Books by Jack Gantos

WRITING RADAR by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Aug. 29, 2017

"A standout among writing guides, valuable for its sage and friendly encouragement and for the sheer fun of hanging out with Jack. (Nonfiction. 10-14)"
Advice on writing from one of the best writers around. Read full book review >
THE TROUBLE IN ME by Jack Gantos
YOUNG ADULT
Released: Sept. 1, 2015

"Readers will laugh, possibly uneasily, at Jack's reckless antics and lack of impulse control, but they will probably also sympathize with his deep itch to make a change. (preface, afterword) (Historical fiction. 13-15)"
A misbegotten effort to reinvent himself leads young "Jack" to burn his notebooks and clothes, though not quite his bridges, in Gantos' latest burst of confessional fiction. Read full book review >
THE KEY THAT SWALLOWED JOEY PIGZA by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 2, 2014

"Dark, funny and pawzzz-i-tively brilliant. (Fiction. 10-13)"
Joey takes on his toughest set of challenges yet in this heart-rending, triumphant series finale. Read full book review >
ROTTEN RALPH'S ROTTEN FAMILY by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: March 11, 2014

"Rot on, Ralph! (Early reader. 6-8)"
Just how did Rotten Ralph get so rotten? Read full book review >
FROM NORVELT TO NOWHERE by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 24, 2013

"Dollops of history and mystery, plus gross to wickedly barbed comical set pieces set in a talky, ambling, amiable odyssey. (Historical fiction. 11-13)"
The chase after a serial killer sparks an eventful, if not particularly life-changing, road trip in this sequel to the Newbery-winning Dead End in Norvelt (2011). Read full book review >
DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 13, 2011

"Characteristically provocative gothic comedy, with sublime undertones. (Autobiographical fiction. 11-13)"
An exhilarating summer marked by death, gore and fire sparks deep thoughts in a small-town lad not uncoincidentally named "Jack Gantos." Read full book review >
THREE STRIKES FOR ROTTEN RALPH by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Feb. 15, 2011

Has Ralph learned nothing in more than 30 years of misadventures and misbehavior? As always, when faced with a challenge, he takes the path of least effort. Sarah has endless patience with her recalcitrant cat while preparing for baseball tryouts. She practices throwing, fielding and hitting; he just practices his idea of superstar skills, like signing autographs and giving TV interviews. Of course his tryout is a disaster, but he becomes the "cat-boy." When he finally gets his chance, his showboating nearly loses the game. For this Rotten Ralph Rotten Reader, Gantos employs simple, direct language with just the right infusion of baseball jargon. He plays it straight, describing the events, the relationship between child and cat, the baseball action and the celebrity status of the game's heroes. Rubel's bright, sharp cartoons provide the hilarity, depicting Ralph's goofy expressions as he reluctantly performs his duties, including substituting for the "mighty flying squirrel" mascot, all the while imagining himself a hero and a media darling. Ralph's only redeeming quality is his love for Sarah, but his irrepressible rottenness will delight newly independent readers. (Early reader. 6-8)Read full book review >
THE NINE LIVES OF ROTTEN RALPH by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: May 4, 2009

The bright red feline counter-Clifford faces his greatest challenge yet when the vet announces that he's gone through eight of his allotted lives. How could that have happened? Sitting down with his human companion Sarah he recaps each fatality (adding new but more-or-less plausible incidents to eight of his previously published outings)—and is instantly strapped into a baby carriage, subjected to a rigidly controlled diet (complete with Vital Vitamins and Anti-Germ Juice) and locked indoors. As fans will instantly guess, that doesn't last long. Ralph is out the window in no time, off to (evidently) nonfatal encounters with an electric eel and a wild carnival ride. As chubby and malicious-looking as ever, Ralph occupies the visual center in each of Rubel's bright, stylized scenes and, 33 years since his first outing, is as much a poster cat for vicarious acting-up as ever. His resolve to live his last life as vigorously as his first eight may inspire adult readers more than children, but there's nothing wrong with that. (Picture book. 6-8) Read full book review >
I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA by Jack Gantos
Released: Aug. 7, 2007

