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Jack Gantos at the Simmons Summer Institute

Photo by Jennifer Lu.

To conclude the 2013 Children’s Literature Institute at Simmons, local author and Newbery Award winner Jack Gantos spoke about the first and last love letters a person writes and receives.

According to Gantos, “the first love letters are the ones you write to yourself.” As a child, he was inspired by the ultimate journal keeper in children’s fiction, Harriet the Spy. (If Gantos were to have a tattoo, it would be of her.) In addition to perfecting the art of spying on others, the young Gantos liked to draw meticulous maps of his neighborhoods, since “drawing [was] a way of affixing a thought on the page.” But most of all, he described journaling as a means of finding himself; it was the place where both “the good Jack and the bad Jack [could] exist without self censorship.”

Through journaling, Gantos was keenly aware of exterior and interior action. (He joked that the placid photographs of his childhood self belied the amount of internal dialogue going on underneath.) He also started listing in his journal “common story subjects” — such as siblings, chores, disasters, and haircuts — and diagrammed a seven-point list of “elements of writing” (see slide, below). This taught him to see structural elements not as the “evil bludgeon, but the hero” that would bail him out of any story set-up. (Later, Center for the Study of Children’s Literature director Cathie Mercier remarked that everyone in the audience took a photo of that particular slide for their records.)

Photo by Jennifer Lu.

If journals are the first love letters, then obituaries are the last. He tied this idea into his 2012 Newbery Award winner, Dead End in Norvelt, which recounts young Jack’s experience in a small town in Pennsylvania on the verge of losing its history and identity. To Gantos, knowing where you came from is just as important to one’s internal dialogue as having a place for it. It was fascinating to learn which moments in Gantos’s book were pulled straight from his childhood and which were spun from his imagination. (Opening scene with the shotgun? Check. Getting grounded when “[it] actually used to mean something!” Check. Building igloos out of Landmark series books? Check. Being loaned out to Mrs. Volker for the summer and having it open up his understanding of the world? Check!)

To this day, Gantos keeps handwritten journals, dialoguing with himself between past and present. He even hides extra pots of ink behind the library shelves at the Athenæum Library, where he does his writing. When Gantos receives letters from adoring readers asking him to write about certain topics, he gives this response: “Write the book you want to read, and I will do the same.” Not surprisingly, he considers each book a love letter in itself. And more introspectively: “I love writing them because every time I do, I change.”

About Jennifer Lu

Jennifer Lu is an editorial intern at The Horn Book.

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