Jack Gantos knows exactly what he was doing when he found out that he had won the biggest prize an author of children’s books can win: the Newbery Medal.
“Literally, I was feeding the cat,” he recalls of the January morning when he got the call telling him that “Dead End in Norvelt” had been chosen as the best children’s book of 2011.
If that seems an unlikely thing to be doing while getting great news, just about everything involving Gantos and this book seems unlikely.
The novel is set in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, where a boy named Jack Gantos is growing up with his parents and where he has the unfortunate problem of having massive nosebleeds whenever he is shocked by something.
Time out: A few things to know here. The author did grow up in Norvelt, Pennsylvania; the character named Jack Gantos is based on himself and, yes, his nose did have a tendency to spew large amounts of blood when he was nervous. (To hear Gantos tell a very funny story about this, ask your parents if you can watch a video of him at the National Book Festival in September at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4KgieR0BJUg.)
But “Dead End in Norvelt” is a work of fiction. It’s just a little hard for the reader to know where the fact ends and the fiction begins. And that’s a good bit of the fun in reading the book. It was also part of Gantos’s point in writing it.
So, exactly what is the point in writing a book about a boy in a small town (named after former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt) who spends one summer typing up obituaries (newspaper stories about people who have died)?
“I wanted to make a statement in the book. . . . Every person on this planet is an important piece of tissue in the history of the world. . . . I wanted the reader to feel important. Jack feels very important even though he lives in a tiny speck of time. His mind is so alive and full of history of the past and speculation about the future. He’s not trapped in a small time; he has the entire universe.”
And the importance of kids understanding that they have a valuable place in the world is something that Gantos loves to write about. His popular Joey Pigza books helped make kids who don’t quite fit in feel less alone. (Joey has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.)
“I’ve always been very much a character-driven author. Joey Pigza is a wonderful example of a character who can pick up a story on his shoulders and take a running leap with it,” says Gantos with the pride of a father watching a son hit a game-winning home run.
Still, being a writer is hard work, said Gantos, who is 60. Every day he heads off to the library in Boston, Massachusetts, where he lives, to write and read and rewrite and read and rewrite some more.
“If a novel takes me a year and a half to write it, every day I read the entire manuscript. . . . I know where every word is. I know all the dialogue. I see all my landscapes. . . . By the time I finish, I will have read the first page of that book 500 times.”
That seems like a lot of work. Is it worth it?
“My name is on that book; I don’t want to pass a book of mine sitting on the shelf and think ‘I could have done that one better.’ ”
When he passes his latest book on the shelf, he can’t miss the big gold medal on its cover that seems to say he got this one just right.