Joey's father, Carter Pigza, is back in Joey's life. He's a new man with a new plan, even a new name: Charles Heinz, lottery winner and entrepreneur. Mrs. Pigza is now "Maria," not Fran, and Joey is "Freddy." New names, new identities, a chance to jettison the past and start over. But as craziness unfolds, Joey/Freddy begins to realize that "once you give up who you are, you can become anybody," but then how do you ever know who you really are? As Fran says, Maria was starting to feel "like a guest who wouldn't leave," and to Joey, "Freddy" is feeling like a lunatic. "I'm going crazy from not knowing who I am," he says. With this fourth installment in the series, Gantos offers it all: outrageous schemes, funny scenes, strong voice, dramatic characters and profound reflections on identity, family and love. It stands well on its own, though anyone new to Joey's saga will want to read more. This is Gantos at his best, and that's saying a lot. (Fiction. 10+)Read full book review >
LOVE CURSE OF THE RUMBAUGHS by Jack Gantos
FAMILY AND GROWING UP
Released: May 1, 2006

What happens when you die? Do you molder in the grave, return zombie-like or completely healed, or go to heaven and recline on the clouds? Your return is of a different sort if you're the mother of 71-year-old emotionally stunted twin taxidermists suffering from the family curse of obsessive mother love. And young Ivy Spirco's unsettling discovery in the basement of the pharmacy impels her to ponder these issues of life and death and shakes her own obsessive "Mom and mini-Mom" relationship. Always adept at creating exuberant, larger-than-life characters, Gantos here creates two who are even larger than death, in a psychological horror story of the highest order. Akin to Frankenstein, Dracula and Poe's stories in theme, tone and voice, this offering explores such philosophical issues as nature versus nurture, free will and predetermination, mortality immortality and rebirth, in a totally engaging, intelligently written work guaranteed to either entrance or repel readers. Like Mrs. Rumbaugh's body, this will linger in one's darkest corners. A good match with M.T. Anderson's Feed (2002) and Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion (2002). (Fiction. YA)Read full book review >
JACK ADRIFT by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Aug. 8, 2003

When his father enlists in the Navy Seabees, Jack Henry is off to Cape Hatteras for his fourth-grade year. Again mining his own childhood experiences, Gantos creates laugh-out-loud scenes and quirky characters: a green bunny, a duck with its feet on backwards, a lucky Buddha, and an air-guitar-playing friend who seems to get in trouble as much as Jack does. Jack struggles with a crush on his beautiful blonde and blue-eyed teacher, the death of a friend, and explosive arguments between his parents. The best stories—"Romance Novels" and "Second Infancy"—are about two odd ducks who help each other on the road to self-esteem. If Jack feels adrift and in need of esteem, so does his father, stuck in a job he regrets taking. By the end, the family is about to head back over the Outer Banks in high spirits, having found a silver lining in all of the insanity. (Short stories. 8-12)Read full book review >
WHAT WOULD JOEY DO? by Jack Gantos
Released: Oct. 21, 2002

Clad in black leather, Carter Pigza motorcycles into town like some mad vampire on the loose, with Mrs. Pigza chasing after him with a broom, looking like a witch about to take flight. Grandma huffs on the tube from her oxygen tank, threatening to shrivel into a zombie and haunt Joey for eternity. Moreover, Joey's only friend happens to be the baddest blind girl in town. Welcome to Joey's world. Hard to believe that Joey is the almost-normal one in this third and last installment in the chronicles of Joey Pigza. With his med patches, Joey has gotten better, but nobody else has. As in Joey Pigza Loses Control (2000), Humpty Dumpty is a powerful metaphor. In a world of untogether people—like Humpty after his fall—Joey wants to be together, even the one to make the whole world better. But it's a hard thing for a boy with problems of his own to be in charge of keeping house, family, and hope from being blown to smithereens. Images of monsters, allusions to fairy tale characters, and sparkling similes make for a wild tale. However, it's not just a funny story with nutty parents out of control, it's a poignant story of family, loss, lessons learned, and one boy's learning to make his way in the world with confidence and good cheer. This work easily stands by itself, but readers new to Joey Pigza will rush out to get the others, too. A must read. (Fiction. 10+)Read full book review >
HOLE IN MY LIFE by Jack Gantos
BIOGRAPHY
Released: March 26, 2002

