Jack Gantos is best known in the UK for his moving and funny children's novels about Joey Pigza, a boy with ADHD, for one of which he won the NasenTES special educational needs children's book award in 2001. His account for teenage and adult readers of how his writing career almost never happened due to a diversion into a life of crime has the same qualities, with an added chill factor.
In the early 1970s, Gantos spent 15 months in prison for his part in an ill-conceived scheme to sail a 60ft ketch and its drugs haul from the Virgin Islands to New York. The "Keystone Kops of the sea" were tracked all the way by the coast guard, and anything the FBI didn't already know about their plans the aspiring writer Gantos had carefully documented in the ship's log.
As a bright teenager who moved schools too often to do well, Gantos was easily drawn into drug culture. But, at 21, he had decided to quit: his profits from the voyage were meant to pay his way through college. Instead, he finished his education in prison.
He was lucky to be given work as a lab technician, to avoid the worst of the violence around him, to keep up his writing, to secure the college place that helped him get an early release and to encounter kind supporters once outside. But the psychological effects of constant terror and incarceration were severe. This story of how easily underachieving young adults can go astray does not date, and it may be a deterrent for some.