Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Growing Up III: Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade by Jack Gantos

Jack is back, in his ninth house and fifth school in his brief eleven years, and, as the title suggests, things can go either way, heads or tails, this year, too. Although Heads or Tails: Stories of the Sixth Grade was the first written in the Jack Henry saga, it actually follows Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade without a Clue and Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of the Fifth Grade in the semi-autobiographical story of Jack Henry and his peripatetic family's life. No matter. Jack is still the new kid at a new school, still accident-prone and a disaster magnet, still funny as a crutch, and still looking for the secret of young manhood in all the wrong places.

In his on-going search for lucrative employment, Jack, Sr., moves his family again, this time to a scruffy but wacko late 'sixties neighborhood in Ft. Lauderdale. Jack's sister Betsey is still cynical but smart, his little brother Pete is still pesty but persistent, Mom is pregnant again but still perky, and Jack is--well, still Jack. When he demands a diary like Betsey's, Jack finds he has major writer's block, so he fills the pages with dead (or almost dead) insects, bits and pieces of other animals, stamps, ticket stubs, and other detritus from his daily life, and eventually some back-slanted handwritten entries to prove to his teacher that his incomplete copybook work is at least his own work.

As he stumbles through the year, Jack leaves his expensive bike out in a hurricane, becomes convinced he's dying of rabies after a dog bite, leaves his sister's dog to guard his fishing gear only to see BoBo dragged into the canal by an eight-foot alligator, tricks his little brother into trying circus tricks which result in a broken arm, and makes up for that stunt by rescuing Pete from a possibly fatal jump through a flaming hula hoop.

If Jack's family is a little off beat, his neighbors, the Pagodas, are total weirdos. Not only is their oldest son a convicted but escaped felon, but their parents keep a breeding kennel of poodles inside their house, so Jack's visits inside are limited to the amount of time he can hold his breath. Still, Frankie Pagoda is Jack's only friend, unless you count Donna Lowry, who gives him her coveted job as sixth-grade crossing guard and then takes it back the next day when Jack turns out to be too nice for the safety patrol.

The story ends with a bang and a whimper when Jack Henry, Sr., gets and then loses a high-paying job with a government contractor and the family settles for yet another rented house, albeit in a less goofy neighborhood, celebrating at the drive-in by watching, appropriately enough, The Planet of the Apes. Jack has his seventh grade year to look forward to, this time in a new, super-tough junior high, which we can guess is going to be another memorable year in the life of a good kid who, in the words of one critic, "takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin.'"

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