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Authors: Jack Gantos

Jack's Black Book

BOOK: Jack's Black Book

By Jack Gantos
Newbery Honor author of the Joey Pigza books

Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade without a Clue
Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of Fifth Grade
Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade
Jack's New Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year
Jack's Black Book

The five books in the Jack Henry series are partly based on the diaries I (like Jack Henry) started keeping in elementary school. Some might think I have filled my alter ego's world with oddball characters and strange situations, but to me the stories are mostly about the everyday stuff that went on in my family and in whatever nutty neighborhood we happened to be living at the time (we moved around a lot). I never thought I was special, because most of the kids I knew thought the world looked as loony and off-kilter as it did to me. Now, when I talk to kids about my family stories and neighborhood characters, they still give me that knowing look which says, “The world hasn't changed that much.” Weird stuff still happens to kids, and around kids. Weird stuff is everywhere. An eleven-year-old reader summed it up. After reading one of the books in the series, she wrote to say she had recommended the book to her friends because “Your stories are filled with the unsaid things that go on inside kids' brains.” Who could argue with that?


Copyright © 1997 by Jack Gantos
All rights reserved
Distributed in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group
Printed in the United States of America
First edition, 1997
Sunburst edition, 1999
15  14  13  12

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gantos, Jack.
      Jack's black book/Jack Gantos. — 1st ed.
          p. cm.
      Summary: Comic misadventures ensue when seventh-grader Jack tries to write the great American novel.
      ISBN-13: 978-0-374-43716-9 (pbk.)
      ISBN-10: 0-374-43716-5 (pbk.)
      [1. Authorship—Fiction. 2. Humorous stories.] I. Title.

  PZ7.G15334Jab 1997


For Mabel Grace


It was pitch-black in my room and as I wrote I tried to imagine the size of each letter so I could keep the words in line and read what I had written in the light of morning. But no matter how carefully I wrote I knew my words would be jumbled and piled up over each other like train cars that had jumped the tracks. It didn't matter if I could read the words or not. I knew what I was thinking when I wrote them. They were the same discouraging thoughts in the light of day or in the middle of the night. I had the words memorized from saying them to myself over and over again as I walked down the street, or opened a book, or tried to write.
Moron. Idiot. Stupid.
Two weeks earlier I had received my aptitude-test scores from school and since then I had been giving myself a hard time. Now I could feel myself reaching the end of my rope.

After another restless night I rolled out of bed and held
the curtain to one side. It was just purple enough over the Teeters' roof to know it was time to get ready for school. Pete was still asleep on his side of the room. I wanted to sneak over there and strangle him. The night before, he said it was a good thing I was brain dead because if I was ever in the army and captured, the enemy could torture me all they wanted and I'd still have nothing to confess.

I looked down at the floor. My personal diary was open to the page I had last written. It looked like the scratching of a madman just moments before he did something he could never take back. If I threw myself off the Inter-coastal bridge and drowned, everyone would think they knew why once they read what I'd been writing. They'd say things like, “Poor kid had low self-esteem.” Or, “He didn't get enough positive reinforcement.” But they'd be missing the point. Calling myself an idiot wasn't about receiving enough gold stars or pats on the head. This was about scientific proof that I was dumb. Slow. Dim. Mentally challenged. A born, biological, stone-cold

Right next to my personal diary was my new writer's journal. It was totally blank. Not a pencil scratch. Hardly a fingerprint. I bought the plain black book with unlined pages because I had decided to write a novel. I had made up my mind to become a writer, so I figured, why wait until I'm old? Write a novel now, make some money, and move from Fort Lauderdale to Paris or New York or Dublin, where all the famous writers live interesting lives. But I didn't know how to write a novel. I didn't know what my characters were like. I didn't know the setting. I didn't
have a plot, or a theme, or even a beginning, middle, or end. I didn't have a clue—yet. I was still waiting for a good idea to strike me. I had read in an old writers' magazine that authors, when they were stuck, sometimes just needed to sit around in their bathrobes and stare dreamily up at the ceiling. Until, suddenly, an angel called a writer's “muse” would descend and whisper inspirational ideas into their ears. Then bingo, their pens begin to move across the pages like the pointer on a Ouija board. But the more I stared at the cracks in my ceiling while dressed in a terry-cloth bathrobe, sucking on my lead pencil point with my ears perked up like a Chihuahua's, the only ideas that rolled around my empty head were ugly.
Give up. Throw in the towel. You don't have what it takes to write a novel.
My stupidity was stalking me like some big dumb monster with a club. Every time I thought I was smart enough to write, WHAM, I'd get smacked across the side of the head. And the more I whaled on myself, the dumber I felt, and the more it paralyzed me. I hadn't written the first word, but I hadn't given up hope.

