Notes from Candice Ransom

Why I’ll Never Be Jack Gantos

Kuretake Zig Letter Pen
Kuretake Zig Letter Pen

I am waiting for a pen to come from Japan.  Not a fancy pen.  Not a rare, expensive pen.  I’m waiting for a Kuretake Zig Letter Pen, body in Strawberry Pink.  You buy the body of the pen separate from the refill.  My friend Donna put me on this pen, which she read about in Uppercase magazine.  I tried hers and agreed it was the best writing pen ever.

Ordering the $5.00 pen and its $5.00 refill (shipped on a slow boat from Japan) went along with discovering a new type of notebook in New York last weekend.  I was attending the SCBWI Mid-winter conference.  The conference coincided with a fabulous exhibit at the New York Public Library, “ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” 


The exhibit made me glad I was a children’s book writer.  Button-busting proud to be in the field.  The original manuscripts and art reminded me why I loved books like Harriet the Spy (celebrating its 50th anniversary—I read it new) and The Cricket in Times Square


I stopped, entranced, by a Mary Shepard illustration for Mary Poppins A to Z.  I leaned forward, pressing myself into the glass case, trying to enter that cozy scene.  I used to do that with all the black and white drawings in my beloved middle grade novels as a way to extend my reading experience.  I didn’t just read books back then, I lived them. 


On my way out, I browsed the gift shop, almost the best part.  I picked up Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, a delightful map-making kit called Make Map Art: Creatively Illustrate Your World, and an odd little notebook by Apica, captioned a little weirdly as, “Most advanced quality gives best writing features.” 

map art

Back in my hotel room, I started writing in that little red unassuming notebook and nearly swooned.  My extra fine Pilot pen swanned across the smooth paper.  No ghosting, no bleed-through.  The paper made me slow down and write neatly, which in turn made me slow down my thinking. 

Apica CD15 notebook
Apica CD15 notebook

The combination of the Kuretake pen and the Apica notebook sent me in a tizzy.  I would be a much better writer with these tools!  I’ll pitch my composition notebooks with chintzy paper that always bleeds through.  I’ll order new colors of ink refills and different nibs for my new pen!  Get the big Apica notebook with 96 pages instead of 28! 

But none of this will make me like Jack Gantos. 


Jack Gantos was the first keynote speaker at the conference.  Nearly 1200 people were in the audience, eager, expectant.  Jack is great speaker, funny, irreverent, smart, self-deprecating.  I’d already chatted with the attendees in front of and next to me—they were new to the field.  I envied them their fresh start on their journey. 

I opened my notebook (composition with bleed-through paper, sigh) and took notes.  Jack Gantos offered a great deal of his process in his slide presentation, along with excellent take-away tips.  Everyone around me roared with laughter (I laughed, too), but they didn’t take notes.

What did I learn from Jack Gantos?  Lots of things, but what struck me most was his work day.  He gets up and packs his lunch.  He stows his lunch and supplies in an L.L. Bean boat tote (complete with monogram) and off he goes to the library.  Not just any library, the Athenaeum in Boston.  He climbs what looked like five flights of spiral stairs to “his” table. 

He unpacks his bag:  a laptop that looked similar to my 2005 laptop, an older clamshell cell phone, a big plastic file with his notes, another plastic file with his project in progress.  That’s it.  On a good day, he works eight hours.

So why can’t I be like Jack Gantos?  I even have a monogrammed boat tote to carry my lunch and supplies in.  But I don’t know of a library near me that doesn’t have patrons tracking back and forth like turkeys and people yakking on phones. 

However, I do have a nice office in my house so I don’t really need to go anywhere.  More than location, it was Jack Gantos’s example of setting daily goals and ignoring distractions that hit home.  He uses old-fashioned methods—writing drafts in longhand, for instance—and equipment that is hardly state of the art.  He gets the work done without the frills. 

abc alice

That evening, I copied my scrawled notes from my composition notebook into my new Apica notebook.  I wrote neatly and felt virtuous.  I can’t wait for my new Kuretake pen to show up in my mailbox—my words will glide onto the silky paper.  But will a new pen and notebook make any difference in my work?  Will they make me write like Jack Gantos?

“Most advanced quality may give best writing features,” but stories come from the heart, not a special pen nib.  New York was good for me.  I met interesting people, heard wonderful speakers, saw gorgeous art.  Best of all, what I heard and saw gave me back my ten-year-old self, the person I have to please first in my work.


Back home, I started putting into place some of the tips Jack Gantos generously gave us.  I’ll never be Jack Gantos, but maybe I’ll be a better version of Candice Ransom.

15 thoughts on “Why I’ll Never Be Jack Gantos”

  1. And I can’t believe I missed you!! Ruth told me you were there, but I never saw you. Pah!!!! Jack’s talk was one of the best I’ve ever heard – truly. And what a great idea to just adopt a gorgeous library as your office. I’m with you – I don’t have any old stately libraries that would fit the bill near me right now, but maybe someday.

    • I didn’t see *anybody* I knew except Ruth in fleeting. What a mob scene! But I saw your notebook on the blog–love the drawing of people in the audience!

