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1. (Very Eventually) The Zena Sutherland Lecture


Dear Readers,

This particular version of my Zena Sutherland Lecture is a fabrication or, at best, a fabulation. Either way it is entirely false. Yes, I did give the Zena Sutherland Lecture at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago on May 1, 2015, but it was not as properly cured and marbled as this updated edition. So, for the sake of the great Zena Sutherland, let’s pretend that every word you are reading is exactly every word I spoke on that lovely occasion. Thank you in advance for indulging me in this artifice.

But why this gussied-up version? Well, I am notorious for writing an entire speech on a Post-it note and then never even using that sticky scrap of paper as a guide while I extemporaneously rattle on, believing in some egomaniacal way that I’ll manage to connect the dots-of-thoughts and say something significant on the subject of children’s literature. One final statement: I have great respect for Zena Sutherland and her immense work (for years I taught my graduate students out of her Children and Books), and I do apologize if this effort has failed to properly honor her legacy.

(As you enter this portion of the speech you should brace yourself for some old-fashioned cursing. Very un-Piglet of me. Do forgive.)

Please engage your imagination to begin here, onstage with me in Chicago, where after a charming and generous introduction by Linda Ward-Callaghan, I took to the podium and thanked one and all. I had every intention of standing before the audience and delivering, in a proper professorial tenor, my thousand prepared words, but I got off on the wrong foot. To set the scene from my point of view, the podium surface before me was cluttered with an assortment of extraneous stuff: there was a backup hand-held mic, the jagged metal mount for an outdated stationary mic that had violently been kinked over to one side, a thumbnail volume of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a previous speech on the harmonics of the zither (which I declined to deliver), and a crushed paper cup, along with a tube of lipstick and a tissue with a lip print pressed on it that resembled the animated hand of Señor Wences. I held my mic in my left hand, and as soon as I placed my speech down on that uneven landscape of podium compost my few typed pages began to slide this way and that on the irregular surface. Right away I began fussing with the pages in an effort to stabilize them. From prior talks I knew this sliding speech would cause me to lose my place each time I lifted my eyes to address the audience and then I would look like a dunce as I constantly paused, standing like a bent-over question mark, to track down the next sentence as if I were sorting through a box of mismatched buttons. (I’m one of those who cringe while watching other people mime such an awkward, painfully self-conscious search for their next line — so there was no reason the audience should show me their mercy.) But worse, deep inside I honestly dislike giving a prepared speech because I prefer to look the audience in the eye and feel the crowd and surf their level of interest and their mood and then, like a drum major, I march around the stage while speaking off-the-cuff and riff on my PowerPoint images while trying to remain ever mindful of my theme and do my best to corral my thoughts and tie them all up neatly in the end. In this case my theme was based on “the self as double,” or how I take personal stories and facts and transform them into fictions so that I am both “Jack” the writer and “Jack” the character — the sort of chameleonic duality you might find in the art of Cindy Sherman/Frida Kahlo/Rembrandt van Rijn/Andy Warhol, which is intentionally self-absorbed for very resonant reasons.


Both “Jack” the writer and “Jack” the character.

Anyway, The Horn Book was going to publish my speech so I had dutifully written a short one (to spare them), but the moment I set my speech on the podium it slid off to one side and sailed across the stage floor. Right then I was struck with the gut feeling that I despised my speech. I didn’t trust it one bit—it was neither smart enough nor clever enough, and it represented me poorly. It was an insult to Zena Sutherland. So I stepped on a page of it and said to the audience, “I don’t care to deliver this speech, but I do like speaking to audiences.” Now, having been in the audience plenty of times, I have seen dozens of people who should not venture off of their prepared speeches and go rogue but should just keep their heads down, read at a reasonable rate of speed, take a few questions at the end, and leave the stage with their dignity intact.

But not me. Right away, and without a moment of pre-thought, I launched into a story about Jerry Lewis — so here it is.

* * *

Mr. Lewis was receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Emerson College, and I was a professor at Emerson and chosen by the administration to be his handler for the occasion. I knew he wasn’t going to be easy because he showed evidence that he still had something of the Rat Pack in him: even though he was flying in from Los Angeles at around three in the morning, he had demanded that his hotel room at the Copley Plaza be supplied with eight cases of Heineken — just in case a wild party broke out. So the morning after he flew in I was in the back seat of a white limousine when we picked him up at the hotel. I hopped out and held the limousine door. He emerged from the hotel lobby, and the first thing I noticed was the color of his face — it was the earthy red color of a boiled beat. He looked as if he were going to have a stroke — an angry stroke. A tall man in casual dress got in the limousine as well. I noticed that the man was holding something in his hands that looked like a polished wooden shoebox.

“This is my man,” Jerry said loudly, and pointed toward him. The man nodded at me. I nodded back. I had not been told that Jerry would have a companion.

“See that box?” Jerry shouted. He pointed at it as if his finger were a dueling pistol.

“Yes,” I swiftly replied.

“Open the box!” Jerry snapped at the man. He was loud and impatient, and when his man didn’t move quickly enough, he snapped a second time, “Jerry said open the goddamned box!”

The man coolly removed the top and tilted the box toward me so I could see into it. A portable telephone, the size and heft of a brick, was held in place by a cushion of foam rubber.

“That’s my goddamned phone!” Jerry yelled in my ear. “And that’s my man whose only job is to carry my phone!”

I nodded. The man nodded. “Great,” I remarked in a small voice that I hoped would send Jerry a conversational volume clue.

I must have turned him down too low because he went mute and seemed to doze off for the short drive to the open stage door in the rear of the Wang Theater, where we exited the limousine and entered the green room.

I wasn’t sure how to start up a conversation with Jerry, but thought it was my job to do so. “The French think you are a genius” is all I could think to say, and knew I shouldn’t say. Just then Jerry bailed me out by hollering, “Would you like to see my heart-bypass scars?”

Before I could respond, he ripped his white shirt open like a superhero about to take flight. “Look!” he ordered. “Like fucking train tracks! Right?”

His chest looked as if it had been crudely sewn up after an autopsy.

“Right,” I confirmed in a whisper, then glanced over at Jerry’s man. Maybe he could give me some advice on managing Jerry because I sensed that Jerry was going to spin out and go to a bad place, and if he went bad then I’d be the target. But Jerry’s man showed no expression. He stood there as unmoving and quiet as one of those Easter Island statues — with the box, just in case Jerry got a call from some Rat-Packing party buddy.

Suddenly he shouted directly into my face, “I’m thirsty. Really fucking thirsty!”

“We have water,” I said delicately as I raised my arm like Vanna White and gestured toward the bottles of water on ice in a plastic punch bowl.

“That crap is only good for watering the lawn,” he replied loudly. “I want a beer! I have a fucking kink in my neck and I need a beer to unkink it.” He moved his neck around as if it were a universal joint between his head and his shoulders.

“It’s Sunday,” I meekly informed him. “Liquor stores are closed because of the blue laws.”

Blue balls!” he hollered back and tossed his head left and right while continuing to holler, “I said get Jerry a beer!”

I detected a little bit of the high-pitched, nasally voice from the Nutty Professor in his last demand. “Nothing is open,” I said calmly, wondering how he might respond.

Jerry swiveled to his right. “Man!” he cried out. “Open the door and kick this idiot professor out and only let him back in when he brings me a beer!”

His man opened the door and nodded toward the outside world.

I did as I was instructed and marched outside, where I found myself in a parking lot close to Kneeland Street, which borders Boston’s Chinatown. Right away I started running while putting together a crude plan. I was in a blue Armani suit, white shirt, and some kind of cat-scratch-looking Armani tie. In a moment my shirttail was flopping out and my tie was over my shoulder and my pant cuffs were catching on the toes of my wingtips and I could hear the seams ripping. I pulled my pants up and ran as if I were wading through a stream. I kept running. There was a cheap restaurant I ate at on Beach Street called The Golden Coin and a drunks’ bar across the street. The Golden Coin did not have a liquor license so I would stop at the drunks’ bar — buy a few beers and take them back with me.

But this was Sunday morning in Boston and the Puritan laws were still time-honored: no liquor sales on Sunday. I was panting when I arrived at the drunks’ bar door. It was propped open with a fetid mop head, and by the time I walked into the rank, yeasty darkness of that puke-palace I had my wallet out and cash in hand. The bartender was washing glasses and I yelled out, “I need a six-pack of beer for Mister Jerry Lewis.” I put forty dollars on the bar.

