, you couldn't take a creative writing course until your junior year, and then they said this and this is so silly, they said to me, "And you can't have your car."

And I was like, "I love my car. I bought that car. I worked at a grocery store to buy this car." And it had a big engine in it. It was an Oldsmobile F-85, and this thing could fly. I mean, I loved my car.

And I walked out of there, and I said, "I'm not coming here." You know? And as backward as maybe the decision making was, I think emotionally it was spot-on, because I would've just dried up like a raisin up there.

So, I thought, "I'll move to St. Croix." By then, my parents had moved from Puerto Rico to St. Croix. My dad had his own construction company, and I thought, "I'll move to St. Croix. I'll work for my dad. I'll write novels at night. I read books. I can write books."

So, I go down there. I'm working for my dad, in the sun every day. When you finish a day in the sun in the Caribbean, you aren't writing books at night. You know, you are horizontal, or you're sitting somewhere drinking more beer.

And then I had this little revelation where I looked ahead just like two, three, four years ahead of me. Everybody that was 22, 23, 24, they're cooked. They're burned out. They've had it. They're shot. And I thought, "Oh, that's the path I'm taking."

And, you know, you just have these little moments. You see them for a moment, and if you don't seize on them, you'll lose it. You'll lose the path of the goal that you want. So, I thought, "I've got to get out of here."

And then that's when the trouble began.

Trouble

When I was down there, just to be honest about it, there was some drug use. You know, minor drug use — marijuana and hashish — that sort of thing. Not very pervasive in my life, but it was there. And then I was just right at that point where I knew I had to get off the island. I was broke. I was totally broke. I lived with my parents. I had no money to get off. I had no reason to think I could even work my way out of the hole I was in.

And then suddenly, you know, this opportunity occurred. And I won't be naïve about this at all. I mean everything was straight up front. I met this guy, I think, in a bar downtown. And, you know, we were talking. And he said, "Well, you seem like kind of a hip guy."

I said, "Well," you know, it's a nice compliment. "Yeah, I'm hip."

And so he said, "Well, you know, I'm sort of looking for a guy that's open-minded like you"

I said, "Well, I'm very open-minded."

And so he said, "Well if you see a boat sail into a harbor with red sails, let me know."

We lived up on a hill overlooking the harbor, and one day I looked out the window. There's a boat with red sails. I'm like, "Hmm. I have to look that guy up."

So, I went back to the bar. There he is, you know?

So, I said, "Hey, that boat's here."

He said, "Great."

One thing leads to another, and so eventually he takes me out to the boat, and they offer me this deal. They say, "Look. We've got 2,000 pounds of hashish — not on the boat, but buried on a desert island. We have a little bit on the boat."

They'd been selling it a little bit, trying to make some money, because they're broke.

And he said, "I'm gonna go to New York to sort of arrange some deals." He said, "But we need somebody to help sail that boat. That's where you come in. So, you'll stay on with the owner, and you'll help sail the boat, and then we'll give you $10,000 in cash."

Now, given the contrast of my life at that point, I thought of $10,000. I knew it was wrong. I mean you know it's wrong, but you're ready to take the risk.

$10,000, in 1970, was four years of private school. That's like real money in those days. And I thought, "Great. I'll take one month. I'll sail the boat up. I'll get the ten grand in cash and then," you know, "victory is mine. I'll be able to do everything I want."

So, we got on the boat, and it was a very wonky ride. The guy, was sort of naked most of the time — and that was kind of weird. And he had a gun, and that was sort of weird. I was like, "God, if he shot me out here in the middle of the Atlantic, nobody would know."

And then on top of it, we didn't know where we were going. I said to him one day, "Do you know where we're going?"

And he said, "The United States is very large, and it's way over here somewhere. And if you just kind of travel in that general direction, you'll hit it."

And we did. We hit New Jersey. We ran aground in a Coast Guard base in New Jersey, in Cape May. And I remember the Coast Guard came out. A little boat came out, a guy with a megaphone. "Everybody okay?"

I'm like, "Oh, everything's fine. You don't need to board the boat."

Because we had hashish just stacked everywhere, in all the staterooms.

And then finally we got to New York, and I started selling it. And he met up with that other guy from St. Croix. They started selling the hashish.

Eventually, I did get my money, and then everything went south from there.

Prison

And then finally, the FBI and the Customs people got involved. They'd been watching this boat. They'd been tracking the boat. The military had been tracking it with military surveillance planes. They knew everything about this deal — coming, going, selling — every step of the way.

So suddenly — swoop — they came down. I'd gotten away with my money, but I found out about it when I called home. I called my dad, and my dad just said, "Where the heck are you?"

I said, "Someplace."

He said, "I've got the FBI parked in the driveway. They're reading our mail. They've tapped our phone. What have you done?"

And I was like, "Oh. This did not work." He said, "So, I've got you an attorney. Go to New York." So, I was in New York, got the attorney, went to court, you know. I pled out. I thought, "Okay. I'm a kid. They'll just give me probation. They'll say, 'This is just a really boneheaded thing you did. Please don't do it again,' and I'll say 'Oh, most certainly, I won't.'" But they didn't. They gave me six years in prison.

I did not do all six years. I did about a year and-a-half, but nonetheless, it was really quite an eye-popping experience for me to be sort of led off in handcuffs and then instantly sent into a prison.

