Jack Gantos, author of the Joey Pigza series and Rotten Ralph picture books, returns in superb form with From Norvelt to Nowhere, a continuation of (fictional) 12-year-old Jack Gantos hilarious adventures in 1960s Norvelt, Pa.
By ELAINA SMITH
The Kansas City Star
In the new novel, Jack and 75-year-old Miss Volker pair up again, going on the hunt for the murderer of Norvelts poisoned old ladies as depicted in the previous book Dead End in Norvelt.
A resident of Boston, Gantos grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida. He says he decided to become a writer in sixth grade after reading his sisters diary and concluding that he could write better than her.
He published his first book, Rotten Ralph, in 1976 and has written more than two dozen books for children and young adults and won the Newbery Medal and Scott ODell Award for Historical Fiction, among others.
Gantos will appear at the Reading Reptile, 328 W. 63rd St., at 5 p.m. Saturday to read from and discuss From Norvelt to Nowhere, just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. The main character of Dead End in Norvelt and From Norvelt to Nowhere is named Jack Gantos. Why the blurring of nonfiction and fiction?
A. Norvelt is my hometown and home turf and where a lot of my relatives still live. Since I was using the town and a lot of the characters to set the foundation of the book I just decided to keep my own name. Of course, there is a fictional story woven into the Norvelt book in order to make the book effervescent with activity.
In creating your stories adventures, why did you pair a kooky old lady like Miss Volker with the awkward kid Jack?
I like the pairing of a 12-year-old boy and a 75-year-old lady as best friends. They bring to each other different qualities and like any good friendship, both characters are enriched through their pairing. And Miss Volker had a masterful influence on how I learned to examine history, and thus, how to judge myself and how to have a good laugh at the end of the day.
You spent some time in prison about a year and half when you were young. How did you go from prisoner to a childrens author?
In my memoir Hole in My Life, I write honestly about my high school years (which were not very elegant). Despite the ups and downs of family life the one positive activity that I managed to practice was reading and writing books nurtured a voice in me that I could begin to see strengthening within my writing.
Being sent to prison was the result of many bad choices on my part. I sailed the boat with 2,000 pounds of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York. I was singing, Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. But in prison I kept reading and writing, and when I was paroled I went directly to college and started writing with purpose. I always loved books for young readers so I wrote the first Rotten Ralph picture book my sophomore year.
The Norvel books contain quite a lot of death. Why such darkness in a series of childrens books?
When I was a 12-year-old boy the Cuban Missile Crisis was pitched to us as Armageddon. In class my teacher actually pointed at the wall clock and said, At 12 oclock the nuclear war will begin. We were terrified.
In Norvelt I give characters range, and when you examine history, you also see the range of human drama and humor on display. I bring a lot of heart to a book, and Im a hopeful person as are my characters, but I dont sugarcoat history, nor do I fear history. For my young readers, I turn learning history into a tool to understand who they are in the whole, wide world.
Since childrens books often have an overarching moral, whats the moral of the Norvelt books?
I believe I ask readers in the Norvelt books to examine some of the humanitarian highlights of history. I also ask them to examine a lot of historical events, and Norvelt events, which are cruel and shameful and ugly. And then I allow the readers to weigh it in their hearts and minds, and come to their own conclusions about what kind of person they want to become. A moral to a story is only effective if the reader makes a choice to change. I always hope they change for the better.
Elaina Smith is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an intern this semester at The Star. To reach her, send email to email@example.com.