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Book Review: The Trouble in Me by Jack Gantos

Publisher’s description:

troubleThis fiery autobiographical novel captures a pivotal week or two in the life of fourteen-year-old Jack Gantos, as the author reveals the moment he began to slide off track as a kid who in just a few years would find himself locked up in a federal penitentiary for the crimes portrayed in the memoir Hole in My Life. Set in the Fort Lauderdale neighborhood of his family’s latest rental home, The Trouble in Me opens with an explosive encounter in which Jack first meets his awesomely rebellious older neighbor, Gary Pagoda, just back from juvie for car theft. Instantly mesmerized, Jack decides he will do whatever it takes to be like Gary. As a follower, Jack is eager to leave his old self behind, and desperate for whatever crazy, hilarious, frightening thing might happen next. But he may not be as ready as he thinks when the trouble in him comes blazing to life.


Amanda’s thoughts:

Gantos is one of the many authors who is an automatic read for me. I’ve read every book he’s ever published and heard him speak about his writing many times, most recently at Simmons last month. He is hilarious in person and his books always make me laugh out loud, even when the subject matter is not necessarily funny. In this new book, we see just how deeply Gantos longed to be someone else and understand more clearly how he could end up, soon after the events of this book, smuggling drugs and going to prison.


Young Jack Gantos is a liar, an “okay” kid who spent a lot of time thinking about “mindless junk.” He could fake that he was cruel, but generally felt really bad about things afterwards. He’s introspective and insightful, often pouring out his thoughts to his diary. Jack refers to his father as a “mouth bully” who uses “salty” language to insult Jack as a way to toughen him up. His mother is pregnant. His older sister is pretty much perfect. Something falls into place (or maybe out of place) in Jack the day he unintentionally (but predictably) gets blasted by a fireball of his own creation. “I love fire,” he thinks. It’s on this day that he meets Gary Pagoda, the neighbor boy recently sprung from another stint in juvie. Jack instantly wants to be like him. He has this intense feeling that he is suddenly different from who he’s been, that his old self needs to be gone for good, and that he should be Gary’s follower. His first time hanging out with Gary involves a game with gasoline in a pool and M-80s. For many, this would be the perfect time to reconsider this new friendship and split, but Jack throws himself into his new role as Gary’s punching bag and flunky. But Jack, mildly terrified, plunges in to this new friendship–and into a pool of fire.


What follows are a few weeks of increasingly dangerous and stupid hijinks from Jack and Gary, most of which involve fire. Jack is so utterly desperate to figure out if this version of himself is the right one. He often talks about feeling lost, wanting to be led, feeling deeply dissatisfied and uncomfortable in his own skin. Gantos writes:

“…When I was young I was exactly who I said I was, and did what I thought was right to do. Then as I got older I left that true self behind and began to know myself only through the eyes of the people around me. I reshaped myself and made it easier for everyone to think I was doing okay because I learned to do just okay things. But I wasn’t okay. I was lost. Still, I loved the word okay. It was a magic word that cast a paralyzing spell over my parents while I was busy searching to become the opposite of okay.” 


This is kind of the bottom line of The Trouble in Me: Who am I and how can I appear to be okay when I’m anything but? We see Jack run toward bad choices because he’s so eager to be led. We see him make crappy decisions and see that deep down he struggles with these choices and feelings, but he desperately wants to be someone. And being himself—whatever or whoever that is—never feels like enough. Not at 14 and certainly not a few years later when we meet him again in Hole in My Life. Gary Pagoda may set off or intensify Jack’s feelings of the trouble in himself, but the feeling remains long after Gary is gone. Gantos writes about the time after his few weeks with Gary. By the time he got to high school, he didn’t care what happened to him. He dropped out of school, moved with his family to Puerto Rico, and then moved back to Florida, where he quickly made a mess of things again. He finally feels in charge of his own life when he moves into a welfare hotel and meets up with the guys who will go on to lead him to his next—and biggest—trouble. A funny, honest, and uncomfortable look at who we find when we go looking for our selves. 


Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780374379957

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Publication date: 09/01/2015

Violence in LGBTIQ Fiction for Young Adults, a guest post by Rob Bittner

By Rob Bittner (@r_bittner)


altheaI was originally approached to do some work on sexual violence, YA literature, and LGBTQ themes because of a post that I wrote about the novel Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho. There is much to love about the book, save for the incredibly problematic notion of rape against the male protagonist, which seems to be lessened throughout the novel because the perpetrator is a girl. Some see that assertion as too simplistic, but if you want to see a more full discussion, see the post by TLT on the novel. Though that was only one novel, I was later contacted by TLT and I found myself thinking more and more about violence against sexualized others in texts for young adults.



