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Newbery Medal Winner Jack Gantos Plays Not My Job

Jack Gantos
Anne Lower

On Monday, Jack Gantos won the Newbery Medal, the highest award in children's literature, for his novel Dead End in Norvelt. He's also written the Rotten Ralph series for kids, several novels ... oh, and a memoir about the 18 months he spent in a federal penitentiary on drug-smuggling charges. (We don't know if that one had pictures.)

We've invited Gantos to play a game called "Oh, darling! Take me in your arms!" Three questions about Harlequin romance novels.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

PETER SAGAL, HOST:

Now, the game where we invite on interesting people to try and hold their interest, it's called Not My Job. This week, author Jack Gantos won the highest award in children's literature, the Newberry Medal for his novel, "Dead End in Norvelt."

He's written several other novels in the Rotten Ralph series for kids, and he's written a memoir about his 18 months in the federal pen on drug smuggling charges. We don't know if that one had pictures. Jack Gantos, welcome to WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!, a pleasure to have you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

JACK GANTOS: Thank you. Thank you for the introduction.

SAGAL: So we're excited, first of all, congratulations on the big win, the Newberry Medal, that's quite an honor. One winner a year, it's just fabulous.

GANTOS: Yeah, it is.

SAGAL: So I was reading your book and it's about a kid named - let me check - Jack Gantos.

GANTOS: Yes.

SAGAL: Who is growing up in a town called Norvelt.

GANTOS: Yes.

SAGAL: In Pennsylvania, which is a real town where you yourself grew up.

GANTOS: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I mean, is this book autobiographical? We can only assume, since the character is named after you and growing up where you grew up and when you grew up there.

GANTOS: Yeah, yeah, all those three things point to autobiographical.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Yeah, they would. We referred to the drug smuggling. Can you tell us that story?

GANTOS: Yes. I was on my own in twelfth grade. I lived in a welfare motel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And then I was going to go to college to write books, but I drove up to the University of Florida. It looked just like my high school, a giant football facility with a small academic institution, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: So I decided not to go and write novels in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. And I could work all day and drink all night, but I didn't feel fulfilled until I ran into these really nice British guys who had a boat with 2,000 pounds of hashish on it.

And they said we're looking for a nice kid. I said, "I'm nice." They said we'll give you $10,000 to sail it to New York. That's four years of private school back then. I said "sure." I didn't know how to sail. I ran aground in the harbor.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Meaning the harbor leaving, or the harbor arriving?

GANTOS: Both, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: We got to New York. We docked it. And then we used to sell them. We would put big duffel bags full of hashish installed in shopping carts and go through the streets of New York City and deliver them to apartments.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: This sounds like the perfect crime, Jack. I can't imagine...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: ...how you ever got caught.

GANTOS: Yeah, well, you should have seen the surveillance photos.

SAGAL: Wait a minute; you are pushing a stolen shopping cart down the streets of New York with a duffel bag filled with hashish?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And I'm imagining you're running across another young woman doing the same thing. And you're like, "Hello, who are you?" And she's like "I'm Judy Blume; who are you?"

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: And you're like "Maybe we'll meet again someday at the Newberry Awards."

GANTOS: Well, the whole thing was rigged from the beginning because the British guys used American counterfeit money to buy the hashish in Morocco and then Secret Service got involved because there was all that bad money floating around.

So they followed the boat. And then once I got on it, then they had aerial surveillance of the boat across the Atlantic Ocean. And so they had been watching it all along. All they were waiting to do is catch everybody. So then once we sold all the hashish, I moved into the Chelsea Hotel, a fine establishment for any writer.

SAGAL: Yeah.

BRIAN BABYLON: No drugs there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: And then after that, I got paid, I got $10,000 in ten-dollar bills. God, it was beautiful.

SAGAL: Yeah.

GANTOS: And then the FBI came in, the Secret Service came in, the Customs officers came in and I went out the back window of the Chelsea Hotel. But the guy who owned the boat went down to the lobby. He got popped and I made it to the train station and took a train down to Florida, where I...

BABYLON: Now, did they pay you in fake money?

GANTOS: You know, I never knew.

BABYLON: See?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: This is the most exciting interview we've ever had. So you're in the train.

GANTOS: I'm on the train.

SAGAL: Everybody's after you.

GANTOS: I dye my hair in one of those little train bathrooms.

SAGAL: No, really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So you're down there, you're dyeing your hair. There's a soundtrack, and then what happens?

GANTOS: I got a rash.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: What's so amazing is I can so see the trajectory that leads from this to children's literature.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: But go on, so go on. So you're in the train, you're dyeing your hair, you have a rash now. You have blonde hair and a rash.

GANTOS: I go back to the welfare motel, which was run by Davy Crockett's great-great granddaughter.

SAGAL: Where? This is in Florida?

GANTOS: In Florida.

SAGAL: In Florida, of course.

GANTOS: She had his wallet in her bra.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: And at any rate - that's another story.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GANTOS: So at any rate, I called home. I thought maybe I should call home. So I called my father and he said "where the H are you?" He said "I've got the FBI parked in the driveway. They're reading our mail and tapping our phones." And I said I'm at a pizza parlor.

BABYLON: Click.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: And from there I got an attorney. Now, don't do this. My attorney, honest to God, was Alfred E. Neuman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I love that you've gotten this far in the story before telling us, "now don't do this kids."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You can smuggle the hashish. You can flee.