I left with the beer in one hand and reversed course and breezed like animated blue and white laundry across the road and parking lot. I know I was cursing worse than Jerry between gasping breaths. I was not a runner. I was rumpled. When I reached the back of the theater, to my surprise, there were three closed doors. I kicked them all. “Open up!” I shouted. “I’ve got the goods.”

Jerry’s man opened door number one, and looked me up and down as if I were a morals agent. Jerry stood in the back. His shirt was buttoned. His face was still boiled looking.

“I got it,” I said, still panting, and proudly held up the six-pack.

“Give my man a beer,” he ordered.

I did. The man twisted the cap, and the beer gave out its hissing death gasp. He handed it to Jerry. “I hate to drink alone,” Jerry announced. “Man, give him one too.”

“I can’t go onstage with beer on my breath,” I said. I was going up for tenure, and beer-breath was not a quality the tenure committee was searching for.

“Screw them!” he growled back. “I’m your boss now. So drink!” He nodded to his man and the man twisted a beer cap off.

“Cheers,” Jerry said. “To never drinking alone.”

I agreed with that and drank the beer straight down from being so thirsty and nervous. Jerry drank his back too.

“Tell me about yourself,” he asked in a voice that really was an order. “Go on. What do you do in this shit-hole school besides chase coeds?”

“I write books,” I replied. “Picture books.”

“Name one!” he shot back, as if I had been lying. His man handed us two more beers.

Rotten Ralph,” I replied, and before I could say another word, Jerry’s face went demonic, as if he was going to do a Linda Blair three-sixty.

“What kind of fucking shit is that!” he hollered. “Are you shitting me?”

“No,” I said, totally confused by his response. I looked at his man. He was back to his Easter Island pose. I was backed into a corner.

“Don’t you know I’m Ralph Rotten?” he shouted with beer spitting out of his mouth and sprinkling my glasses. “Did you steal my character? I swear if you did…” He swiveled his head as sharply as a hawk and hollered at his man. “Call my lawyer. I’m going to sue this bastard.”

The man opened the box and held the brick-sized phone to his ear.

I honestly didn’t know anything about his Ralph Rotten character. I’d never heard of it. I thought he was just pulling my leg in order to entertain himself and his man. But it was soon evident he was not faking it.

“Excuse me, Mr. Lewis,” his man said. “There is no signal.”

Jerry frowned. Then he stepped forward and poked me hard in the chest. He was like my angry doppelgänger come to life. “I’m Ralph Rotten! You got that?”

“Yeah,” I said, shaken, and stepped back.

“Did you make any money off your phony stolen book?” he questioned.

“No,” I replied. “Not really.” I had made seven hundred and fifty dollars from the advance and spent it all on rooming-house rent and pencils.

“Well, I’m going to crush you!” he said vengefully. He turned toward his man. “Two more beers,” he ordered.

I quickly finished my second and took the third as Jerry glared at me. His eyes pulsed with every beat of his laboring heart. How could I not know that Rotten Ralph was the double of Ralph Rotten? How was it possible that I wrote a book that was the mirror opposite of his character? Was I the Pauper to his Prince? The Jekyll to his Hyde? The saccharine Norman Bates to his evil Norman Bates? This serendipitous doppelgänger bond was all I could think about while Jerry snorted around in anger and I stood before him trapped in the vacuum of my own thoughts.

Then there was a rescuing knock on the door. “It’s show time,” announced the stage manager.

Jerry and I marched up a set of stairs and onto the stage, where we took our assigned seats. He turned to me and with an unexpected wistfulness whispered, “Dean Martin and I did this place decades ago. People were lined up around the block to get in. Those days of barnstorming a theater town are all gone,” he added sadly.

Right then I realized I knew nothing about how hard he had worked, traveling from theater to theater on a circuit as he built his reputation and his career. Even his Ralph Rotten television character must have been hard work, and through my embarrassing ignorance and arrogance I knew nothing about how he had become the growling, hollering, swollen-faced, unhappy Jerry. Maybe it was the beer working on my sympathies, but I now wanted to know him better. I kind of wanted to be his pal, and I figured he’d see the soulmate humor in me being Rotten Ralph to his Ralph Rotten.

In the meantime, administrators gave glib speeches. When it was our turn, Jerry and I stood up and solemnly walked to the podium. I said my lines, “By the power vested in me, I bestow this honorary degree upon you…” and I put the cheesy purple and yellow ribbon with the brass foil-over-plastic medal around his neck. We shook hands, then I returned to my seat. His man walked out and handed Jerry’s speech to Jerry, who set it on the podium. All he had to do was read it. But he got about three lines in and paused. He looked up from the page, made a few cracks about being a comedian in the golden age of comedy, and then looked back down at the speech as if it were a box of mismatched buttons he was sorting. He hesitated, and I knew right away he had lost his place on the page, and suddenly the great Jerry Lewis — France’s golden boy, my new friend, and the Ralph Rotten doppelgänger of Rotten Ralph — was adrift without a directorial cue. So he did what he probably always did and used his get-out-of-jail-free card. He threw his head back and popped his arms up into the air and let out that joyful, crazy Nutty Professor laugh. The crowd roared in recognition and approval and they stood and cheered and whistled and clapped, and he laughed some more, and then amidst the applause he waved goodbye and walked across the stage with his new Nutty Professor PhD toward a curtain that his man was holding aside. Then, just before he disappeared, he turned and pointed at me. He smiled and mouthed something. I couldn’t make it out, but I think he said, “I’m going to kick your rotten ass!”

I smiled back and tipped my flat cap to him, and then his curtain dropped. He went with his man out the back door of the stage to the white limousine and was gone. I never again heard from him, his lawyer, or his man, and I’m sorry I have not. As nutty as it sounds, I think I was destined to be his rotten double.

A year later I had James Earl Jones onstage for his honorary degree. He had a speech as thick as a sandwich and he started to give it. Then he lifted his eyes from the page and took off his reading glasses and went rogue. “Oh, no,” I thought as he went way off-road and into the deep woods and told some Hallmark anecdote about life lessons and then he looked down at his speech and there was that box of mismatched buttons before him. But did he panic? Nope. He raised his arms high and wide and sucked in a tremendous bellows of breath and roared with great resonance, “May the Force be with you!”

Everyone stood and cheered and whistled and he waved, walked off stage, and vanished into a white limousine. After the graduation ceremony I went to the podium and got the speech. It was some script his agent had sent him. Clearly, the entire “May the Force be with you” act was preplanned. That was the speech. Very clever, I thought. The Master was teaching me a lesson.

So, dear reader, I stood at the Zena Sutherland lecture telling these twin stories, and because I didn’t have a get-out-of-jail-free phrase I could holler to the rooftops (aside from “Can I get back to you on that?”), I had to get myself enthused to deliver what I knew was a dead fish of a speech.

“Well, let’s endure my prepared speech for a few moments,” I said reluctantly to the audience. I bent to pick it up off the stage floor. As I did so, I spied Roger Sutton in the front row, and he looked back at me with the Easter Island man gaze. I was dead in the water. The air had gone out of the room.

* * *

The (Real) Zena Sutherland Lecture
A Pair of Jacks to Open: Fact and Fiction

I will not talk tonight of what I don’t know, but of what I do know — which is me constantly talking about me, or all-me-all-the-time. As Thoreau said in his essay “Life Without Principle,” he is resolved to give the reader a good dose of himself. I find no argument in Thoreau’s insistence that he simply represent himself, and his own thoughts, and experience, instead of attempting in a lecture to tell people what they already know, and what they want the lecturer to confirm. Apparently, because he spoke his own mind, he was soon unpopular on the lecture circuit and took a handyman job for Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Thoreau, as I continue to merely lecture on how I write what I’m thinking, and how I come to create books, I too may find myself spending more time weeding the garden.

There comes a time in a young person’s life when they look into a mirror and ask, “Who am I?” The moment that question is asked is when the young person pulls back a curtain and enters the stage where their life is played out…and the first attempt to define one’s character is to put on all the various costumes in your family, and after the family is exhausted, the costume shop radiates outward into infinity.

By this time in a young reader’s life, Pooh and Toad of Toad Hall and other characters that live in charming stories have begun to lose their influence on a young person who is suddenly aware that they are filled with self-inflicted complications and battles for independence that have to be sorted through. If the young person is optimistic, then they think there will be answers to the “who am I?” question. What they don’t realize yet is that the question of “who am I?” is only the reflective background chorus of life whose role is to constantly comment on the classic foibles and conflicts that appear as dramatic action in the foreground of life.

