Opening Chapter: New YA Memoir Explores Life-Altering Experience

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There are several key dates in the career of children’s author Jack Gantos.

In 2001, Gantos received a Newbery Honor for Joey Pigza Loses Control.

His novel Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key was a National Book Award Finalist in 1999.

In 1976, his first book, Rotten Ralph, was published.

And in 1972 he spent a year in prison.

Not many of Jack Gantos’ readers know about this dark spot in his resume. That’s about to change with the March publication of his memoir for young adults, entitled Hole in My Life.

When he was 20 years old and a budding writer living on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean, Gantos took a chance that he hoped would earn him $10,000. He agreed to help sail a boat from St. Croix to New York City. The sailboat was loaded with nearly a ton of hashish. It was the early 1970s and Gantos was itching for an adventure.

After the police arrested a partner in the scheme, Gantos turned himself in. He was sentenced to up to six years and sent to a medium security prison in Kentucky. Gantos managed to get work in the prison hospital and convinced his parole officer to give him a chance to go free if he was accepted to college. After about a year in prison, Gantos was accepted to college and subsequently released.

Gantos talked to BTW recently about his new memoir and the events that changed his life. This ebullient children’s book author, a favorite among many booksellers, speaks with animation about his past. "I’ve been writing pretty much all my life," he said. "Prison was a great place for me, both to write and also to take myself seriously."

Hole in My Life is surprisingly direct. Rather than turn his story into a cautionary morality tale, Gantos takes care to describe both the excitement of the smuggling adventure as well as the bleakness of life behind bars. It’s a risky strategy, especially for a book directed at high-school teens. "I think it’s part of the risk in the subject," he said. "It’s not like I’m saying I did this, and I never liked a bit of it. Or that I did it under duress. Or I was deluded. I have to say it was a grand adventure. Parts of it were terrific fun. And it was fraught with immensely foolish mistakes. But I would be lying to say I didn’t enjoy portions of it."

The book highlights a common dilemma in the world of YA literature: how do you keep things as honest as an adult novel or memoir, and still provide some sort of positive direction? The book’s early reviews seem to validate his approach. "I’ve had a lot of response from both librarians and teachers of a certain age who say ‘that could have been me,’" Gantos said. "For them, it’s an experience of violation to redemption. And I think most people really do understand that cycle: that you do make mistakes, and try to make the best out of them.

"If all our role models had never made any mistakes, that would be a pretty bizarre collection of role models."

Gantos admits it was a tough book to write. But not because it involved some sort of angst-ridden struggle with the past. "I didn’t have that Hollywood image going -- sitting at a typewriter mopping my brow," he said with a laugh. "I think it was hard to write because it was a book I wanted to get right. I was always measuring the writing against the deep, true feelings I had at the time. I think that’s why parts of it were difficult to make sure it came out genuine."

Gantos put off the project for many years, but always knew someday he’d write about prison and drug smuggling. "To have that experience and also be a writer -- well, you’d have to be blind to miss that material," he said. "And I think there’s a right time to really get the heart and soul into it." He had previously published one adult novel about prison life entitled Zip Six, but this is the first time he’s written about his own life.

There was one additional motivator: Gantos is disturbed by an increasingly get-tough approach with teen offenders. "I find that the culture in our schools and our society oftentimes has a kind of harsh, zero-tolerance policy. I am not for kids acting out in horrible ways, in violent ways. But I am also not for people saying that if a child makes a mistake then they’re immediately painted with a red brush. They’re labeled as either a loser kid or a bad egg, and can’t get out from under it."

A good part of what helped get him through that long year was a love of books. Sprinkled throughout Hole in My Life is a veritable reading list of tough, honest books. The memoir passes on the inspiration Gantos found in writing and reading. "When you’re a teenager and a book strikes you right between the eyes, it is powerful. It’s honest and genuine and you feel yourself taking a new shape because of it."

Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux is planning to cross-market the book to adults as well as high-school readers. But for Gantos, it’s those late high-school teens just on the cusp of freedom that he really wants to reach.

"If I was talking to a class of 12th graders about the book," Gantos said, "I’d have to tell them that it was a great experience. Not that I recommend it. But it was great like any experience -- like joining the army is an experience or starting a family is a great experience or going to college. It was a life-changing and life-expanding experience.

"To have gone through such an experience and not to have turned your life around and done something good with it -- I think that would be the real loser experience. It’s not so much not going to jail, but not learning from it." —Andrew Engelson