I’ve probably said this before right here at my Kirkus blog, so I apologize for any redundancy, but it is a spectacular thing to hear award-winning author Jack Gantos give a presentation. Anywhere. I always want to stand up when he’s done, and (complete with lots of fist pumps) yell, “Now, that is why I chose to work in the field of children’s literature!” He speaks with passion and knowledge and a refreshingly wicked humor about children’s books —and the man knows his books.
But I’ve also heard him talk about writing to both adults and children, and that’s pretty powerful, too. Good news for those students who have heard him give writing advice—and especially for those who haven’t yet—he has a new book on that very topic. Writing Radar: Using Your Journal to Snoop Out and Craft Great Stories is on shelves now and is geared at upper elementary and middle school students. Packed with humor, tips on gaining confidence as a writer, and smart, practical advice on crafting stories, it is what the Kirkus review calls a “standout among writing guides, valuable for its sage and friendly encouragement and for the sheer fun of hanging out with Jack.” (See? I bet that reviewer has also heard him speak publicly before!)
I chatted with Jack via email about this book and what it’s been like to pass on his writing tips to so many students.
Jules: Hi, Jack! Thanks for chatting with me about this wonderful book, which I'd drop from a plane on every elementary and middle school in the country, if I were independently wealthy.
Jack: I wish you would drop it on every school—and to that end perhaps we can arrange a royalty-sharing program with you.
Jules: Have you been book touring, by chance, and sharing it with students? If so, how's that going?
Jack: It is going very well. This Fall, I’m booked to speak in dozens of schools that have asked me to specifically focus on the creative writing teaching tips in Writing Radar. A great champion of the book is Lucy Calkins at the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. She endorsed the book on its cover and has promoted it vigorously in schools and among teachers. For many years, she has invited me to speak at the Columbia Writing Project as a guest lecturer. She seeks to get the book into the hands of all upper elementary/middle school teachers across the country. As her assistant said to me, “she is giving it out like candy.”
All of this is very encouraging for the life of the book, which is intended to be of use in the hands of a young writer, as well as with teachers in the classroom. It has a classic balance between writing tips and fiction examples (hands-on smart—and funny). There is nothing abstract about it. All I want to do is give young writers some genuine approaches to writing, which are inspirational, professional, and effective enough so that they can manage to get started and keep the ball rolling.
Photo courtesy of Johnny Wolf Photography
Jules: I like the advice in the very beginning of the book where you write, "Even if you don't think of yourself as a great reader, you know how to read yourself." I remember hearing you say previously at a presentation that you were in the Bluebird group of readers as a child, the "slow" reading group, as if slow reading was a bad thing. And at the beginning of chapter two in this book, you talk about reading a lot, so you're acknowledging that writers are readers, even if they're labelled poor readers in school. I love this, because I think we get too crazy with labeling books in schools these days—and labeling readers.
Jack: Thank you. I was a slow reader, but I was thorough, and I liked (then and now) to be able to see the text develop into theater within my imagination. The imaginative staging is really what I enjoy so much about reading. Yes, it may slow down the reading speed a bit, but I think the gain in reading pleasure and retention is well worth it. Perhaps some people can do both at the same time—read rapidly and create detailed imaginative theater within their mind’s eye. I’m not one of them. I like to inhabit the book and I want the book to inhabit me.
In middle school, I was given a course in the Evelyn Woods Speed Reading Program. I thought it was rubbish, but I was encouraged to feel ashamed that I wasn’t smart enough to master the skill of Speed Reading. I found it about as useful as bolting down a meal that has no nutritional value. Sure, I can adjust the speed of my reading for various forms of writing and literature. When I read poetry, I’m even slower, and when I read the newspaper, I’m very quick.
Jules: I’ve seen you give presentations before, where you show students your thick, rubber-banded journals. Now I’m imaging students all over the country creating their own. I love it.
Jack: I do show students some of my old journals from when I was a kid. They are beat up, rubber-banded together, and look like objects from another century. Come to think of it, they are from another century!
Photo courtesy of Jack Gantos
Jules: I also love that this book is like one of your presentations to students – but in writing for posterity. And longer, of course, than your average presentation. When did it occur to you to write a handbook? Was it your idea or your agent’s? Or maybe even students’?
Jack: When I taught Creative Writing courses at Emerson College in Boston, I began to put together hand-outs, which listed content-and-structure approaches to writing that I thought might be useful for my students. To bring the material alive, I would tell them stories—then take them apart and show how they were built. This seemed to really help them manage the friendly unity between content and structure.
Then, when I began to visit grade schools and speak to students—elementary on up to high school—I realized that the materials I gave my college students worked just as well with younger writers. Also, teachers would ask for copies of my house and neighborhood maps that I made for finding personal stories, and they also wanted my materials on short-story structure and tips on rewriting and polishing stories. Many times I ended up staying after school and delivering in-service instruction on creative writing in the classroom. Teachers would have me back year after year, and I could see how the materials and instruction I gave them were very hands-on effective with their students.
To answer your question, the approaches to writing that I put together for myself as a kid with a journal (the Jack Henry series of autobiographic stories) were just further refined for college and grade school writers. For years, I had been meaning to write a book on using journals and my writing methods, but other fiction projects took my time. Once The Trouble in Me came out and I saw a gap in my schedule, I told my editor I wanted to write a book on writing. He gave me the green light and I got down to the business of writing. It did not turn out to be a “gap” book. It took about a year to properly boil the book down to just the right length, which includes all the writing tips with good story examples—and about a hundred spot illustrations. The text is crisp, fun, and full of common sense. And as I say to the reader in the beginning, “I’m on your side!”
Jules: You also say, “I want to be the best creative writing teacher you ever had!” I like that. It’s ballsy and bold, and I think you’re amply qualified to be the best creative writing teacher for children.
Jack: I do want to be that (in book form and in the classroom) for young writers. When I visit schools and speak to students—no matter the age—I have very limited time with them. Therefore, I refine my writing advice so that they have the essential tools to approach writing (content, structure, polish), plus I want them to have a dose of edgy confidence in order to put pen to paper. Without some measure of confidence, it is very difficult to write. So, when I tell them to trust me and that I am a practiced writer and teacher and that my advice is purposeful, then I hope they feel inspired and capable to take a crack at writing great stories with substantial action and emotion—and to construct the work vigorously and with great craft.
Jules: I think a lot of this good advice is also going to utterly delight children’s inner punk rockers, such as your post-Harriet the Spy realization as a kid that “[w]hen it comes to writing I should do just the opposite of what my mother tells me to do.”
Jack: I do want them to write about what they know about and what interests them—and to know that they should not worry too much if the content is gained by overhearing conversations or spying on others (like Harriet the Spy). All of us should assume that young writers know the particulars of their world better than we know their world.
The book also has use because it is a book. It can be carried and read and referred to and can be used by a young writer as a personal teacher outside the classroom when that writer may find the inspiration and alone time to write. I have books which inspire me to write. I’m just passing the torch to another generation.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.