The “who am I?” question itself, confrontational as it may be, will always only be an echo to the dramatic action. Yet “who am I?” can be a solid citizen companion that helps us ponder and sort out our good actions from the bad, the moral from the immoral, and the gold from the lead. Good children’s literature is where a questioning young reader holds a sincere book in their trusting hands and reads with abandon in order to invent and define themselves, and to learn how to discover and reflect upon the infinite truths about themselves that they can trust and refine for the rest of their lives.

That said, the high bar of good literature makes my job as a writer for young, inquisitive readers a very demanding job — a challenge to be well considered — and for me it all begins with me: Jack on Jack. If I don’t read books that tunnel deeply into me to discover what is genuine, commanding, and emotive within myself, then I cannot write books that do the same for the best and most impressionable young readers. I often write about myself, or write invented variations of myself, using portions of myself as core characteristics from which I can then extrapolate. I attempt to write books that transform a piece of paper into some golem that comes to life. But first, I have to be the golem, and the tablet that brings me to life are the books I read. So here is a short list that over the years has contributed to transforming me from being an obdurate, unknowing creature to a human who asks the question, “who am I?”

(Everyone has their own list.)

Fahrenheit 451—Bradbury
The Catcher in the Rye—Salinger
Half a Life—Ciment
The Bell Jar—Plath
A Clockwork Orange—Burgess
Brave New World—Huxley
In Youth Is Pleasure—Welch
This Boy’s Life—Wolff
The Car Thief—Weesner
Sex and Death to the Age 14—Gray
Borrowed Finery and Desperate Characters—Fox
To Kill a Mockingbird—Lee
And, the bowsprit of American Literature, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale—Melville

And the list travels well beyond this very small sample.

It is said that you cannot serve two masters: the past self and the present self. It takes me a full day of reflection to understand an hour from the day before, and thus I fall behind each day, which is why I expect it will take a lifetime of effort to attempt to understand my own youth. It is difficult to live in the moment when so often I am either obsessing on the past, or drifting away on some reverie, or dreaming, or recalling and parsing something of great importance. It seems that life for me is structured in such a way that I only understand the punch line of a joke long after I’ve heard it.

A book is great if it strengthens the articulation of my inner life and is neither a mere accounting of facts nor a fantasy that appears like smoke and disappears like smoke. A great book, a book that adds to self-reflection and understanding, is different from an amusement: an amusement is meant to distract us from ourselves, where a great book is meant to open the honeyed cells of the inner life and freely nourish new thoughts.


Jack’s actual “black book.”

I know that it is politically correct to say that all books exist for a reason, and to that I reply with reason that for me all books are not gratifying, or uplifting, or reverie-inspiring — or even amusing in the most base way. In writing so often about myself it is the “exploration” and “reflection” that result in the greatest knowledge to me. In Dead End in Norvelt there are yards of historical facts larded with details, but these are the crumbs of the story (nutritious as they may be), just as it is crumbs that mark the way for Hansel and Gretel to find their way home. We all know that only when the crumbs are removed does the real story begin, and it is the characters whom we fear for, and not the crumbs. The same with Dead End in Norvelt. The boy, Jack, is taken with a collection of historical facts, which is valuable knowledge, but it is the vast humanity behind the facts, his friendship with Miss Volker, and the heartbeat of his family, and the community values that fill him and float him just as hot air fills a balloon and the wind takes it away.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us move on to all the Jack-on-Jack books, the double-shots and double-takes and doppelgängers, where I and my characters live as one.

My first pairing of Jacks was with the Jack Henry books. First, I never should have changed my last name to Henry for the five volumes of family short stories: Heads or Tails, Jack’s New Power, Jack on the Tracks, Jack Adrift, and Jack’s Black Book. But I was thinking of my family and friends who populate the books, along with my retooled action and invented dialogue (by this writer) that might offend them. So I shied away from using my own last name, and once Heads or Tails was released I regretted it immediately. What I like about the Jack books is that I can write as if I am the voice of the chorus — the “who am I?” — of the books. I have years of hindsight behind me, so Jack is teeming with articulate insights that I’ve allowed him to discover in the moment but that actually took the real Jack years to discover and refine. But both Jacks are me. Judge and Jury. Accused and Accuser. Captured and Released. The Action and the Reflection. I really enjoy my other Jack and turn to him whenever I feel a little dull. He always says or thinks something with a kind of insightful energy that reignites my own. When I write about my life in my journal, I’m always more interesting when I speak in his voice.

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. I am not Joey Pigza. He is an invented character with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. I’m merely ADD, or attention deficit disorder. I can sit still in a chair all day and sideways-think of nothing but random thoughts. Writing a book, for me, is like trying to decode the Enigma machine as I sort pages of random notes into properly sequenced sentences and paragraphs. If Joey only had ADD there would be no action to reflect upon, so I added the hyperactivity so he can bring action to the surface of the book, and reflection can remain the chorus that comments on the action — enough action for four more Joey volumes, ending with The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza.

The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs. Nature vs. nurture is the theme of this book based on my twin uncles, Abner and Adolph Rumbaugh, who, I was told, preserved (taxidermed) their own mother after her death. I am not a twin to them, but they are the twin stars in this novel. It was my aim in writing this book to write a gothic novel with the purpose of asking the reader to reflect on the question: “What is more frightening: truth or fiction?” The nonfiction center of the book is about the American eugenics movement and basically how white supremacy was taught in schools across America as part of the science curriculum. The eugenics movement introduced laws in this country against immigrants, endorsed the sterilization of women (especially on Native American lands), and spread their corrosive eugenics white supremacist creed with such effectiveness that Hitler was impressed by their ideals. And we know how his belief in a pure white Germany terrified and damaged the world.

So the core canvas of the book is about academic and applied racism in America, and then around that core canvas I built a gilt gothic frame of a story — the story of my uncles taxiderming their mother — and so the question posed to the reader is: Which is more gothic? Which is more inhuman? Taxiderming your mother, or the state-sanctioned suppression and hatred of nonwhite races in America? As it turns out, taxiderming your mother is pretty tame compared to Hitler’s Final Solution.

Imagine my surprise when so many people of all ages come up to me and say, “I really admire how you invented that eugenics movement.” They have the book’s central point all backward, which breaks my heart. The gothic fiction is about the uncles, and the eugenics movement is the horrific history and fact of the matter, and if you don’t know your history you will be destined to repeat it. Time and again. (Later, this lesson is echoed by Miss Volker in Dead End in Norvelt.)

I have yet to write a twin to Love Curse.

Hole in My Life. What can I say about this book, which is just an older me looking into the mirror and reflecting on my both naive and arrogant young self as I spill my guts talking about my drug-smuggler-to-prison-convict past? There is plenty of action on the front stage of this book, but the emotional torque is in the chorus as I recall my weakest moments. This is the epitome of the Jack-on-Jack theme because it is the most unrelenting and honest.


gantos_mugshotFrom The Trouble in Me to Hole in My Life.

The Trouble in Me. This is the most recent memoir-driven look-in-the-mirror book I’ve written about my young self (set in the summer before eighth grade). It has what I’d define as features of a gothic romance in that it is dripping with a primitive fixation on transforming the self by scrubbing away your true character in order to invent yourself afresh as another person — in my case I wanted to become my neighbor, Gary Pagoda, who was older, tougher, more romantic and commanding than I was. He was the model who, in both a comic and dramatically grotesque way, I became.

This story is me pointing a finger at myself and saying, “This is the beginning of the slippery slope that led to Hole in My Life. This is where I began to abandon my core morals, values, and ethics for a cheap thrill.” Only this story does not lead to prison, because it already takes place in a prison — the prison of my own skin — of who I was and who I wasn’t. I was imprisoned by my obsessive self-loathing, and the only escape was to become someone else.

One final remark: Please excuse the waterfront language in the first portion of this speech. It may be offensive to some, but when I rewrote it using more genteel dialogue, the entire incident fell flat without the grit of the curse words. Also, I admire Mister Jerry Lewis and think the French are correct in saying he is a comic genius. Get with it, America. The guy is brilliant!

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Adapted from the author’s 2015 Zena Sutherland Lecture. For more from Jack Gantos click here (if you dare).


