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A Newbery winner at last

Boston writer finally lands the highest honor in children's literature

Boston, MA - 01/26/12 - Portraits and pics of Jack Gantos, Boston-based children's and young readers' author who just won a Newbery Medal for his latest book, "Dead End in Norvelt." - (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin), section: Lifestyle, reporter: James Sullivan, slug: gantos_pics, LOID: 5.0.799289278.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Jack Gantos has created popular characters who are average children with a sense of humor and crazy adventures - though perhaps not as crazy as one of his.

In the world of young people’s literature, the big story in recent years has been fantasy — “the science fiction, werewolves, vampires, dark-arts kind of books,’’ as Jack Gantos calls them.

Gantos, by contrast, writes books about regular kids. No fangs or flying broomsticks for Joey Pigza or Jack Henry, the stars of two of the prolific author’s popular series for intermediate readers. His characters are just average children with a sense of humor and a few crazy adventures.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Jack Gantos held a copy of his latest book, "Dead End in Norvelt."

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“I’ve always been a strong believer in character-driven books,’’ says Gantos, who lives in Boston. “I don’t think that will ever much go away.’’

Already the recipient of many honors for his books, which are favorites among educators and librarians for their ability to lure those coveted “reluctant’’ readers, last month Gantos was awarded the Newbery Medal, the highest honor in children’s literature, for his latest book, “Dead End in Norvelt.’’

Several factors contributed to his Newbery selection, Gantos figures. Part of it could be his longevity; now 60, he’s been writing books since the late 1970s. Part of it could be the fact that he had already amassed quite a bit of “swag,’’ as he calls it. “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key’’ (1998), the first book in that series, was a finalist for a National Book Award. In 2001, Gantos was a Newbery finalist for “Joey Pigza Loses Control.’’ The author also won several awards, including the Printz and Sibert honors, for “Hole in My Life’’ (2001), perhaps his most unusual book, in which he wrote frankly about a bad decision that landed him in prison in his early 20s.

Mostly, though, Gantos believes “Dead End in Norvelt,’’ an oddball murder mystery involving a boy and a stack of obituaries about the town founders, is deserving of the award.

“I don’t feel like I just barely lipped it in over the rim,’’ he says with an impish grin.

Some writers of children’s books — particularly authors who write for boys — can come across in person like overgrown kids themselves. Gantos seems like nothing of the sort. He looks more like an art dealer, with his jacket and vest, his dark hair, and his Roy Orbison-style thick black-framed glasses.

“He’s dapper, very hip,’’ says Janet Tashjian, who says she became a writer of young-adult books after studying with Gantos when he taught at Emerson College. “It’s not a case of arrested development, absolutely not.’’

The author’s sense of humor has helped earn him a devoted following in the publishing world, says Tashjian.

“I’ve been in conferences where Jack is speaking to librarians, and they’re howling with laughter,’’ she says. He has a wealth of knowledge about what it’s like to be a kid, she says, and it translates effortlessly to the page: “He’s so incredibly funny. You laugh out loud, and then you’re choked with emotion a few pages later.’’

That has plenty to do with Gantos’s stark honesty as a writer. Many of the tales that pepper his books — digging up a dead pet, watching your father rescue a drowning couple — are drawn from his own peripatetic childhood.

Born in the Pennsylvania coal-mining town featured in “Dead End in Norvelt,’’ Gantos moved with his family to Barbados when he was in second grade. Later, trying to finish high school, he lived on his own in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he made a life-changing mistake.

Gantos knew he was taking a chance when he wrote “Hole in My Life.’’ The book tells the true story of his incarceration after agreeing to take part in a drug-smuggling operation in order to earn money toward college tuition. He and his partners sailed a 60-foot yacht carrying hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York, where they sold their cargo until they were caught by federal agents.

Writing so openly about such ill-advised behavior certainly could have sabotaged his standing with parents and schools. Yet Gantos felt strongly about the message. At its core, the book is about “doing foolish things, making bad choices,’’ he says, themes every potential reader can relate to on some level.

“That book has a big interior world,’’ he says.

Prison was awful, he writes, the worst experience of his life. He weighed 125 pounds, was riddled with acne, and he was terrified. Yet in the end, the real-life nightmare gave him the means to become what he wanted most. The kind of kid who kept journals and dreamed of becoming a writer, Gantos taught himself to write for real while holed up in his tiny yellow cell.

Sentenced to up to six years in jail, Gantos got out after serving about 15 months, when a caseworker agreed to help earn his release if he could get accepted to college. Gantos applied to a small junior college in New York; needing proof of employment, too, he got an offer to sell Christmas trees in Little Italy.

After a brief time in New York, Gantos made his way to Boston, where he graduated from Emerson in 1976. He earned his master’s degree there eight years later and taught at the school for years.

Forty years after the mistake that made him a writer, his life would be unrecognizable to his younger self. A few days after receiving news of the Newbery award, Gantos answered the oversize door of the elegant, three-floor South End brownstone he shares with his wife, Anne Lower, a public relations specialist, and their daughter, Mabel, 15.

Mabel was born in New Mexico, during a sabbatical. When the family first moved into the brownstone after returning to Boston, Gantos claimed the huge basement as his office.

“Big gorilla talk,’’ he jokes. Turns out it was far too much space in which to chase the writing muse. The room is now the family den. He moved his office up to the top floor, into an absurdly small, 20-square-foot garret.

He doesn’t write at home much anyway, working mostly at the Boston Athenaeum, where he spreads an array of reading materials, a laptop computer, and the small notebooks he fills with his manuscripts in front of him “like I’m playing three organs at once,’’ he says.

Humor is the glue that holds his stories together, Gantos likes to say. “He’s a scamp,’’ agrees Nicole Rubel, an artist who met him nearly four decades ago at a costume party (he was dressed as the white rabbit, she as Alice in Wonderland). They began writing picture books together about a lovably horrible cat named Rotten Ralph.

Though Rubel and Gantos were a couple for just a few years, their working relationship continues to this day. They have collaborated on almost 20 “Rotten Ralph’’ books.

At the outset of their respective careers, they were mutually supportive, and they remain that way, says Rubel. “That passion is what people respond to,’’ she says. “He has true honesty.’’

To Gantos, writing is serious business, and he is particularly well-organized about it. Look at Dickens, he suggests.

“He was immensely busy, had his fingers in every pie. And he had [10] kids. When he sat down to write, he flat-out wrote. He’d do 3,000 words in a couple of hours, probably.’’

Aspiring writers approach him all the time, Gantos says, and it’s often obvious why they are not working writers.

“People dither away so much time,’’ he says.

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.
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