Happy Anniversary: The Janitor's Boy

The Janitor’s Boy by Andrew Clements was published by Simon & Schuster in 2000. We look back on it on its twentieth anniversary.

 

Published twenty years ago, The Janitor’s Boy was the third middle-grade novel by the late Andrew Clements, following a bestselling debut with Frindle and then The Landry News. The formula — I do not speak disparagingly — was now set: rebellious protagonist, classroom setting, lateral thinking, and a positive outcome for all concerned. It worked for Frindle’s Nick and Landry News’s Cara; and then, in Janitor’s Boy, for Jack, for whom used chewing gum provides the unlikely agent of change for his troubled relationship with his father.

Jack, like Nick before him, is something of a jerk. The Janitor’s Boy opens with Jack using a perfect, enormous, stinky, glutinous glob of gum (watermelon-flavored Bubblicious, chosen after much research and testing) for a desk-wrecking prank aimed at a complete innocent: Jack’s father, the school janitor and the source of much embarrassment for his son, who doesn’t want anyone to know they’re related. Like I said, a jerk. But where another author might have outlined the prank once-over-lightly and moved on, Clements glories in its details: “[Jack] stuck it first to the front outside edge and then pulled a heavy smear toward the opposite corner…and repeated the action, making a big, sticky X. Round and round Jack dragged the gum, working inward toward the center like a spider spinning a gooey, scented web.”

The gum caper takes up the entire first chapter. This could have read as pandering to the book’s audience, but it is crystal clear that Clements himself enjoys the disgusting prank as much as would any ten-year-old. Such set pieces would become a trademark of his middle-grade novels: the methodical exegesis of something cool, whether it’s a dad-defying stunt, adding a word to the dictionary, or, as in his most recent novel The Friendship War, the creation of a new schoolwide economic system based on buttons. These are all great stories; they are also how-to manuals.

Andrew Clements passed away last November, but his place in the history of realistic fiction for children is secure. He was one of those writers who never really figured in our major literary awards (indeed, in 2016 Frindle won the Phoenix Award, whose raison d’être is honoring books that did not win anything big at the time of their publication). But he is also one of those writers whose recognition by children’s-choice awards is perennial, and probably for the same reasons he never won a Newbery: Clements’s writing was direct but plain, the storytelling always racing ahead. His characters revealed surprising sides to themselves even while they weren’t especially complicated or nuanced. His understanding of the interpersonal battles and alliances among children, and between authority figures and children, was spot on. Kids knew he knew where they lived and who they were.

From the March/April 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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