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2. 2015 Zena Sutherland Lecture by Jack Gantos

GantosSuttonPlease join us for the 2015 Zena Sutherland Lecture, “A Pair of Jacks to Open,” with Jack Gantos. Friday May 1, Harold Washington Library in Chicago, 7:30PM. The lecture is free but tickets are required.


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3. Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family

When I was growing up both The Musters and The Addams Family were on TV. For me--then and now--the people I knew could be divided into two camps: Munster or Addams. I was (am) very firmly pro Addams. In fact, I confess to sneering a bit at those who preferred the less sophisticated Munsters. In the world of easy readers something similar is going on with a couple of bad cats. I'm talking about Jack Gantos's Rotten Ralph and Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty. Bad Kitty would be right at home in the Addams's macabre mansion, while Rotten Ralph would be tormenting Spot in 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Although Rotten Ralph lacks the finesse of Bad Kitty, he's not without his charms. And in his latest outing, the bad-tempered feline returns home to visit his family to try to understand just why he's so rotten. Sarah, Rotten Ralph's put upon owner, is at the end of her rope when she can't find a catsitter willing to take on her disobedient pet. She issues an ultimatum to Ralph: "There better be some changes in the morning…or else!" In his bedroom, Ralph flips through a photo album that shows him in his younger years tormenting his feline family. The trip down memory lane inspires Ralph to return home.

Ralph's reunion is anything but sweet. With the exception of his mother, the other members of his family show their own rotten side, and by the end of his visit Ralph has an epiphany: He turned out rotten because everyone was rotten to him. A repentant Ralph returns to Sarah determined to reform. Will it last? Fans needn't worry. Ralph is sure to be his rotten self again by the next installment.

Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family
By Jack Gantos
Illustrated by Nicole Rubel
Farrar Straus Giroux, 48 pages
Published: March 2014

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4. 3 Writing Tips From Authors at the 2014 National Book Festival

Over the weekend, dozens of authors and illustrators appeared at the Library of Congress’ 14th annual National Book Festival. Children’s books creator Bob Staake designed this year’s official poster. We’ve collected three writing tips that some of the writers shared during their panels.

Joey Pigza book series author Jack Gantos suggests that one “stay as organized as possible.” He thinks that one should keep several notebooks. This helps to categorize different thoughts because one idea might be a good fit for the beginning a story and another could work for the middle.


New Career Opportunities Daily: The best jobs in media.

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5. Books, et al

So this week I read:

I never read the other books in this series.  Reviews say that THIS book, which is supposed to be the last, is darker than the others in the series.  Joey just about makes himself unfixable in his attempts to put his family back together.  Gantos draws a picture of hope springing eternal and the ending has the reader crossing her fingers that everything hangs together.

 Fish in a Tree by Linda Mullaly Hunt
 Books about children who cannot read make me wonder who the audience is supposed to be.  This book is available as an audiobook and I am grateful for that.  How a child could get to 6th grade without anyone knowing that they cannot read is a puzzle to me, even though it happened to at least one of my siblings.
But Hunt's heroine hides her disability so well that everyone thinks she just has a bad attitude.  Enter thoughtful teacher!!!  And he understands that when a child "refuses" to learn there is something else going on.  Good book to share with a class, a teacher and a struggling reader - on audio, probably.

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper 
Stella's brother wakes her up one night to show her the white hooded figures burning a cross on the other side of the river.  The year is 1932.   Times are hard everywhere.  And now, the black community is threatened.  On Sunday, the Pastor exhorts his flock to register to vote.  Stella's Dad is one of the three black man who choose to register.  He takes Stella along to be his "standing stone".  Based on family stories shared with the author, this book paints a credible picture of a black community in the south and the trials and joys they experience.  So good!

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming
I could not help draw parallels between the 1.5% of the Russion population who controlled 90% of the wealth in the beginning of the 20th century to our own rich and privileged few.  They were clueless about the sufferings of most Russians, choosing to believe that the poor were clean, happy and well-fed.  Nicholas andAlexandra would have made great suburbanites, raising their brood and tending their graden and gossiping with the neighbors.  But as leaders, they were ostriches - downright cruel in their insistent ignorance.  Awesome book!  Eye-opening and astounding.

ALSO The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett, and Jory John and illustrated by Kevin Cornell.
Niles is a prankster extraordinaire but at his new school an unknown nemesis outpranks him at every turn.  When he meets this mastermind face to face, Niles declares a prank war.  Oh, Niles, you FOOL!!  Please, if you do try these ideas at home, do NOT mention where you read this review.

Now, I will go to bed.

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6. Talking with Cynthia DeFelice: About Writing, Inspiration, the Common Core, Boys, Guns, Books and More


I have long followed and respected the work of author Cynthia DeFelice, who over the past 25 years has put together an expansive and impressive body of work. No bells, no whistles, no fancy pyrotechnics. Just one well-crafted book after another. There’s not an ounce of phony in Cynthia; she’s the genuine article, the real magilla. Last November, I was pleased to run into Cynthia at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Pressed for time, we chatted easily about this and that, then parted ways. But I wanted more. Thus, this conversation . . . I’m sure you’ll like Cynthia almost as much as her dog does.


Greetings, Cynthia. Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule for this conversation. I feel like we have so much to talk about. We first met sometime in the early 90s, back when Frank Hodge, a bookseller in Albany, was putting on his elaborate, gushing children’s book conferences.

UnknownIt’s nice to be in touch with you again. I’ll always remember those conferences​ with Frank Hodge.  He made me feel validated as a fledgling writer.  He left me a voice mail telling me how much he loved the book Weasel.  I played it over and over and over!   In 1992, the Hodge-Podge Society gave the first ever Hodge-Podge Award to Weasel.  It meant the world to me.  Those were great times for authors, teachers, kids, and for literature.

Frank forced me to read your book — and I loved it. So I’ll always be grateful to Frank for that; it’s important to have those people in your world, the sharers, the ones who press books into your hands and say, “You must read this!”

Well, good for Frank! He is definitely one of those people you’re talking about. His enthusiasm is infectious.

We’ve seen many changes over the past 25 years. For example, a year or two ago I  participated in a New York State reading conference in Albany for educators. The building was abuzz with programs about “Common Core” strategies & applications & assessments & implementation techniques and ZZZZZzzzzz. (Sorry, dozed off for a minute!) Anyway, educators were under tremendous pressure to roll this thing out — even when many sensed disaster. Meanwhile, almost out of habit, organizers invited authors to attend, but they placed us in a darkened corridor in the back. Not next to the Dumpster, but close. At one point I was with Susan Beth Pfeffer, who writes these incredible books, and nobody was paying attention to her. This great writer was sitting there virtually ignored.

9780374400200To your point about finding fabulous authors being ignored at conferences, I hear you. It can be a very humbling experience. I find that teachers aren’t nearly as knowledgeable about books and authors as they were 10-25 years ago, and not as interested. They aren’t encouraged in that direction, and they don’t feel they have the time for what is considered to be non-essential to the goal of making sure their kids pass the tests. Thankfully, there are exceptions! You and I both still hear from kids and teachers for whom books are vital, important, and exhilarating.

But, yes, I agree with you completely that literature is being shoved to the side. Teachers tell me they have to sneak in reading aloud when no one is watching or listening.

When I was invited to speak at a dinner, along with Adam Gidwitz and the great Joe Bruchac, I felt compelled to put in a good word for  . . . story. You know, remind everybody that books matter. In today’s misguided rush for “informational units of text,” I worry that test-driven education is pushing literature to the side. The powers that be can’t easily measure the value of a book — it’s impossible to reduce to bubble tests — so their solution is to ignore fiction completely. Sorry for the rant, but I’m so frustrated with the direction of education today.

Well, it’s hard not to rant. It’s disconcerting to think how we’ve swung so far from those heady days of “Whole Language” to today’s “Common Core” curriculum — about as far apart as two approaches can be. I think the best approach lies somewhere in the vast middle ground between the two, and teachers need to be trusted to use methods as varied as the kids they work with every day.

On a recent school visit in Connecticut, I met a second-year librarian — excuse me, media specialist — who was instructed by her supervisor to never read aloud to the students. It wasn’t perceived as a worthwhile use of her time.

