Small notebooks, black covers, Strathmore brand: For years, Jack Gantos wrote in journals with “no lines, so you could draw and write.” As he explains in a call from his Boston home, “When you finished one, you had a book. You could put a rubber band around it and put it on a shelf.”
But the author’s path to the writing life wasn’t quite as linear as a row of black journals on a bookshelf, as fans of his New York Times best-selling YA memoir, Hole in My Life, know. In it, he describes his decision, at age 20, to earn cash for college by helping to smuggle a ton of hashish (via yacht) to New York City, and the year of prison time that followed.
Everything certainly turned out well: Gantos has written some 50 books, including picture books (Rotten Ralph series), fiction for young readers (Joey Pigza series), and YA and adult novels. He’s a Newbery Medalist and Scott O’Dell Award winner, as well as a National Book Award nominee.
But it’s easy to wonder about what came before, to ponder how the whip-smart, self-aware, charming author could also be the guy who thought sailing a drug-laden yacht was a good idea. Of course, that’s occurred to Gantos, and to the myriad children he’s encountered on his frequent school visits.
So he wrote The Trouble in Me, his new autobiographical novel for young readers—wherein, with help from those journals, he harks back to the events that forged the 14-year-old kid who became that 20-year-old guy, and explains what was on his adolescent mind and in his unsettled heart.
“A lot of middle-school kids read Hole in My Life but usually miss the deeper points, a lot of the interiors,” Gantos says. “They get the ‘Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!’ part, but don’t slow down enough to see themselves in the emotional mirror of the book, and I thought, this other story will slow them down.”
In the fictionalized memoir, Gantos’ family’s frequent moves are beginning to wear on him; nearly every year he’s the new kid, always striving to adjust and fit in. Add some unhealthy family dynamics that can’t be tempered even by reading his beloved books (“my imaginative world wilted away as the printed words bruised and darkened like fruit rotting on a vine”), and young Gantos is fairly miserable fairly often.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Pagoda family next door captures his interest. They’re tactless and brash, especially 17-year-old Gary, newly out of juvenile detention. His swaggering confidence and disregard for social norms proves irresistible: “All of that longing to be like him set something inside of me on fire and I had a feeling that there was no putting me out,” Gantos writes.
After all, the author says, “Kids need lots of attention, and if they don’t get attention at home, they will surely accept bad attention elsewhere.”
He goes on, “When I think of middle school and me at that age, I think that’s exactly where I switched gears and decided to become somebody else. . . . I was a ticking time bomb.”
That’s an apt description, not least because it’s amazing that Gantos escaped grievous injury during this time period—think explosives, fire, theft, dangerous physical feats and way too much time spent in the company of Gary, the budding (or perhaps fully bloomed) sociopath.
It’s quite an experience to read the book with the knowledge that this melancholy, danger-seeking 14-year-old survived and grew up to become an accomplished professor and acclaimed author—a powerful reminder that we’re not necessarily who we appear to be, and that our future isn’t determined by our past.
That’s been true of Gantos’ writing career, too. After he wrote Hole in My Life, he recalls, “There came a time when I thought, oh my god, I really like children’s books. Will people accept this? . . . This is really a good story, so I’m either gonna be really honest about who I am and my entire life, or I’m gonna go ahead and burn down my children’s book career. Quite frankly, it went in the opposite direction . . . and it reaffirms for me, as a writer, [that] I’m in the right field and now I can write everything. I’ve got plenty of room.”
Luckily for his fans, he’ll always have room for school visits, which he views as integral to his life as an author. “One of the great dividends of writing books for young readers is you get to go into schools and work with the kids, and you feel like a good human being when you do that,” Gantos says. “No matter how exhausting it can be, you know in your heart you’re walking out of a school and there’s at least one kid who went, that just rocked my world!”
The Trouble in Me will rock readers’ worlds, for sure. It is, to use a hoary phrase, the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page, thanks to Gantos’ gift for storytelling—and the reader’s hope that he’ll write more memoirs, fictionalized or otherwise.
“I’m not quite certain how people are going to look at this book,” Gantos says. “I hope people read it, read it sensibly, and I hope that kind of kid, that kind of guy, will get this book. I think this book will have a big blossoming inside the reader, which is where I love books to roam.”