I am not a specialist in the area of sexual violence, but I do try to keep up with statistics and information on the subject. Stats on sexual violence against LGBTQ populations in real life are terribly disheartening:[1]

  • Approximately 1 in 8 lesbian women (13%), nearly half of bisexual women (46%), and 1 in 6 heterosexual women (17%) have been raped in their lifetime. This translates to an estimated 214,000 lesbian women, 1.5 million bisexual women, and 19 million heterosexual women.
  • Four in 10 gay men (40%), nearly half of bisexual men (47%), and 1 in 5 heterosexual men (21%) have experienced SV other than rape in their lifetime. This translates into nearly 1.1 million gay men, 903,000 bisexual men, and 21.6 million heterosexual men.
  • approximately 50% of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime.[2]


While I understand that authors often include these instances of violence in order to lend a sense of realism to the story, I feel that having an overabundance of such situations in YA gives the impression that to come out as L, G, B, T, I, Q, etc., inevitably leads to violence or unavoidable negative consequences. The same goes for uses of homophobic/transphobic language in novels as a way of realistically portraying the cruelty of homophobic/transphobic individuals. The use of such language, however, also troubles many readers who hear these words being hurled at them in real life. Sometimes I think it’s okay to have a book that contains challenges for characters, and references life’s complexities, without necessarily including scenes of violence and/or homophobic language.


Why do I seem to be focusing so much on language in a post about sexualized violence, though? I feel that it’s creepsimportant to remember that sexual violence can take multiple forms, both physical and emotional (brought on by verbal and psychological attacks), among others. I recently reviewed the novel Creeps (2013) by Darren Hynes, which features a young protagonist who identifies as straight and cisgender, but that doesn’t stop secondary characters from engaging in acts of psychological and physical violence against the main character. The homophobic attitudes in particular, and the use of derogatory terminology for gay and lesbian individuals is excessive. While homophobia and bullying are a grievous part of everyday life for many young people no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, the book fails to move beyond these instances of assault and violence, which unfortunately mirror similar acts which take place in so many LGBTQ novels for young audiences.


Many YA novels feature scenes of assault on individuals who identify on gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, etc, and as mentioned earlier, this is usually because the novels use such instances of abuse as indicative of a sense of realism. Unfortunately, this also serves to further the expectation that existing as other than straight means to expect or be deserving of assault of some kind. These moments tend to include homophobic commentary as well as physical violence based upon physical difference, a fact that is much more explicit in novels with transgender, intersex, sexual, or gender nonconforming characters. Here are three examples:


dream boyJim Grimsley’s Dream Boy for example, features the rape of the main character, Nathan, by another boy from school after he discovers Nathan and Roy during an intimate moment. The boy traps Nathan in an abandoned plantation house, rapes him, and beats him unconscious. This disturbing event is compounded when, during the rape, Nathan’s mind flashes to past memories of being sexually abused by his father. The implication of the flashback is unclear, but it seems to indicate that sexual abuse is at the root of Nathan’s homosexuality. And even if this is not the intent, it hearkens back to novels that underscore the general harshness associated with queer literature of the 80s and 90s, that is, the emotional and physical violence that befalls Nathan because of the sexual acts associated with physical intimacy between him and Roy.


Jack Gantos’ Desire Lines (1997) is also a good example of the trope of homosexuality as desirenot necessarily evil, but leading inevitably to negative consequences. Seen through the eyes of a sexually ambiguous narrator, the story is of two lesbians who, exposed to the overly fundamentalist son of a pastor, eventually attempt a murder–suicide. While Desire Lines not only provides homosexual teens with a negative scenario leading to tragic consequences, it also distorts religion, even if it does mirror some real-life “Christian” congregations. Gantos’ treatment of religious fundamentalism results in Christianity being portrayed as a destructive force that leads to ultimate tragedy for the lesbian couple.



golden boyA recent Alex Award novel, Golden Boy (2013), by Abigail Tarttelin, features an intersex protagonist whose identity is not fully realized or understood until after a particularly violent episode. When Max’s old childhood friend, Hunter, arrives on the scene, he is quick to take advantage of the situation and rapes Max upon discovery of his physical difference. The violation of his body leads Max to question his gender identity, sexuality, and his self-worth. This novel is a prime example of how sexual violence causes incredible psychological damage, and the addition of violence because of physical or sexual difference is an incredibly complex issue.



Furthermore, many of the more popular queer YA novels that are seen as “literary” are those centering on tragic events: October Mourning (2012), Luna (2004), Almost Perfect (2010), and many others. The fact that these instances of violence are such a commonplace event within queer fiction for young readers is not terribly helpful either, as fiction is so often seen as a mirror of reality, thus leaving young queer readers with the impression that sexual violence is simply an inevitable part of growing up “different.” I can only hope that the future of queer literature sees a more positive turn in portrayals of queer experience, not necessarily entirely free of violence—realism is, after all, not always happy—but at least with more uplifting components.


[1] Walters, M.L., Chen J., & Breiding, M.J. (2013). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved fromhttp://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_sofindings.pdf


[2] Stotzer, R. (2009). Violence against transgender people: A review of United States data. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14, 170-179.


Meet Rob Bittner

rob bittnerRob Bittner is a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, and he has a history of working with children’s and YA literature in various contexts, including his MA degree and various award committees through the American Library Association. He loves queer lit and especially loves when it engages with topics that are “out of the ordinary.”