Well, that is sad and just plain ridiculous. I was a school librarian for 8 ½ years. I felt the most important part of my job was reading aloud to kids

I didn’t realize you were a librarian. 
9780374398996Yes, I began as a school librarian. But, really, my life as a writer began when I was a child listening to my mother read aloud.  And every crazy job I had before I became a librarian (and there were a lot) helped to form and inform me as a writer.  This is true of us all.  I had an actual epiphany one day while I was a librarian. I looked up from a book I was reading aloud and saw the faces of a class of kids who were riveted to every word… I saw their wide eyes, their mouths hanging open, their bodies taut and poised with anticipation – I was seeing full body participation in the story that was unfolding.  I thought: I want to be the person who makes kids look and feel like THAT.
And that’s exactly who you became. Which is incredible. This can be a tough and discouraging business; I truly hope you realize how much you’ve accomplished.

Thanks, and back at you on that. I think we have to constantly remind ourselves that what we do is important. I think we’ve all had the experience of being scorned because we write for children. The common perception is that we write about fuzzy bunnies who learn to share and to be happy with who they are.

I loved your recent blog post about the importance of books that disturb us. I’m still amazed when I hear from a teacher or parent –- and occasionally even a young reader –- saying they didn’t like a book or a scene from a book because of something upsetting that happened in it. Conflict is the essence of fiction! No conflict, no story (or, worse, a boring, useless one). I love my characters, and I hate to make them go through some of the experiences they have, but it’s got to be done! Did I want Stewpot to die in Nowhere to Call Home? Did I want Weasel to have cut out Ezra’s tongue and killed his wife and unborn baby? Did I want Erik to have to give up the dog Quill at the end of Wild Life? These things hurt, and yet we see our characters emerge from the dark forests we give them to walk through, coming out stronger and wiser. We all need to hear about such experiences, over and over again, in order to have hope in the face of our own trials.

I admire all aspects of your writing, but in particular your sense of pace; your stories click along briskly. They don’t feel rushed, there’s real depth, but there’s always a strong forward push to the narrative. How important is that to you?

I love beautiful writing, I love imagery and metaphor, and evocative language. But all that must be in service to story, or I am impatient with it.  I don’t like show-offy writing.

The ego getting in the way.

Yes. Even the best writers need an editor to keep that ego in check! I seek clarity — what good is writing that obscures and obfuscates? The purpose is to communicate, to say what you mean. That goes for all kinds of writing, not just writing for kids. Kids want to get to the point. So do I.

Can you name any books or authors that were important to your development as a writer? Or is that an impossible question to answer?

 Impossible. Because there are too many, and if I made a list I would inevitably leave out a person or book I adore. Safer to say that every book I’ve read -– the good, the bad, and the ugly –- all are in there somewhere, having an effect on my own writing.


You are what you eat. Also, your love of nature — the great outdoors! — infuses everything you write.

Nature and the great outdoors, yes.  My love of these things will always be a big part of my writing.  I find that after a lifetime of experience and reading and exploring, I know a lot about the natural world, and it’s fun to include that knowledge in my writing. Sometimes I worry that kids are being cut off from the real world.  But I do know lots of kids who love animals and trees and flowers and bugs, love to hunt and fish, to mess around in ponds and streams, build forts,  paddle canoes, collect fossils — you name it. They give me hope for the future.
Where do you live?

On and sometimes in (during the floods of 1972 and 1993) Seneca Lake in beautiful upstate New York.

Is that where you’re from?

Nope. I grew up in the suburbs of northeast Philly. I came up here to go to college and never left.
Your books often feature boy characters. Why do you think that’s so?
9780374324278You’re right: more than half of my main characters are boys.  I’m not sure why.  And I don’t know why I feel so perfectly comfortable writing in the voice of a 10-11-12 year old boy.  Maybe because my brothers and I were close and we did a lot together?  Maybe because my husband still has a lot of boyish enthusiasm?  At any rate, I am crazy about pre-adolescent boys, their goofiness and earnestness and heedlessness.  My new book (coming out in May) is called Fort.  It features two boys, Wyatt and Augie (age 11) who build a fort together during summer vacation.  I had so much fun writing it.  (I have to admit, I love when I crack myself up, and these guys just make me laugh.)
While writing, are you conscious about the gender gap in reading? This truism that “boys don’t read.”

I am. Sometimes I am purposely writing for that reluctant reader, who is so often a boy. I love nothing so much as hearing that one of my books was THE ONE that turned a kid around, that made him a reader.

I just read Signal, so that book is on my mind today. I had to smile  when Owen gets into the woods and his phone doesn’t work. No wi-fi. It’s funny to me because in my “Scary Tales” series I always have to do the same thing. If we want to instill an element of danger, there has to be a sense of isolation that doesn’t seem possible in today’s hyper-connected world. “What? Zombie hordes coming over the rise? I’ll call Mom to pick us up in her SUV!” So we always need to get the  parents out of the way and somehow disable the wi-fi. You didn’t have that problem back when you wrote Weasel.

9780312617769Thanks for reading Signal.  And, yeah, it’s really annoying that in order to be plausible in this day and age, you have to have a reason why your character isn’t on the phone with Mommy every time something goes wrong.  (Another good reason to write historical fiction!)  In Fort, Augie lives with his grandmother and doesn’t have money for a cell phone, and Wyatt’s with his father for the summer. His parents are divorced, and (unlike Mom) Dad doesn’t believe in kids being constantly connected to an electronic nanny.  So — halleluiah!  Wyatt and Augie are free to do all the fun, dumb, and glorious things they feel like doing!
My friends and I built a fort in the woods when we were in high school. Good times, great memories, just hanging out unfettered and free. I included a fort in my book, Along Came Spider. For Trey and Spider, the book’s main characters, the fort represented a refuge. It was also a haven for their friendship away from the social pressures and cliques of school. A place in nature where they could be themselves. So, yes, I love that you wrote a book titled Fort. I’ll add it to my list! (You are becoming an expensive friend.)
Well, now that I’ve discovered your books, I can say the same. Money well spent, I’d say.
Where did the idea for Signal originate?
The inspiration for Signal came one morning as I was running on a trail through the woods with Josie, my dog at the time.  She proudly brought me a white napkin with red stuff smeared on it.  I thought, Whoa, is that blood?  No, whew. Ketchup.  But what if it had been blood?  And what if a kid was running with his dog and she brought him pieces of cloth with blood stains?  Eww.  That would be creepy!  And scary, and exciting, and mysterious — and I started writing Signal.

You’ve always been extremely well-reviewed. Readers love your books.  And yet in this day of series and website-supported titles, where everything seems to be high-concept, it feels like the stand-alone middle grade novel is an endangered species.

I have been lucky with reviews.  But, sadly, I think traditional review sources are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as blogs and websites and personal media platforms take over. That’s not good news for me because I am simply not interested in self-promotion.  Can’t do it.  Don’t want to do it.  I just want to write the best books I can and let them speak for themselves.  I know it’s old-school, but there it is.  You said that a stand-alone middle grade novel is becoming an endangered species amid all the series and “high concept” books out there, and I think you’re right.  But when that stand-alone book somehow finds its niche audience, when kids and teachers somehow discover it and embrace it as theirs . . . , well, it’s a beautiful damn thing, and it’s enough to keep me writing, for now.

For now?!

Well, my husband is 9 years older than I am and recently retired, and there are a lot of things we still need to do!

Like what?

We have a farm property we are improving by digging a pond, and by planting trees and foliage to benefit wildlife. We stocked it with fish, and enjoy watching it attract turtles, frogs, toads, dragonflies, birds and animals of all sorts. So we like to spend a lot of time there, camping out. We love to travel, and are headed next on a self-driving tour of Iceland. We also have four terrific grandchildren we like to spend time with. I could go on and on with the bucket list…

By the way, I agree about the blogs. I think we are seeing a lot more opinion — more reaction — but less deep critical thought. It’s fine and useful for a neighbor to tell you they hated or loved a movie, but it’s not the same as a professional film critic providing an informed, and hopefully insightful, critique. Yet somehow today it’s all conflated. 

Well, there is a similar phenomenon with self-published books. I’m not a total snob about it, and there are plenty of good books that didn’t go through the process of being accepted by and edited by a professional at an established publishing house. But I’ll repeat that everyone needs an editor. And I’m often amazed at the brazenness of people spouting off in various social media platforms, often without being fully grounded in the subject they are pontificating about. But, hey, maybe I’m just getting to be an old fart.