PETER GROSZ: But if you hire a fictional character as a lawyer...

SAGAL: Here's where I don't want you to be like me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: And so, at any rate, so I go to court. I dress up. I look nice. And the judge, you know, asked me if I have anything to say for myself. I go, I'm guilty, Your Honor, but I'm a very nice boy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: And he looks at me and he says "nice boys don't smuggle dope." And I was, like, oh, you got me there, Judge.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So, you went off to jail and you got out relatively soon.

GANTOS: I did about a year and a half. I went down to the college library - prison library.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: Well, for some of us...

BABYLON: We may have gone to the same college.

SAGAL: Right.

GANTOS: Got the Barron's guide and found a college that looked like it was going out of business. And I sent away for the application, which you're not fooling anybody because the letter has, you know, US Department of Corrections in purple ink on it.

SAGAL: Right.

GANTOS: And so, I filled it out. And you know the college essay that you sweat over?

SAGAL: Yeah.

GANTOS: I wrote one sentence.

SAGAL: What?

GANTOS: Will pay cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: I was accepted instantly.

SAGAL: Yeah.

GANTOS: And so I took that to my caseworker. And he said, wow, this is so interesting. Nobody has done this. And they had a special parole session and they let me out. And I went straight from a jail cell to a college dorm room and it was the exact same construction.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I mean, so how did you then become an award-winning children's author?

GANTOS: Well...

SAGAL: Oh, I'm sorry, we're out of time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: No, I kid. I'm genuinely curious how you go from prison to there.

GANTOS: There was a little bit of work in between there.

SAGAL: Yeah.

GANTOS: The transitional period. So at any rate, I always liked children's literature and so I started writing picture books. And I wrote the Rotten Ralph books and then I took them to the publisher when I was a sophomore in college, still on parole.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: And started placing picture books out there in the world. And then finally what happened is I started writing more novels and I started winning some awards, National Book Award, you know, nominee and Newberry Honor for the Joey Pigza books. And I felt like I had a little bit. So I thought well the drug smuggling story is good, you know it's good. So I wrote that.

SAGAL: Now we heard, I don't know if this is true but we were looking into you and there is a rumor that when you were running up and down the streets in New York in your shopping cart, that you buried about $5,000 worth of hashish in Central Park. Is that true?

GANTOS: That is.

SAGAL: It is true.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Is it still there?

GANTOS: I wasn't going to tell you that.

BABYLON: Is it there?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Well, Jack Gantos, we have invited you here to play a game we're calling?

CARL KASELL: Oh darling, take me in your arms.

SAGAL: You write very well for kids and young adults, but when people get older, their tastes change and many then turn to romance novels. We're going to ask you three questions about those saucy novels and if you get two right you'll win a prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail.

GANTOS: Oh boy.

SAGAL: Oh boy. Carl, who is Jack Gantos playing for?

KASELL: Jack is playing for Eli Barnes of Madison, Wisconsin.

SAGAL: First question: over the years, Harlequin Romance that began print, has developed a number of specialty lines of romance novels for particular tastes, include which of these? A: Harlequin NASCAR?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B: Harlequin Survivalist? Or C: Harlequin Democrat?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: Wow. Okay, let's see what's the most romantic there? Democrat? Nope.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: Survival. I'd go with NASCAR.

SAGAL: You're going to go with NASCAR?

GANTOS: Yeah.

SAGAL: You're right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Romance novel author Susan Anderson had to apologize for a typo that changed the meaning of a line in one of her books. Was it A: that the hero was not, quote, "desperately in need of a little late night cookie"?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B: the couple did not, in fact, make "sweat, sweat, love"?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Or C: the line she had written as "she felt his muscles loosen as he shifted on the ground," came out much differently?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: When the printer got a letter wrong?

GANTOS: You know, all three of them are pretty graphic.

SAGAL: It is true.

GANTOS: I have to go with the last one.

SAGAL: The line she wrote as "she felt his muscles loosen as he shifted on the ground" came out quite differently.

GANTOS: Yes.

SAGAL: That's right, that's what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: She had to write a post in her blog a rather exercised apology for that typo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: All right, you're doing very well. Here's your last one. Romance novels cater to all tastes, which is why one book seller is offering which of these sets of romance novels with a similar theme? A: The Airport Security Bundle, including "Love at First Flight" and "The Jet Set Seduction."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B: The Hot, Hot Kitchen Collection, including "The Long Order Cook" and "Turkey with Extra Stuffing."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Or C: The Nerd Box, including "Erotic Robotics" and "The Empire Strokes Back."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: I got to tell you, you know I already pulled it together for Eli here.

SAGAL: Yes, you did.

GANTOS: So now, I don't have to even think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GANTOS: So I'm going for the Nerd Box.

SAGAL: You're going for the Nerd Box. I wish there was a nerd box of romance novels, but it was really the Airport Security Bundle, of course. It's a strange theme. Carl, how did Jack do on our quiz?

KASELL: Well enough to win, Peter. He had two correct answers. So Jack, you win for Eli Barnes.

SAGAL: Well done.

GANTOS: Thank you.

SAGAL: Congratulations.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Jack Gantos' book "Dead End in Norvelt" just won the 2012 Newberry Medal. Jack Gantos, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!

GANTOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Had a great time talking to you. Thank you.

GANTOS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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