Writing What I Know & Finding Joey Pigza
By Jack Gantos
I started writing when I was in second grade. I kept journals and wrote in them obsessively about everything I saw and felt and wondered. I wrote about kids I knew. I remembered conversations I'd heard and put those in my journal.
For me, it had nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with privacy. I lived in a household with three siblings. The fact that the diary had a strap and a lock and key was the most exhilarating thing about it. It was like a lockbox or a pirate's chest. It was one little corner of the world that I had control over.
When I was in college, I wrote my first books for kids. I thought I could write about anything alligators, for example. But I didn't know anything about alligators, so that book wasn't very good. It didn't get published. But then I wrote about a cat I owned. It became a book called Rotten Ralph, which was published and became popular.
After I got wise to writing about what I know, I reread my childhood journals and began to use my early writing as inspiration for more complete stories about my adventures, my family, and school. Those became the four Jack Henry books: Jack on the Tracks, Heads or Tails, Jack's New Power and Jack's Black Book.
I got the idea for Joey Pigza when I was visiting a school in Pennsylvania, talking about writing. This kid was sitting in the front row (teachers tend to put the really active kids in the front) spinning around on the seat of his chair. He was really smart and having a blast. I would start to tell a joke, and he would figure out the punch line and say it before I could. He was finishing my sentences! He was having fun, but then he changed. He became quite worried. “Teacher, teacher!” he called out. “I forgot to take my medication!” She pointed to the door and out he ran. I could hear him slapping every locker as he ran down the hall to the nurse's office.
I'd known kids like this when I was a kid. We moved 40 times when I was growing up, and I was always changing schools. Because I was never in one place very long, I didn't make a core group of friends. So, I ended up hanging out with the unusual kids. Some of these kids were very, very active. I liked them because they were smart and funny and clever and didn't appear to have any dull moments in their lives.
So, the spinning, locker-slapping Pennsylvania kid brought back some memories. I still write and draw in my journal every day. And when I got home from my school visit, I wrote a description of the “active” boy in the front row. The next day, I read it and liked it, so I wrote more. And Joey Pigza was born! At first, I wrote about him in the third person (using “he”). But it didn't sound right. Then, I started writing about his life as if I were Joey I wrote in the first person (using “I”). It was really Joey's book, and that's what I wanted!