Yeah, I don’t Tweet either. We’re being left in the dust! My observation is that the “kidlitosphere” is comprised 90% of women. Of course, many of those bloggers are passionate, smart, generous women who genuinely want to see boys reading. But I always think of a favorite line written by one of my heroes, Charlotte Zolotow, where a boy imagines his father telling his mother, “You never were a boy. You don’t know.”



I don’t think it’s an ideal thing that the blogging world — which has become such an important source of information about books — is overwhelmingly female. Of course, the situation is not at all their fault. 

That’s why it’s so great that there are writers out there like you, Bruce Coville, Tedd Arnold, Jon Scieska, Neil Gaiman, Jack Gantos –- who not only write books boys like, but are out there in schools demonstrating that REAL MEN read and write! I don’t know what we can do about the gender gap other than to be aware of it and to write the best books we can, books that both boys and girls will devour.

Tell me about Wild Life. Once again, you are mining the world of adventure — a boy, a dog, and a gun.

I never got as much mail from kids, teachers, grandparents and other caregivers as I did after that book came out. In our hyper-politically correct world, GUNS = EVIL. You can’t talk about them in school. So where does that leave a kid who spends his or her weekend hunting, who studies nature in order to be part of it, who hunts respectfully, with care, who is enmeshed in family history and tradition, who through hunting feels part of the full complexity of life?

8901928I had to keep silencing the censors in my head telling me I couldn’t put a gun in an 11 year old kid’s hands, unless it was a matter of survival in a book set back in “the olden days.”

I was amazed and immensely gratified to learn that a lot of kids found themselves and their interests represented in Erik’s story. I didn’t write it with an agenda in mind. I simply wrote it based on the experiences I’ve had when my husband and I take our bird dog on her yearly Dream Vacation to North Dakota to hunt pheasants.

Ha! I love that your dog has a Dream Vacation.

I get so much joy from watching her do what she was born and bred to do. I cherish our days out on those wide open prairies, and have learned to see the subtle and varied beauty of the landscape. I was just hoping to write a rip-roaring good story that incorporated all that wonderful stuff. Our hunting experiences have nothing whatsoever to do with “gun violence” of the sort you hear about on TV. It’s been interesting to hear from kids who really get that.

Yeah, I enjoy meeting those kids, often out in the western end of New York State. One of my readers from the North Country sent me this photo. Isn’t she great?


Oh, man, I love that! We can’t forget those kids are out there.

What’s next, Cynthia? Any new books on the horizon?

Possibly, just possibly, a sequel to Fort. But that’s all I will say, even if you use enhanced interrogation techniques.


Huge-rubber-duck-13--196-pWe do not waterboard here at Jamespreller dot com, and I resent the implication! Those are merely bath toys that happen to be . . . nevermind!

According to the rules of the interwebs, I see that we’ve gone way beyond the approved length of standard posts. Likely there’s no one left reading. It’s just us. So I’ll end here with a big thank you, Cynthia, for putting up with me. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I hope I’ll see you again in Rochester at the 19th Annual Children’s Book Festival

Yes!  I look forward to seeing you there.  It’s an incredible event, and gets bigger and better every year.






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7. Fusenews: The Jack Gantos / Alfred E. Newman Connection

And then it’s February.  How the heckedy heck did that happen?  Looks like 2012 is already establishing itself as the Blink and You’ll Miss It year.  Well, let’s get to it then.

First and foremost was the announcement of Battle of the Books 2012.  Or, as I like to think of it, the place where Amelia Lost gets its bloody due (if there’s any justice in this world).  We’re now in the earliest of the early days of the battle, but stuff’s on the horizon.  I can smell it.

  • In other news there was an SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) meeting here in New York this past weekend.  I didn’t attend because, apparently, if it’s way too convenient I’m absent.  After checking out the recap on this blog, however, I clearly need to change my priorities.  Though I had to miss the cocktail party on Friday I did attend Kidlit Drink Night which was PACKED, dudes.  Packed to the gills!
  • In her post Ms. Turner mentions the Mythopoeic Society.  By complete coincidence I stumbled over yet another link involving that society in question.  Neil Gaiman reprints an old speech he gave to the society in 2004 on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton.  A great look at how good fantasy can influence kids.  Also a good look at how bad television programs lead kids to books.  I believe it.
  • Well The Today Show may have passed up the chance to talk to the Newbery and Caldecott winners but leave it to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me to speak to Jack Gantos for their Not My Job game.  Someone must have tipped them off to the fact that the man is the world’s greatest interview.  Love the Judy Blume reference.  And though I thought I knew his Hole in My Life story, clearly I missed some details.  Thanks to Susan Miles for the link.
  • Of course Jack and Chris Raschka were interviewed by SLJ about their respective wins.  That’s good news about a Dead End in Norvelt companion novel.  Ditto the idea of Raschka working on a Robie H. Harris title.
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8. Newbery Winner Jack Gantos Kicks Off Summer Reading

Jack Gantos is the author of this year's Newbery Medal-winning book, Dead End in Norvelt, and he's also the perfect guy to kick off our Summer Reading for Kids & Teens destination as our first featured author.  Gantos is a fantastic writer and he's really funny--after watching the special video he created for us below we were laughing out loud with big goofy grins on our faces, because Gantos makes reading fun.  It's  another of this author's' many talents--if you've got a reluctant reader, give them a Jack Gantos book.   Check out our author adventures kick-off video, courtesy of Mr. Jack Gantos, who reminds us all to "read a lot, or your brain will rot!"

Summer Reading Recommendations from Jack Gantos:


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9. Jack Gantos

While I don't often put press releases on this blog, every now and again I make exceptions.  The incomparable Jack Gantos will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Saturday, May 11th.  I suggest you run, not walk to get yourself to this event.  I was lucky enough to witness Jack's Newbery speech for Dead End In Norvelt, and I have to say, he is unparalleled in the public speaking arena.  Follow the link for tickets!

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10. On the Shelf with Librarian Cathy Potter

Cathy Potter is a school librarian at Falmouth Elementary School in Falmouth, Maine. She serves on the Chickadee Award committee, the 2014 Sibert Medal committee, and she co-authors The Nonfiction Detectives blog. TCBR is so happy to shine the spotlight on Cathy Potter!

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11. Conference Diary: SCBWI Winter 2014

Last weekend, I attended my first SCBWI national conference with my talented author-illustrator pal, Mary Jane Begin.

It was a whirlwind of fun, inspiration, fabulous meals and networking—and it's taken me three days to gather myself to post about it. I've been looking at photos, reading over notes, filing through the many business cards I picked up along the way, and letting it all sink in.

Although I'm not exactly a newbie to publishing—and Mary Jane is a veteran with many books and awards to her name—neither of us had been to the New York conference before, for a variety of reasons, including deadlines, kids, writing and teaching.

So, we were excited. I couldn't wait to be in New York to meet some of the children's book folks I'd been chatting with for The Little Crooked Cottage and on Twitter, and to spend an entire weekend focused on all things kidlit.

I knew that I had the perfect partner for the trip in Mary Jane. She's whip-smart, game for anything, never gets rattled and loves to laugh. She also has a more esoteric quality I like to call flow. She's a magnet for positive people and serendipitous moments. And she loves dark chocolate. That's my kind of travel-buddy.

Skipping through Grand Central

When we arrived at Grand Central, we spotted a few familiar faces right away and immediately felt the energy of the conference. There's something visceral about being with your creative tribe, and I felt it the moment we walked into the hotel lobby.

Of course, our first priority upon arrival was food. We went in search of a sushi restaurant about twenty blocks from the hotel. Friday afternoon was chilly and drizzly, but that didn't dampen our spirits or our desire to walk the city, so we set out on foot. A few paces before our destination, we spotted a charming little restaurant on the corner, and remarked on how cozy it looked.

Tiny trattoria tucked in beneath the Queensboro Bridge

This was fortunate, because the sushi spot we'd chosen didn't open for another two hours. Whoopsie! That's the thing about New York—when one restaurant door closes, another adorable one with tall windows and little twinkling lights opens. We sat and enjoyed a delicious meal, and raised a glass to the great weekend ahead. 

Happy MJ with vino. Saluté!
Dining under the twinkly lights

Jane and I were not faculty or part of the illustration portfolios, so we weren't able to attend the Friday evening VIP cocktail party; however, after entertaining brief giggle-worthy notions about various ways to crash the festivities, we settled on the lounge upstairs, which had a stunning floor-to-ceiling view of 42nd street towards Park Avenue.