What encouraged me to stick with writing was this one weird thing: whenever I closed my eyes, the letters of the alphabet shifted around like Scrabble pieces and formed words. Those words lined up and soon I imagined entire pages of writing so clearly that I could actually read them, sentence after sentence, as if I were reading straight from a book. A book I had written, with my name on the cover and my stories inside. I could feel the weight of that book in my open hands and inhale the clean smell of ink and
paper when I stuck my nose between the pages. I could imagine looking through a bookshop window and seeing a stack of my books on display. “Yes,” I'd hiss. “The idiot did it! The moron has triumphed! Those are mine.” And I'd be so dizzy with pride I'd stumble down the road as weak-kneed as a drunk. But even though I could see the book with my eyes closed, as soon as I opened them the words vanished. I knew those words were in me, I just had to squeeze them out.

I preferred getting up early in the morning since it was the only time I had the house to myself. I put on my old blue private-school pants which were now too tight because I was having a growth spurt. I yanked a white T-shirt down over my head and slipped into Dad's old mud-stained loafers. Mom had given up on dressing me as a catalogue cover boy for Sears, so I dressed myself to look like a combination mental-health outpatient and day laborer so I'd blend in with the tough local kids. I ran my fingers through my hair as I walked down the hall, past Betsy's room, and into the kitchen. BeauBeau III was sleeping in front of the refrigerator door like some bridge troll trying to collect a fee each time it was opened. I gave him a little kick in the rear. “Come on,” I whispered, “time to make the donuts.” He hopped up and began to stretch. His fleas stretched. His worms stretched. His ticks stretched. Everything but his brain stretched. He was a mess. I figured if I were a dog I'd be just like him.

I pulled out the carton of milk, flipped open the spout, and held it to my mouth. I loved ice-cold milk and took
a long drink, swallowed, and drank some more before I began to gag. I dropped to my knees and spit up a clot of sour milk onto the kitchen floor. It jiggled about like a white cube of coagulated Jell-O. Fortunately, BeauBeau III was hungry, and before I could clean the floor he lapped up what I had spit out. Who's the bigger idiot? I wondered. Me or BeauBeau III? I didn't know the answer just yet, but he was definitely my main competition, and I figured we were running neck and neck in the Bonehead Sweepstakes.

BeauBeau III was Betsy's new dog. Last year, when we all lived in Barbados, Betsy had decided she was going to go to boarding school in London. When we left the island she stayed behind, packed and ready to go. But her plans didn't work out and she grudgingly returned from Barbados to join us back in Fort Lauderdale. She called Florida “the hairy armpit of the world” and was so depressed Mom let her pick out a pet in an effort to lift her spirits. One afternoon she returned from the Animal Rescue League with an already grown cocker spaniel, and just like BoBo I, who'd been eaten by an alligator in a canal near our old house in Fort Lauderdale, and BoBo II, who we had to leave behind in Barbados, this one had no trace of a brain. Betsy was now studying French and she had named him BeauBeau III. The prissy French name didn't make him any smarter. Betsy could educate his palate with all the French food she wanted—French bread, French fries, French toast, and French dip—she could dress him up in a beret, knot a scarf around his
neck, and spray him with French perfume, yet he'd still be nothing more than a common American BoBo who cuts loose with paralyzing nerve gas during dinner, pees down his own leg when excited, eats palmetto bugs, and laps up Eric's baby vomit. But I loved him. He was my soul mate, my double, and was fast becoming my mentor. I was dumb and miserable, and I looked to him to teach me how to be dumb and happy. So far, I wasn't doing too well.

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