Jack Gantos: Reading Saved His Life

In the summer of 1971, shortly before he became inmate number 74233–101, author Jack Gantos, my guest on this episode of Wavemaker Conversations: A Podcast for the Insanely Curious, had a construction job on the island of St. Croix, in part to earn money for college tuition and pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

But construction work was drying up and Gantos was feeling desperate to find an exit.

I was at a bar. A guy came up to me and he said, just right out of the blue … “I’m looking for a nice guy.” Just like that. And I said, “well, you know what? I’m a nice guy.”
“Well,” he said…”I have a deal to offer you.” … He said “a boat is soon going to pull into the harbor with red sails. And on that boat is going to be 2000 pounds of hashish. And we’re going to need another sailor to help us sail that boat to New York City.” He said “we’ll give you $10,000 in cash once we sell the dope in New York City if you help us sail that boat.”
It was like, oh my God, this is my exit. … I don’t even know how to sail a boat. But I’ll figure it out. And $10,000…I don’t know if you remember, $10,000 was like four years at Harvard. $10,000 was more than my father was making. … So I just looked at the guy and I said: “Sure. Absolutely. Count me in.” I mean, I did not say pardon me, I need to go home and sleep on this — maybe I should talk to my dad, or, you know, get some advice. No, I knew right away that this was it. It was wrong, but it was the exit. It was the only exit I had.

Where that exit led — to the federal penitentiary in Ashland Kentucky — is a story that is horrifying, humorous and, ultimately, uplifting. I strongly urge you to listen to Gantos tell it in his own words during this episode of Wavemaker Conversations: A Podcast for the Insanely Curious, which we recorded during the annual Nantucket Book Festival.

Jack Gantos, on the strength of his writing, would ultimately catapult himself into college. He is now the author of fifty books, including the Newbery Medal winner Dead End in Norvelt, and other great fiction for young adults.

Jack Gantos Displays His Fifth Grade Journal, Which He Carries Everywhere

And yet, when asked if it was writing or reading that saved his life — Gantos answers “reading.”

Every parent, teacher, librarian, and reader, will, I believe, benefit from hearing him explain why. Jack Gantos could make a reader out of all of us.

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