View of 42nd and Park

Fortunately, not long later, some VIP's came to us; including, to my delight, my editor at Harper Children's, Nancy Inteli. Nancy recently acquired my new picture book, Monster Trucks! (Summer, 2016). It was lovely to be able to meet Nancy person and give her a thank you hug!

Nancy Inteli, Editorial Director,  Harper Collins Children's Books 
Hangin' with the fabulous and talented  Caryln Beccia!

After a fun night and another great meal at The Smith Midtown...

Two words: creamed kale. Heaven.
You can't tell in this pic,
 but we're doing the happy food dance.

...and a brief stop here... we called it a night.

Saturday morning, we were up and at 'em early (miraculously).

Badges, notebooks, coffee: check! (Ok, we look a little sleepy. )

All the presentations for the weekend followed the theme of Seven Essentials. Jack Gantos (Newbery award-winner for Dead End In Norvelt) was up first with a keynote titled, "How everything I learned about fiction and nonfiction in picture books, poetry, short stories, novellas, or, angst, dialog, a hundred drafts, and good luck all end up in the crown jewel of literature: THE NOVEL."

That title speaks to Jack's electric personality. He's all spitfire and energy and humor and talent. He spoke about finding habits that work for you, content and structure, focused rewrites, connecting the dots with theme, and adding emotional depth to your stories.

Beyond his very helpful pointers, I think what came through was his passion and commitment to telling stories in all forms, as well as a joy an irreverence one can't help but love.

It was a fabulous kick-off to the keynotes.

After a morning of enlightening discussions, including a fascinating panel on The Future of Authorship, and breakout sessions in the afternoon, Mary Jane and I decided to seek a little inspiration outside the conference halls and head over to the NYPL to see Leonard Marcus's exhibit at the New York Public Library: The ABC of it: Why Children's Books Matter.

The weather had turned springlike in Manhattan and as much as we were enjoying the talks, we needed some air—and some art. Library Way, which cuts directly to the front entrance of the NYPL, is paved with quotes from literature. I snapped a few shots of my favorites.

The exhibit itself was similarly paved in riches. Expertly curated and gloriously designed, it was the perfect end-note on a roundly inspiring day.

We arrived back to the hotel feeling glad we hadn't missed the opportunity to see the exhibit, but barely able to catch our breath before the cocktail party—which was a blur of fun connections, old friends and new faces.

It was great to meet Ame Dyckman (Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author of Tea Party Rules) and Drew Daywalt (New York Times bestselling author of The Day The Crayons Quit) in person, after becoming friends in the Twitterverse, and featuring them both on The Little Crooked Cottage.

Ame Dyckman, Drew Daywalt and moi. 

Another unexpected treat was bumping into talented YA author, KM Walton. I met Kate years ago, before her first novel published, at the home of good friends. Since then, Kate has published two novels: Cracked (2012) and Empty (2013), with another title, The Lies We Tell, forthcoming in 2015. It was lovely to be able to reconnect after cheering Kate's successes from afar. Keep an eye on KM Walton. She's one to watch.
Striking a pose with KM Walton

But my favorite moment of all came on Sunday. Kate Messner delivered the best, I mean it, the best speech I have ever heard at an SCBWI event. Her keynote on The Spectacular Power of Failure was inspiring, moving and full of hope.

Who among us hasn't faced the fear of failure in our work? Kate encouraged us to take a moment to celebrate each of our successes, large and small, instead of automatically moving the bar before we've had the chance to appreciate our accomplishments.

She turned the entire notion of failure on its ear by putting it in perspective. "You can't have brave without scared," she said quoting Linda Urban's novel Hound Dog True. We learn from failing, and reevaluating and trying again."

She encouraged us all to "live our creative lives bravely," and to do the same by our characters. "Let them be flawed, let them fail, and let them survive."

Kate ended the speech by reading a poem.

What Happened to Your Book Today
by Kate Messner (Copyright 2011)
Somewhere, a child laughed
on that page where you made a joke.
Somewhere, she wiped away a tear,
Just when you thought she might.
Somewhere, your book was passed
from one hand to another in a hallway
busy with clanging lockers,
with whispered words,
“You have got to read this.”
And a scribbled note:
O.M.G. SO good.
Give it back when ur done.
It’s looking a little more love-worn lately,
rougher around the edges than it did on release day.
There are dog eared pages and Gatorade stains.
Someone smeared maple syrup on the cover
because she read all through breakfast.
Pages 125 and 126 are stuck fast with peanut butter
Because Chapter 10 was even more delicious
than lunch.
Somewhere, tiny hands held up your book
And a little voice begged, “Again!”
Somewhere, the answer came,
A grown-up sigh…and a smile…
And the fourteenth read-aloud of the morning.
That same book. Again.
Your book.
Somewhere, a kid who has never read a whole book on his own
(Really. Not even one.)
picked up yours and turned a page.
And then another.
And then one more.
And it was pretty cool, turns out.
He brought it back – huge smile on his face –
(and I mean huge)
And asked for another one.
And he read that, too.
Somewhere, a teenager who thought she was alone
Opened your pages and discovered she’s not.
And somewhere, somebody who thought about giving up
will keep on trying,

keep on hoping.
Because of that book you wrote.
Somewhere tonight – listen closely and you’ll hear–
A child will turn the last page of that book,
That book you wrote,
and sigh.
Can you hear it?
It’s the sound of a story being held close
Right before a young voice says,
“It feels like this was written just for me.”
And it was.

I don't have a photo to share of this moment because a.) I was blubbering and wiping my nose, and b.) I was on my feet, clapping and joining in the standing ovation that Kate received for her uplifting, heartfelt and encouraging words.

I looked to my left, at my friend Jane who was teary-eyed and clapping, too, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.

This is why we do what we do. Kate summed it up beautifully.

Even without all the rest—which was magical—that one reminder was worth the trip.

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12. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key

joey pigza Joey Pigza Swallowed the KeyThe Joey Pigza books are hugely popular with upper elementary kids. Joey Pigza is the first of the series and while it’s not spelled out, I think it’s pretty obvious that Joey has ADHD.

I like sharing this book with teachers because they tend to look at the situations so differently from the way Joey’s contemporaries — the real target audience — would. As you react to this book, it’s important to allow yourself to read it as two different people: you as a critical adult who is allowed to be horrified by the adults in the book (and maybe a little sympathetic, too?) AND as a child who is Joey’s age. If you allow yourself to read this through your student’s eyes, do you find that your reaction to the book changes?

Note that we are also reading an interview with Jack Gantos this week from the Embracing the Child website.

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13. Joey Pigza

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos

Classic Gantos
Who doesn't love Joey Pigza?

Coming September 2014

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14. Video Sunday: MIT’s Faculty Lounge and Other Mysteries

No time to dilly-dally, people! We’ve most of our peers and betters living it up in Las Vegas. Let’s soothe our sorrows of not attending ourselves in some lovely videos then, eh whot?

First off, you may have known that there was a recent Boston Children’s Book Trivia Night. But did you know there was video from the event as well? Indeedy.  Just LOOK at that turnout!  That’s Jack Gantos moderating.  The only trouble with this vid is that it doesn’t contain the answer to his trivia question.  Um . . . anyone want to tell it to me?

In other news, Eoin Colfer.  Not that his existence is news exactly.  It’s just worth making your day brighter to watch him talk a little about . . . well, pretty much anything.  In this case, on getting a literary agent.  Granted, he looks a bit like a great big blue floating head, but I care not.

In movie news, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is finally finding itself in film form.  Retitled Home, it has made some interesting changes. The title, for one.   J-Lo is now just O. And  Tip is a teenager (one suspects the film executives thought kids would start picking up their own parents’ car keys if they saw a kid in a movie driving).  We shall see.

Awwww.  A Harry Potter rap!  It’s never too late folks (and note the complete and utter lack of snark in the lyrics).

Thanks to bookshelves of doom for the link.

And for our off-topic video, this one actually mentions Hagrid at one point (continuing our Harry Potter theme).  So we’re awfully close to being on-topic.  It’s one woman, seventeen different British accents, and one rocking pair of fantastically 1985 glasses.

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15. Jack Gantos audiobook giveaway!

Jack Gantos has a new book out and I have a giveaway!!  Gantos' book, Dead End in Norvelt, which seems to be semi-autobiographical, takes place in the government built town of Norvelt.  The town was built after the mine that kept the surrounding area alive closed down.  Jack is grounded for the summer and spends his time with the area's historian and coroner, a feisty older lady.  This sounds like true Gantos, full of do-not-try-this-at-home antics and subtle insights.

