SOLON, Ohio – Jim Janson’s ability to look back – and up – set the tone for his first novel, “Bartlett,” a coming-of-age look at growing up around 1960 in Solon.
Janson’s autobiographical novel keeps much of his upbringing’s surroundings real, as protagonist Jimmy Dixon becomes enamored with the nascent space program.
“I call it a 60-year odyssey,” said Janson, 75, who ran track at Chanel High School and has a degree from Ohio University in art history, taught at Kent State and earned a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve. He spent much of his teaching career in Georgia.
“I love the past; I am a nostalgia person,” said Janson, who said “Bartlett” took a couple of years off and on to write.
About 80 percent of the book is autobiographical, said Janson, who was born in Cleveland but moved to Solon at a young age. He lived on Linden Drive and attended St. Rita’s from first through eighth grade. He skated at Geauga Lake after basketball practice, played Little League, and has fond memories of his time growing up here.
“In some ways, some of it was fairly easy to write because I had these things in mind and these experiences,” he said. “Jimmy is really me. I loved adventure, we played pirates, we rode bikes all over the place, Little League baseball, I read Hardy Boys novels.” When he was a kid, his favorite ballplayer in Cleveland was Jimmy Piersall, who played here from 1959 to 1961.
Pedaling past blackberry bushes, Jimmy – just as Janson did – would ride his bike to a pharmacy, sit on a swivel seat, and buy baseball cards and magazines. And like Jimmy, Janson was very good at baseball but horrible at basketball.
Kids from his neighborhood and school, with altered names, figure into the book. Sister Magdalene from St. Rita’s was real, he said.
“I had a wonderful education,” he said. “At the time, you’re younger. We thought the nuns were 60 years old. They were probably in their 30s.”
The bully in his book, Dennis Drabek, is based on a real kid, although the real person wasn’t as bad as the character, he said.
Friendship is also the key theme. In the book, Jimmy is befriended by two girls – Terri is in his class and likes him, Elaine is a high school student who shares his interest in the space program while fighting the mores of the day for women to remain in their place. Both, in their own ways, encourage him.
“I’m so fortunate to have friends from all of those areas,” he said. “I still have friends from grade school I talk to, high school, college and the years right up to the present day. And I think a lot of people don’t have that. I just love all of that. Writing ‘Bartlett,’ I was able to integrate a lot of that stuff.”
Janson uses his past literally and figuratively throughout the book. Rexall Drugs isn’t Rexall but a CVS now. The pet shop is a creation of his imagination; the toy store is also real.
As part of a class project on the space program, Jimmy devises a way to launch a mouse to “outer space” using a kite.
That interest in space never really waned for Janson. He has read dozens of books on ufology. And several years ago, for Christmas, he asked his kids for one thing: Pool your money and buy me a ticket to see a launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida. This year, he was able to be about three miles from the Axiom I launch that carried four civilians.
“It was really exciting,” he said.
“Bartlett” is a cute coming-of-age tale that proves you don’t have to leave your past far behind, no matter how old you are.
Janson, who has been gone from Solon for decades but has returned occasionally, mulls the idea of maybe doing another book, possibly a sequel with the same characters. But he said just being able to write this book “has been very satisfying. Even if it doesn’t sell anything I have at least achieved what I wanted to do.”
The book was published 60 years after Janson’s time in Solon.
Finally, he said, “Mission accomplished.”
James T. Janson’s “Bartlett” is also available via Amazon. The 123-page book is published by Gatekeeper Press in Columbus in 2021.
I am on cleveland.com‘s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 am Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
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