A Gantos In My Lap: Getting Kids Excited About Writing
If, best beloved, you are invited to see Jack Gantos speak, you do it. You do it even if you have to pay money. Even if you are a cheapskate who spends most of her days finding ways to avoid shelling out cold hard cash for authors, you do it. You do it because you haven’t seen Gantos speak since he delivered his Newbery speech and you do it because you know it’s bound to be entertaining. You also do it because food is involved and you suspect that there may be brownies. You are not disappointed.
Wednesday evening I was invited by Patricia Murphy to attend Follett’s Educator Night with author Jack Gantos. The topic: “Meaningful Writing: Ways to Incorporate Personal Stories in Student Writing”. Being a librarian you might think my interest in student writing would be nil, but recently I came up with a brilliant scheme. You see, last week during an interminable meeting I’d had a flash of inspiration. What if, just for kicks, I conducted a weekly writing class for kids in the grades 4 & 5? I could give them prompts, have them read their work, give them free galleys, the lot. I liked the idea so much that we may begin this program in 2018. The catch? I’ve never conducted a writing workshop for kids before. I wasn’t entirely certain where to start.
Enter the latest book from Gantos, Writing Radar: Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories. My co-worker Brian Wilson was a big time fan of this book this year, so much so that it will be appearing on Evanston Public Library’s 101 Best Books for Kids in 2017 list (but more on that later). I figured there was a good chance this could be of use.
Now Follett, as you may know, recently purchased Baker & Taylor. And Baker & Taylor, as you may also know, provides books for libraries around the country, including my own. I’d been to the B&T warehouse in Momense, but I had not yet had the pleasure of visiting the Follett facilities in McHenry, IL. This was going to be a small adventure.
As it turned out, the evening was a lot of fun. It was split between Gantos and some educators that would be discussing tools with which to aid in promoting and encouraging student writing. Britton Follett started off the day, which was mildly unnerving. She is the 5th generation to work in the family business. So this was sort of like attending a Baker & Taylor or Ingram event and then meeting Mr. Bakerandtaylor or Ms. Ingram. After Follett was done there was some mention of a product called Destiny Library Manager that for one brief shining moment gave me a glimpse into what my life would have been like if I’d followed the path of school librarianship rather than public librarianship.
And then it was Jack time.
That’s the guy. And, as you can see, because I was in the front row he sort of put his stuff down right in front of me and spoke from what might as well have been my lap. This was a good thing. If you are going to see Mr. Gantos, lapseats are the best. Better still, he was such a pro that he didn’t seem to mind me whipping out my camera every other moment to snap pictures of whatever it was he was talking about. I say “seem” because he could well have been jolly annoyed, but he never said a word. Whatta gentleman. Jack and I have met on and off over the years but I don’t think we’ve ever had much of a sustained conversation. He’s a big fan of my co-author Julie Danielson, even giving us a blurb for Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature years ago. It read: “Memorize every word of this brilliant book, then quote it at cocktail parties and watch as knees buckle beneath your erudite greatness.” That’s how you write a blurb, folks. But in all honesty I don’t think he knows me from Adam, which is a-okay with me. Later, when he signed my book, he seemed to take an interest in my first name. This was probably because I share it with his older sister, a fact I learned during his talk.
And what a talk it was! The temptation of anyone attending a Jack Gantos lecture is just to pluck his best lines out of context and write them down, one by one. Such a move would be very silly and unprofessional. Fortunately “silly” and “unprofessional” are my middle names! Wait. Check that. My middle name appears to be “Ramsey”. Eh, I’ll work ’em into my write-up in context then.
So on average, this author visits around fifty schools a year. When he speaks to the kids about writing, he asks them a very simple question: Where do you write? Because if you have no place of your own to write, you often have to make one. Gantos recounted how, as a kid, he’d go into the bathroom, turn on the shower, and then get a good 30 minutes to himself before his mother caught on. These days he has a pretty cool writing routine. Now Gantos is not immune to Grumpy Old Man Syndrome, though he wears it well. Speaking on the topic of libraries, many have, to his mind, degraded into “hipster zones” and “ad hoc offices” what with their diverted focus from books to meeting spaces. There is one library he can count on, however, and that is the the Boston Athenæum, a subscription library akin to the New York Society Library of Manhattan. Once there, Gantos will climb the 140 steps to the 10th floor, a process that gets his head in order for his writing.
