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The Janitor's Boy
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that though not much actually happens, it's a page-turner anyway. The book discusses the complex and difficult relationship between father and son -- it book may inspire a lively discussion. Though he misbehaves once, Jack is a model of responsibility and good sense, and learning about his father deepens their relationship.
What's the story?
Jack feels so humiliated by the fact that his father is the school janitor that he decides to get revenge by smearing a desk with gum. When he's caught, his punishment is to scrape gum off desks for three weeks after school, leading to discoveries about his dad's past.
By fifth grade, Jack has learned to be embarrassed by his father's profession--janitor. When Jack begins class in the building where his dad, John, is head custodian, Jack's worst nightmare comes true. The other kids find out, in an especially humiliating way, what his father does for a living. Blaming his father, he decides to get revenge. He determines what is the stickiest and smelliest gum (Bubblicious watermelon flavor), chews up thirteen pieces, and smears them all over the bottom of a desk and onto the seat, knowing full well who will have to clean it up.
But he is caught, and his punishment is to spend three weeks after school helping out his father by scraping gum off desks, starting with the one he so efficiently ruined. This begins a voyage of discovery for Jack into the hidden recesses of the school and of his father's past.
Is it any good?
Andrew Clements deftly mines deep emotional territory here: the complex and difficult relationship between father and son. But this book contains a rare alchemy -- the author is able to have Jack find independent resolution of his problems without resorting to writer's stratagems to get the parents out of the way. He brings Jack through trials to a greater understanding of himself and his father, but he does it without villains. Jack grows, not in spite of stupid or venal adults, but hand in hand with caring, wise grown-ups who know when to step in and when to step back.
The author knows schools -- the student pecking order, the faculty politics, the brightly lit classrooms and dim dusty recesses of school geography. For young readers, the little details ring true and give them new insights into the world they inhabit. Most children's books have happy endings, but this ending will bring both a grin to the face and a lump to the throat. It may not be the way the world works, but it's the way it ought to.