From that moment forward, then you really have to think. "What are you doing with your life?" That little bit of a goal that you had a glimmer of as a kid, and then you wanted to seize on as a teenager, and then you kind of lose your way a little bit as a young adult, and then you find yourself in prison — it's really hard to find any kind of glimmer of that goal again.

So, it was the reading in prison. It was the reading. Thank God they had a little library, and so I started to read — read my way through the library. I started to keep journals, and I started to just kind of practice, you know, what I was doing. And, of course, prison's great in one sense, because everybody's got a story. At least they've got one: how they got there.

And so I would write those things down, sort of in code, because you wouldn't want anyone to think that you were writing about them, because they would be suspicious that you were doing something — not writing literature, but turning them in, in some sort of way.

And so I did that, and that kind of sustained me.

And then I got out. As soon as I got out, then I went right to college and got involved with a creative writing program, and then literally published my first book two years after.

Hole in My Life

Finally, it kind of reached a point where, you know, I'd written all the Rotten Ralph books — a lot of them — and a lot of other picture books. I was writing the Jack Henry series of autobiographical short stories. And I'd written the first Joey Pigza book, because I wrote that in 1998, when I was living in Albuquerque. And then that was a National Book Award finalist, and then Joe Pigza Loses Control was a Newbery Honor book. And I began to feel a little bit like I'd armored up some — Like, okay, I've got a few bits of recognition. And you know it's a good story. You know the whole thing with the smuggling and the high school life, living by yourself and reading books. Every writer would know that that's a juicy story to tell.

And so I thought, "Well, it's time to tell it."

And also, there had been at that time several other sort of prison books that had come out that I'd read that, you know, kind of made me sniff them out and think, "That's just not" — "That's not quite as authentic as I think."

So, I thought, "Why let somebody else guess at it, when it's my story?"

So, then I wrote Hole In My Life, and I wrote it about as honestly as I possibly could, because being a fiction writer, even with your own life you feel like you could improve it in retelling it.

And so I was pretty spot-on with that. And then that book went out, and then that book really received its own really solid audience. You know, of teens, of adults. And, you know, the book has continued to stay alive and still gets out there.

And I do a lot of speaking in high schools. I go to prisons all the time and work with young men in prisons, because they have education programs and they have to read. So, they have to read that book, and that's a good, galvanizing book., you know? And then, to come in and say, "Well, I was in your shoes, and I was in this situation, and here's what I did."

They all have to read the book in order for me to come in. Then I go over it with them, and we have great discussions — incredible discussions. And you walk in, and you think, "Oh, my God. These are the guys you don't want to run into in a dark alley."

And, no. These are fairly scary-looking guys sometimes, not all of them, but some of them — and they'll look at you and go, "Well, how did your mom feel when you went to prison?"

And you're thinking, "That's not the question you thought that person was gonna ask you."

But we realize that, you know, we're all really deeply connected emotionally. We have so much more in common, regardless of our situations in prison, or out of prison, writing books, not writing books. We have that commonality. And so it's great to really tap that.

And those guys have stories. They have an entry into writing as well — and with reading. And, you know, to realize and witness that on the other side of the bars there's a life that they can go ahead and pursue. And you don't have to be defined in a small way by the mistakes that you've made, You can carry forth, and then expand the definition of who you are.

So, with me going to prison, that's a very small chapter in my entire life. It's a good chapter. I like it, and I'm glad I did the book, but it's not the full definition of who I am.

But for some of those guys, that is the definition, and now they've got to move on, too — and in a positive way, I hope.

So, I like being part of their world. And so talking about it is now just like oh, talking about your mom and dad and your brothers and sisters, or your dogs and cats. "And, by the way, I went to prison." It's a great line at a cocktail party.

A Book for Teens

I speak in prison, and I do a lot of public library speaking, and high school speaking as well. And a lot of times, I'm brought into areas where you might have kind of a low economic situation. You have places where books may not be the first choice of an activity. And the educational goals for the students maybe aren't necessarily as high as you would see elsewhere. So, because of that book, I end up getting into the nice, squeaky, difficult parts — you know? The dirty zones, maybe, sometimes. And I like it.

Because they're great. One of the things about these guys is they're really honest, and if they like the book, they'll come up to you and say so.

So, once I was in a nice town in New Jersey, and this is a fairly typical kind of story. I was speaking there, and I was speaking about this book among other books, and there was a tough-looking kid in the back. And he kind of had his head lowered down, looking up through his eyebrows the whole time. Then there was this young, sort of blond, really enthusiastic person sitting next to him, and then there was this, you know, sort of middle-aged woman.

And so, finally, I talked, and everybody left, and they didn't leave. So I kind of thought, you know, "This is a little odd."

So, I sort of walked down towards them, and I said, "Hello."

And then the mother was, like, "Stand up."

So, the guy gets up, and God, you know, he was a pretty strong kid. And so the mother says, "Tell him. Tell him!"

So, he finally looks at me, and then he goes, "This is the first book I ever finished."

And the young woman was his reading teacher from school, and the mother was just so proud that he had finished a book and brought him down there. And the reading teacher was young and enthusiastic. She hadn't been worn out. And then he said, "I would have given it to my friend to read, but he's in prison."

I said, "Well, you know, we could send him a copy. We'll take care of that" — which we did.

That kind of little story is just amazing to me: to see this kid come forward and to have a book and then, to walk away thinking, well, maybe that's the first of many books. That's really where we want to go.

So, I see a lot of that with this book. So, it's a teen boy book that really seems to want to be the first book through the door.

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