Then there is how you are writing. Jack’s a pen man. The kind of guy who can whip out the phrase “flexamatic nib” without so much as a pause for breath. A guy who buys a pen in Tokyo every time he’s there (like ya do) because in Japan they make ’em just the way he likes ’em.
So. You’ve got a place to write and a method by which to write. That just leaves the next thing you need. You need to read, kids. The more you read the more words you’ll have in the old cranium for getting down on paper. Reading is “the nutrition” of writing.
And what do you write in? Well, in Jack’s case he always likes to have a journal on him. In fact he plopped a couple down on the desk in front of me. Sometimes he’ll have four or five or six of them all going simultaneously.
That said, even for someone as accomplished as Jack, an empty journal can be a terrifying thing. He spoke eloquently on how some of us will try to shame ourselves into writing by buying a gorgeous journal, with a hand tooled leather cover and all the trimmings. “Whoa. That’s a journal Like the family Bible of ME!” But soon enough the unused journals go in a drawer and you’ll end up thinking “the cadavers of my intentions are in there” (these are all direct quotes by Jack, by the way).
This, by the way, is the photo that makes me think that Gantos missed his calling as a soapbox preacher.
Now let’s talk a little about Jack’s career. I liked very much that he harped on his own failures at the start. “In those days you got a REAL rejection” when a publisher didn’t want your book. Not a polite email from someone trying to coddle your tender feelings, but a face-to-face with an editor telling you precisely where you erred. For Jack, these were a kind of free a graduate school course on how to write. Sure, your story would be crumbling before your eyes, but at least you knew why.
It’s not like writing books was something Jack just woke up and wanted to do when he was an adult. As a child he was always scribbling stuff. “When you’re a lifelong reader, everything interests you.” He loved Harriet the Spy and the fact that she toted around a journal. “She really is the poster child for who I wanted to marry.” *beat* “It didn’t work out that way.” But Harriet was the one who taught Jack that the world around you is your material. He took it to heart and drew a map of his neighborhood. Check this out.
Crazy, right? And don’t those crocodiles look awfully similar to Lyle Lyle Crocodile, or is it just me? Yes, when Jack is teaching kids about writing, he encourages them to make maps like this of their own. The more details the better.
By the way, this is how I learned that Jack’s sister’s name was Betsy. I may have just found a new avatar.
Here’s a map Jack has made for kids to look at today. By having the kids draw their house, pets, and interesting elements of their lives, he’s able to give them a starting point for their journal writing. He’ll tell them “put ten things on the map”. Not just yourself and a piece of distressed broccoli, or what have you. Then he’ll write out a list of 13 Action Words and 13 Emotion Words. Now if you ask the kids to select a word and connect it to a person, place or thing on their map, half the kids will choose an Action Word and the other half with go with the Emotions.
Jack gave us other bits of writing advice, though all of it’s pretty much in his book. Stuff like the fact that in a book the rule is that three actions will convince the reader of something.
When Jack wound up the presentation it moved over to presenters Stacia Dirks and Nicole Stroup. Together, they covered the Ways to Incorporate Personal Stories into Student’s Writing. They also handed out this sheet:
To my eyes it was just a list of odd little words. Yet these resources, many of which are free and online, are a bit of a godsend to folks teaching writing to kids. Look at these goodies! There’s Popplet, which makes graphic organizers like so:
There are cool options for making comics, like ToonDoo and Google slides. They discussed ways in which kids can make photo collages and use those as inspiration for stories.
I was very charmed by their attempts to incorporate these cool tools that would allow them to interview older family members for family stories.
The sole flaw in the presentation was the presence of ancient children’s books. I shouldn’t complain. The fact that they were continually tying in curricular themes and ideas to children’s literature was lovely. Unfortunately, with the exception of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the Dork Diaries, none of the books they mentioned were at all recent. I like Fireflies by Brickloe, The Relatives Came, Bedhead, and Library Mouse as much as the next person, but when your most recent book is 10 years old you have GOT to put in some newbies.
Jack came back and answered a few questions after their presentation was done and I learned two very valuable facts.
1. That marvelously disgusting story in Guys Read: Funny Business that he wrote about the kid ripping off a wart with a pair of pliers was semi-autobiographical.
2. If you ever want to make Jack happy, ask if he has a bad cat story. He does. You are going to want to hear it.
Many thanks to Jack, the presenters, and Follett for making this happen. Now I’m off to my library to teach some young ‘uns!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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