Ordinarily, no one would have imagined that Jack Rankin would vandalize a desk. But this was not an ordinary school year for Jack....
When Jack Rankin learns that he is going to spend the fifth grade in the old high school -- the building where his father works as a janitor -- he dreads the start of school. Jack manages to get through the first month without the kids catching on. Then comes the disastrous day when one of his classmates loses his lunch all over the floor. John the janitor is called in to clean up, and he does the unthinkable -- he turns to Jack with a big smile and says, "Hi, son."
Jack performs an act of revenge and gets himself into a sticky situation. His punishment is to assist the janitor after school for three weeks. The work is tedious, not to mention humiliating. But there is one perk, janitors have access to keys, keys to secret places....
As he did in Frindle and The Landry News, Clements here puts an intelligent and credible fifth-grader at the center of a memorable novel. As the book opens, Jack, after much careful planning, is executing the "perfect crime": he assembles the biggest, stickiest wad of gum imaginable and affixes it to the desk in the back row of the music room. Why? The novel then flashes back to the moment when Jack's father, John, the head janitor, comes into his classroom to clean up vomit and calls Jack "son." At that point, "Jack felt like a giant letter had been branded on his forehead--L, for Loser." When Jack gets caught and the vice principal assigns him to three weeks' duty of scraping gum from school property after school, Jack decides, "There was only one person to blame for the whole mess.... Thanks again, Dad." Clements slowly builds an even, affecting narrative to reveal how Jack comes to better know and appreciate John, effectively drawing a parallel between this father-son relationship and John's relationship with his own father. The author adds a mystery to the mix when the boy discovers keys in the janitor's closet, which unlock literal doors to his understanding of his father. The author's uncanny ability to capture the fragile transformation from child to adolescent and its impact on family relationships informs every aspect of the novel. Ages 8-12.