At the beginning of the year, Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for her beautiful book about courage and kindness, The One and Only Ivan. Her predecessor was the incomparable Jack Gantos, who won the Medal in 2012 for Dead End in Norvelt, the funny and heartwarming story of one strange summer in the life of a boy named...Jack Gantos.
In the Q&A below, Applegate checked in with Gantos to find out about memorable school visits, where he keeps his Newbery Medal, and his newest book--the sequel to his Newbery winner and a September best book of the month pick--From Norvelt to Nowhere.
Katherine Applegate: Your alter-ego Jackie Gantos is back! Of all his hysterical new antics in From Norvelt to Nowhere, which scene did you have the most fun writing?
Jack Gantos: That’s a tough question. There are so many good scenes. There is the harpoon scene, and the pistol escapade, and the over imbibing, the creepy bathroom stall scene ... I’ll settle on the scene where Miss Volker is using the sandwich bread to wipe the unending tears from her guilty crying while the soggy bread balls roll down her face like they were little white garden snails. That scene sinks into chaos for Jack.
KA: In the new book, Jack and Miss Volker visit some odd historical sites on their wild road trip, including a real ghost town. Is Rugby, Tennessee, still abandoned?
JG: Rugby is a great old town started by Thomas Hughes, who had written Tom Brown's School Days. He traveled from England and began the town which was built on socialist/utopic principles. The town was a perfect fit for Miss Volker’s childhood back story, and it had been abandoned for many years. But it has had a bit of a revival. The fabulous library has always been intact, though it was boarded up for many decades. The town’s origins parallel the origins of Norvelt.
KA: Is there a memorable, silly, or just plain embarrassing question you recall being asked at a school visit?
JG: After a Rotten Ralph presentation a baby faced first grader stood up and with a very sincere voice asked me what had happened to the real cat that inspired Rotten Ralph. The boy seemed very troubled. I replied as sincerely as possible, “Well, he lived a wonderful life for many, many years until finally ... he expired.”
He shifted from foot to foot and thought about that last word. Finally he asked, “What does expired mean?”
I paused. Time was passing. The other kids were getting restless so I got to the point. “It means he died,” I said.
He thought about that, then asked, “Well, did you stuff him?”
“I should have,” I replied while thinking, dang, I really should have. But it was too late for that.
KA: When you autograph books, you often write “Read or Rot!” Why?
JG: Oh, it’s just a fun little motto that basically boils down to Read books or your brain will Rot. I usually draw a skull and write READ OR ROT! in blood red ink across the forehead. Kids like it.
KA: Writing pre-Newbery. Writing post-Newbery. Any difference?
JG: There are differences but they are all very shadowy. There are no statements to be made about the differences. There are only questions. I honestly don’t spend a lot of time pondering this as I’ll probably invent a problem where none exists.
KA: Where do you keep your Medal?
JG: In the freezer. When I have guests over for dinner and make individual butter pats for each plate I use the medal to imprint the butter. This way the conversation starts off about me.