      Here’s one thing about Jack’s workday–he has a wife at home to do the hunting and gathering of food, laundry, cleaning, errand-running. Could we really go to a library for eight hours a day? I couldn’t, even if I found the perfect library.

      Jack gave us so much of his process–I wanted to tell the people around me, Take notes! You won’t remember this! He was truly wonderful. And so was Kate Messner. Those two changed me.

  2. I’m so happy the conference worked its magic on you. I live just a bus ride away from NYC, and I was tempted to sneak into the conference just to hear Jack Gantos speak. He’s my idol. Now I’m sorry I didn’t sign up for the conference to begin with.

    We don’t need another Jack Gantos, but we do need the Candice Ransom you want to be.

    • I haven’t been to that conference since 2009 and that time I was disappointed, though I can’t remember why. I went up on the train one person, and came back somebody else–well, not somebody else, but that conference gave me a much-needed kick in the pants. Gantos was brilliant. And Kate Messner was also very inspiring.

      Thanks so much, Mary. I’m trying to be the Candice Ransom I was meant to be from age ten.

  3. Candice you inspire me EVERY SINGLE TIME. The heck with Jack Gantos. I want to be more like Candice Ransom. Maybe if I had one of those pens…

    • Tami, you are so sweet . . . and funny. Okay, you can order that pen on Amazon–it ships free but it takes three to four weeks to arrive! I’ve found a good substitute for the Apica notebook right in Barnes and Noble. Their cloth-covered “deconstructed” notebooks by Studio Oh! No binding–just sewed and glued–so the books lay flat. Paper is almost as good as Apica’s!

      You inspire me as well–I stop by The Phantom Tollbooth often. The best thing about the conference was that it reminded me I’m not alone–we’re all in this together, doing the best we can.

  4. Another great inspiring post by you! I love Jack Gantos. Heard him on Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me (NPR) and laughed so much. He was talking about a memoir he wrote. Very funny. Thanks for giving some details about his writing life. I have a nice but cluttered office which I am slowly un-cluttering.

    • Patty, that memoir was about Jack’s very young experience with prison. It’s eye-opening, funny, and brave. Hole in My Life, it’s called. You should read it!

      Offices tend to clutter themselves when we aren’t looking. I’m pretty vigilent about mine but stuff sneaks in anyway!

  5. Wow! The exhibit sounds wonderful. I wonder if it is a travelling exhibit. Would be great to see it come out here.

    The map book looks a lot of fun. Kids love map making [as do some adults such as myself – nothing like making a treasure map].

    I totally understand your appreciation for a good pen. And I do love a pen that flows smoothly.

    At the moment we are all about reading at home – especially the children’s books. Gwen has started school and she is coming home with daily ‘readers’. It is an incredible feeling hearing Gwen sounding out the words she reads, and recognising the words on sight. I am thinking of finally buying “The Big Green Pocket Book” to add to the home library, something fun to help her read. And on top of that all the schools in the state are involved in an annual reading challenge, so Gwen is signed up for that. It’s an exciting time for Gwen.

    • I remember Gwen from the photos you showed me not too long ago. She is getting to be such a big girl! How exciting she is learning to read, the most important thing she’ll ever learn and you get to experience that. Let me know if you do order Big Green Pocketbook. I’ll send Gwen an autographed book plate to put inside. And a photo of the real big green pocketbook, which I still have.

      I don’t know if that show will travel or not. I never understand how people let priceless objects go out of their possession, but I let an exhibit borrow a World’s Fair scrapbook of mine. Never got to see the exhibit myself, but I am glad people got to enjoy my small piece.

  6. I know the feeling of rejuvenation that comes from hearing someone you admire talk about their craft. I feel it every time I spend a few hours with you. Your work ethic inspires and encourages me. I spent this snowy day quietly studying the kinds of images I wish to create and then took a few still life pictures – simple images that made me feel simply satisfied. As you say, we must please ourselves first. Walking through life by your side, seeing you revel in words and stories, makes me glad you are the one and only Candice Ransom, my writerly friend.

    • At the risk of sounding like we’re in a mutual admiration society, I am enjoying watching you grow as a photographer, coming to your work from different angles, viewing the world through your particular lens. In the two years we’ve been friends, your work has changed, deepened.

      I spent this snowy day at the computer and have nothing to show for my hours. This frustrates me more than anything lately. I wish I had taken at least one picture, something to look at the end of day. But soon the weather *will* warm up and we can get out! And I do thank you for telling me about the pen (ordered, as you know) and the notebook at B&N (on my desk now).

  7. The pen, the notebook, the city, the library, the speakers, but … as Tami says.. most of all you! It sounds good. We’ll keep aspiring.

    and ah that ten year old Candice. I did speak recently to a group and asked if anyone there was nine. And only someone just a bit younger than us shot up her hand. A writer through and through. Aspiring to that, too.

    • Was that at the panel you were on recently? The one with Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple? I wish I’d been there. I would not have had the nerve–or the notion–to raise my hand. You have reminded me, again, that as a children’s writer, I need to keep my young self close by. It’s hard when older, grumpier, more serious self is worrying about, well, everything. Come to think of it, I worried about everything at ten, too!


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