Andrew Clements is a children’s author primarily known for Frindle. Usually he writes for the third to sixth grade crowd, and a lot of time about fifth graders. Nearly all of his books involve “problems” for his main characters, situations and emotions that need some kind of resolution.
I’ve read Clements before and always enjoyed him, but I picked up a book recently that I’d been told about and wanted to see if it was something my fourth grader would enjoy having read to him. We enjoying sharing books, and I enjoy the time I get to spend with him and the conversations we have after we finish a book.
The Janitor’s Boy turned out to be an excellent read on a number of levels, not all of which are going to be understood by kids. It touches, briefly, on the Vietnam War and how that conflict affected a generation of men. But the greater part of the story, in size and in design, is the tale of a boy who comes to understand more about his father than he knew existed.
Fifth grader Jack Rankin has always had a problem with his father John’s job as the school janitor. While other kids in second grade were declaring that they wanted to be policemen and firemen, Jack told everybody he wanted to be a janitor – just like his dad. That was when he learned having a janitor for a dad wasn’t as cool to other kids as it was to him.
By fifth grade, Jack had pretty much gotten over that. Until the school district was rezoned and Jack started going to school in the old high school building where his dad was still the janitor. In no time, Jack is back to being harangued by the others kids. Instead of working his anger out on them, Jack directs it at his dad. When he gets busted for defacing school property, Jack gets after-school detention and ends up having to work with his dad scraping the gum out from under tables and chair.
As always, Clements’s prose is entertaining and easy to read. He sets up the problem at the same time Jack is trying to get revenge on his father. I was instantly curious about what Jack was doing with 13 pieces of watermelon bubblegum, but even when I found out, I was hooked on the story of how Jack and his dad were going to resolve their problems with each other. When Jack got caught by the principal, things got even worse.
Clements also does a great job of using the adult characters in this book. There are scenes that focus on Jack’s mom and dad that are really well done because they never get beyond anything kids can understand.
I opened the book up just to read a chapter or two. I like to do that to establish a “voice” that I use to read to my son. Instead, I got totally hooked on the story. The main problem was the lack of understanding between Jack and John, but there were also mysteries that needed solving, like where all the secret doors in the school went to. The answers were surprising, and you get a double surprise in the end because as you learn John’s story, you also learn his story about his father and how they didn’t get along.
I kept turning page after page, unable to stop. And I was done before I knew it. I’ll still share this one with my son, but we won’t both be surprised together, which is – in one respect – a shame. But I couldn’t resist.
The Janitor’s Boy is an excellent read if you like kids’ books, but it’s an even better book to share with the kids in your life. There’s plenty of heart and plenty to think about for both of you.