I actually didn’t pick this one up through my usual Newbery-of-the-week selection process, which is choosing whichever looks most interesting that day on the library's Newbery shelf, but won a signed copy through a library contest. I was supposed to meet the author, too, but I didn’t get the chance due to travel schedule. At first, I didn't mind, but now that I've read this book, to say I'm disappointed would be an understatement.
I loved this book. It is weird, hilarious, disgusting, wonderful, genre-bending, and heart-wrenching all at once in its semi-autobiographical form. And it also fills, without a bunch of gimmicks, the growing need for boys’ fiction.
Set in the 60s, in a small town in Pennsylvania (that I have driven past exit signs for, so this made the book sweetly sentimental to me) constructed as a Great Depression government project, Jack Gantos finds himself with the horrible prospect of being grounded for the summer for shooting out a movie screen with his dad’s precious Japanese WW2 gun. His old-school mother then has him help a local elderly lady with tasks around her house. However, instead of weeding or mowing, the eccentric old woman has Jack help her type up her neighbors' obituaries with two fingers and a decrepit typewriter. In return, she helps him battle his chronic nose-bleeding, which his parents can't afford to fix.
I loved Jack, hence my regret that I didn’t get to meet the real Mr. Gantos. His character is everything 12-year-old boy. A history geek, and a baseball-loving kid with a mortician’s short daughter, Bunny, for a saucy and morbid best friend, he doesn’t know which of his bickering parents to stick with, but without losing respect for them he reluctantly follows through with their orders, and eventually befriends his elderly “employer.”
As someone who lived not far from this chunk of Pennsylvania herself, albeit a few decades removed, Mr. Gantos also captures the location perfectly, in language only a 12-year old boy would use to describe it.
My only complaint about the book is that it is probably a little too long for a middle grade reader. I certainly didn’t mind, but at over four hundred pages, a member of its intended audience might feel just as bored as Jack locked in his room with his own books after a while. Also, it does have darker elements, some borderline YA, connected to the obituaries and Bunny’s dad’s line of work, though it's nothing drastic. Mostly, these parts are just gross, as opposed to creepy.
All in all, I am very happy to own a signed paperback of this fantastic, boisterous, and humorously honest novel. I may just have to buy the sequel. Well done, Mr. Gantos.
Rating: Four stars
Favorite character: Jack
Favorite quotes: "I could see everything she said as if it were a wall painting inside the cave of my own skull." "He's so stupid. He makes alphabet soup spell out D-U-M-B."
Recommended age: 12+
Content level for parents: Jack frequently blurts “cheezus-crust!” to the irritation of his mother. A couple instances of the d-word, and Bunny smokes a cigarette, only to be scolded by Jack. Jack’s WW2 vet dad refers to the Japanese as “Japs.”
For more Marvelous Middle Grade reviews, check out Shannon Messenger's post here.