Well here's the giveaway part.  I have, sitting next to my keyboard, a pristine, never opened, "advance listening copy" of Dead End in Norvelt read by the author and including an interview on disc 6!!!!!!!!!!!  I hardly want to give it away.  BUT if you comment on this blog post by August 15th, you will be entered automatically to win this amazing audio offering.  There are restrictions involved.  I need a minimum of 10 different people to comment on this blog for the giveaway to happen.  And you must include your email address so I can contact you if you win.

So, tell all of your friends about this giveaway, please.   Jack Gantos is (falsetto voice) awesome! (I met him at the Kutztown University Children's Literature Conference in 2010 - so funny and a great presenter!)

OK - Here's an update.  Comment on the post - say something, not just your name.  And use a user name.  I will try to contact you THAT way.  No email addresses floating around on the blog.

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16. Jack Gantos giveaway

Today at midnight, the Jack Gantos giveaway ends.  We did not meet my "requirements" of 10 comments on that post.  Hmmm, I suspect that I don't have the readership for that kind of giveaway.  If you still hope to win an audiobook of Jack's latest novel, Dead End in Norvelt, comment on this post.  Anonymous comments are fine but I do need some way to identify the winner so say something clever in your comment.

If I get 10 comments - whoo hoo! - I will announce the winner in my Post on Thursday, August 18th.

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17. Anticipated Arcs: Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

My experience of Jack Gantos consists almost entirely of Rotten Ralph. I haven't read the Jack Henry books, and I have only gotten as far as borrowing Joey Pigza. It was returned unread, another victim of a hydra-esque TBR pile. I mention all this because Gantos' latest book, Dead End in Norvelt, features a character named, funnily enough, Jack Gantos. But this middle-grade story bears almost

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18. Jack for Ambassador!

Today the new novel by Jack Gantos, Dead End in Norvelt, goes on sale! As such, my family has declared it
Jack Gantos Day here in the entwood.  I have been unabashed in my fandom for this man's writing. The humor in his books got my family through a tough time.

I still hear from students (many now in college) who say, "I remember when Jack Gantos came to our school."  His visit was memorable in so many ways, not the least because it was the first and only time I ever saw a teacher almost fall off of her rolling chair because she was laughing so hard during his presentation.

One of the many joys of belonging to the Kidlitosphere community is getting to know folks who share your reading (and felt boarding) enthusiasms. During an email discussion of all-things-Jack with Jules at 7-Impossible things Before Breakfast and Adrienne at What Adrienne Thinks About That, we all agreed that Gantos would be the PERFECT choice for the role of Ambassador. So today, along with them,  I enthusiastically wish to nominate Jack Gantos to be the next National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

His knowledge of children's literature is "deep and wide" as the old song goes. Listening to one of his presentations is a mini course on the subject. From Rotten Ralph to Hole in My Life, his books span early childhood to young adult.

Gantos's stories takes his characters into the strange, the odd, and the macabre but he always knows exactly how far to go and respects the youngster holding the book.  He overlays his stories with tenderness and affection.

Still, there are moments when the reader cannot believe what just happened.

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19. Video Sunday: Arrr! Tis Captain Jack David Small!

Writing huts!  We all have them.  And by “all” I mean “Laurie Halse Anderson”.  But famous authors of the past also have had magnificent writing huts and one of them belonged to Roald Dahl.  Now Dahl’s granddaughter Sophie is leading a fund-raiser to restore and relocate the hut.  I would think she need only appeal to Wes Anderson for her needs.  He’s a Dahl hut fan, this I know.  Thanks to Playing By the Book for the link.

So this past Saturday was the Kidlitosphere Conference.  Due to my maternity leave I was unable to attend but I did at least present via Skype a panel alongside Mary Ann Scheuer of Great Kid Books and Paula Wiley of Pink Me about children’s book apps.  To begin, we showed this video for The Three Little Pigs, a pop-up version based on the book by Leslie Brooke. It is one of the smarter app trailers out there, and possibly my favorite.

Big time thanks to Paula Wiley for the link!

Speaking of trailers, I was a big fan of last year’s Blexbolex book Seasons.  Here’s a trailer for the newest title by the Frenchman, People.  I love the connections made between the images.

Recently Jules at 7-Imp wrote a fabulous post on Jack Gantos and his ambassadorial possibilities.  Jack Gantos is a charming fellow, and well worth the price if you can ever hear him speak.  Case in point, he recently presented at the Center for Children’s & Young Adult Literature (CCYAL) at the University of Tennessee’s first annual Focus on Children’s Literature Conference on April 2, 2011.  Here’s a taste of what he was offering:

So.  Richard Dawkins wrote a book for kids.  Were you aware of this?  Nor I.  But here’s a trailer for it and everything.  The art was by none other than Dave McKean (The Wolves in the Walls, etc.).  The jury is out.  Has anyone seen this?

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20. Jack Gantos Wins the Newbery Medal

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos has won the prestigious John Newbery Medal at the American Library Association’s annual youth media awards.

A Ball for Daisy illustrated and written by Chris Raschka won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children. In addition, the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults went to Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.

Finally the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults: went to  Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The rest of the ALA winners follow below…


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21. Tale by Jack Gantos Wins Newbery Medal

The Newbery Medal is considered the most prestigious in children's literature. The Caldecott Medal goes to the most distinguished picture book.

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22. Jack Gantos Wins the Newbery Medal

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos has won the prestigious John Newbery Medal at the American Library Association’s annual youth media awards.

A Ball for Daisy illustrated and written by Chris Raschka won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children. In addition, the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults went to Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley.

Finally the Coretta Scott King (Author) Book Award recognizing an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults: went to  Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The rest of the ALA winners follow below…


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23. Newbery Medal Winners, 2012

By Bianca Schulze, The Children’s Book Review
Published: January 23, 2012

Medal Winner

Honor Book

Honor Book

“The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” ~ALSC

©2012 The Childrens Book Review. All Rights Reserved.


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24. Award Winning Happiness

ALA Youth Media Awards Day is something like a high holy day in the Kidlitosphere.  -- The anticipation -- the predictions --and in my case the recognition that my TBR list grows ever longer.

When I heard the news that Jack Gantos had been awarded the 2012 Newbery Award for his novel Dead End in Norvelt,  I was elated and began firing off emails to other members of the entwood here to let them know the momentous news.

I highly recommend the audio version of the book read by Gantos himself. It  is an excellent way to enjoy this semi-autobiographical tale.  He knows where he put all the jokes, ellipses and tender moments and delivers them perfectly.

The Troika of Jack Fansanity  (Jules at Seven Imp, the brilliant Adrienne at What Adrienne Thinks about That and myself) was engaged in a day long happy-dance and conga line through emails and Facebook posts.

Jack has been recognized with Newbery honors and other awards in the past.  Last week Dead End in Norvelt was awarded the 2012 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Winning THE Newbery Medal means that iconic gold medal will forever grace the cover of his book. It is a validation of his wonderful writing.  "Writing is hard work" Gantos told my students several years ago when he visited my library.  I am overjoyed his hard work has been recognized and rewarded.

Congratulations Jack Gantos!

Here is his presentation with the from the National Book Festival,  Fall 2011.
I know his Newbery Award acceptance speech will be a humdinger.  No one who hears him speak, ever forgets it. Listen to the crowd roaring with laughter here.

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25. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Amazon Deal & Art of Letter Writing: Top Stories of the Week

For your weekend reading pleasure, here are our top stories of the week, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s shocking news about Amazon, a fake Cormac McCarthy Twitter account and  Jack Gantos‘ Newbery Medal winning novel (pictured).

Click here to sign up for GalleyCat’s daily email newsletter, getting all our publishing stories, book deal news, videos, podcasts, interviews, and writing advice in one place.

1. 10 Bestselling Books with More Than 80 One-Star Reviews
2. What’s the Best Book You’ve Read in a Single Day?
3. Cormac McCarthy Did Not Join Twitter
4. Pinterest Tips for Writers
5. INFOGRAPHIC: Most Quoted Books of 2011
6. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to Distribute Amazon Books
7. J.R.R. Tolkien & George Orwell Removed From Public Domain
8. Best Mystery Books of 2011
9. Revive the Lost Art of Letter Writing Next Month
10. Jack Gantos Wins the Newbery Medal

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