Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Putting Pen (A Fountain Pen) To Paper

When you hear something on a monthly or sometimes weekly basis for most of your life, it starts to not only take root, but to grow and flourish in your mind.  As far back as I can remember my mom told me I was going to write a book.  She was downright giddy when I was given the opportunity to be a teen reporter for our capital city newspaper.  She saved every single article I wrote.  Not once did she ever waver from this conviction of my becoming an author.

My writing four to five hours for five to six days a week is not toward the publication of a book but thanks to my mom, I do write, drawing attention to the work of other authors and illustrators.  What these people bring to children's literature is making our world, as a whole, better with every book.  I feel honored and compelled to talk about them and their work.

BUT (I can almost hear Mom laughing from heaven.)
I read a book yesterday which made me want to rush out, buy a fountain pen, open up one of my collected journals and start writing...a book.  Writing Radar: Using Your Journal To Snoop Out And Craft Stories (Farrar Straus Giroux, August 29, 2017) written and illustrated by Jack Gantos is one of the best titles on writing I have had the privilege to read.  It's bursting with good, solid, doable advice on the art of writing.  And it's loaded with hilarious moments...Jack Gantos's hilarious moments, which are unlike any other kind of funny.

Before Writing, There Was Storytelling

So, let me tell you a story about how stories
happen to me all day long and why keeping a journal has
been my greatest writing tool ever since I was a kid.

Beginning with a true tale of a school author visit centered on the (shiver) dictatorship of a school administrator, Jack Gantos connects this to an entry in a journal he wrote when he was in fifth grade.  He explains when he was younger his writing skills were not the same as a published author of fifty plus books but his ideas collected in his journals (think of them as treasure chests) are storytelling gold.  The similarity between the two principals, then and now, is uncanny.  For the next twenty chapters, Mr. Gantos explains, entertains and excites us with the probability of becoming writers, authors of our own books.

Within the next five pages we see ourselves, good readers and people who are better at reading themselves, cheered toward writing.  Inspired does not even begin to cover how these pages will push you forward.  We are asked to think about all the great books we've read.  They contribute to keeping our writing radar fully operational.

We become members of a writers' group with Jack Gantos as our mentor.  He talks about all kinds of journals, what to put in them and how every single one of us has stories to tell...all of us.  Journals make us more keenly aware of the world outside us and inside us.  We perfect our listening skills.  We learn the art of asking the right questions courtesy of Jack Gantos's mom and dinner table storytelling.

We learn of his oath taken in the realm of school librarian Mrs. Hammer, who lived up to her name but had a huge heart.  We learn of the depths he dropped to in his writing but how a shift in perspective, thanks to Harriet The Spy, directed him to new heights.  We learn about the sheer magic of creating story maps, literal maps of our immediate world.  From this we are guaranteed to be astonished at the stories surrounding us.

Storytelling partnerships for authors like action and emotion, inspiration and good writing habits, story structure and story elements are laid before us through example.  We can hardly turn the pages, whip out sticky notes to mark spots or underline sentences which call directly to us fast enough.  The oath younger Jack took is revisited but he cleverly leaves us hanging as to the results when he presents a story to us, written specifically for readers of this book.  He follows this by breaking the story into pieces, pieces he has given us.

At last Jack follows through on the oath only to be stumped (and disheartened) at a response.  He seeks advice, sharing all of it with us, which has lasted a lifetime.  Like all great stories Jack Gantos closes this title with a memorable conclusion.

The popularity of Jack Gantos's books and his numerous awards are a testament to his writing savvy.  Although designed as a guide for writers ages 9-12, this title is masterfully written to the point it reads like fiction for all ages.  It speaks to the storyteller in all of us.

Each of the twenty chapters is the precise length to complete a purpose, some only a few pages long.  The style of presentation completely engages readers through Gantos's own illustrations, snappy or intriguing chapter titles

(Blank Slate),

sentences encouraging (demanding because the writing is stellar) us to continue

(You can't ruin a journal completely.  Once I was in a rowboat on the Amazon river and dropped my journal in the water.  I plucked it out quickly (before a piranha nipped me).  But when I dropped my cellphone in the airplane toilet I just waved goodbye---and later wrote about it in my journal),

and frequent insertion of handwritten thoughts

(Trust me, I want you to succeed, but more important, I want you to Trust Yourself!),

and writing tips

(Never forget:  Every painful moment in life is a story waiting to be told).

At times the general narrative will be enhanced with conversational asides like The Power of Reading, Why I Use Fountain Pens or Basic Story Structure with Storytelling Elements.  After the conclusion readers are challenged with three irresistible writing exercises.  Here is a sample passage from chapter eight.

The black book came with no directions or rules.  Whatever I wrote inside of it, good or bad, was up to me.  The sharp tip of my pen was now the boss of every word in the dictionary, and it felt good to be the boss of something as amazingly powerful as the entire English language.  All I had to do was to tell each word where to line up.  That sounded easy enough, but I suspected it wasn't easy.  Words always have a mind of their own.

Having read this title once completely and portions of it more than once, I can with sincerity say it's a highly beneficial book to writers and those teaching writing.  Writing Radar: Using Your Journal To Snoop Out And Craft Great Stories written and illustrated by Jack Gantos is a necessity for professional and personal bookshelves.  I predict you will be replacing it often as it will be well-loved or frequently find its way into another home.  Thank you, Jack Gantos!

To discover more about Jack Gantos and his other work, please visit his website by following the link attached to his name.  Jack Gantos will be The Presenter at the Twelfth Carle Honors.  You can read an excerpt from the book at the publisher's website.  Jack Gantos talks about his work at Reading Rockets.

UPDATE:  Author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson chats with Jack Gantos about this title at Kirkus.  October 20, 2017


  1. I'm excited to see how this can enliven both my writing and my teaching!

  2. Interesting book, to help me look back on my life stories and create stories that appeal to family, family stories are about to be a lot more interesting now!