"We didn't so much arrive at our destinations as aim and crash into them like kamikaze yachtsmen." So Gantos describes himself as a 20-year-old about to be arrested and imprisoned for smuggling two thousand pounds of hashish from St. Croix to New York City. Young Jack seems to share with his fictional characters—Joey Pigza and Jack Henry—a blithe disregard for the consequences of wild behavior. Readers follow him from a seedy motel run by the great-great-granddaughter of Davy Crockett to a Keystone Kops adventure on the sea, from a madcap escape from FBI and Treasury agents to his arrest and trial, represented by his lawyer, Al E. Newman. This true tale of the worst year in the author's life will be a big surprise for his many fans. Gantos has the storyteller's gift of a spare prose style and a flair for the vivid simile: Davy has "brown wrinkled skin like a well-used pirate map"; a prisoner he met was "nervous as a dragonfly"; another strutted "like a bowlegged bulldog." This is a story of mistakes, dues, redemption, and finally success at what he always wanted to do: write books. The explicit descriptions of drug use and prison violence make this a work for older readers. Not the usual "How I Became A Writer" treatise, it is an honest, utterly compelling, and life-affirming chronicle of a personal journey for older teens and adults. (Nonfiction. YA)Read full book review >
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT FOR ROTTEN RALPH by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: March 20, 2002

Gantos brings back that rascally red Rotten Ralph for the second entry in the Rotten Ralph Rotten Readers series (Rotten Ralph Helps Out, 2001). This time, the irrepressible, irresponsible Ralph and his owner, Sally, are joined by Ralph's tiger-striped, supremely confident cousin Percy for a trip to a carnival and its midway full of familiar games of chance. To Rotten Ralph's chagrin, the perfect Percy wins all the carnival games (he practiced), and Ralph finally resorts to cheating so he can win some prizes, too. Ralph gets his comeuppance, of course, as he always does, and he has to return his ill-gotten gains and suffer some mild consequences before finally winning the last game of the day fair and square. (And guess who ends up in the dunk tank.) Gantos has a winning formula with this transitional easy reader series: a funny, somewhat "naughty" character; amusing art in a recognizable style; and a worthwhile little lesson that both kids and adults will appreciate. (This is just the title to recommend to teachers who want a story that will nip cheating in the bud.) Though this plot is not as innovative as the first entry in the series, Ralph has his own special niche in the world of children's literature, and now on the easy-reader shelves, too. And of course, he'll be back for more of these delightful readers—because practice makes perfect. (Easy reader. 5-8)Read full book review >
ROTTEN RALPH HELPS OUT by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Aug. 7, 2001

Rotten Ralph's bouncy, semi-bad behavior and amusing antics have been delighting children for years in the long-running series from the versatile Gantos (Joey Pigza Loses Control, 2000, etc.). Now the irrepressible Ralph has moved on to "Rotten Ralph Rotten Readers" in this upper-level easy reader with an Egyptian theme that will dovetail nicely into first- and second-grade classrooms studying ancient Egypt. Ralph's owner, the ever-cheerful Sarah, shares all the interesting facts she's learned in the class Egyptian unit, and Ralph tries to help her with her library research and her individual class project, causing his familiar brand of minor troubles at every turn. (He does at least attempt to be helpful in this story, rather than rotten as in some of his previous capers.) Rubel's flat, stylized illustrations in full color are a natural complement to the Egyptian style of art, and she adds a good deal of additional information on ancient Egyptian culture through her illustrations. The text is set in large type with plenty of white space, and the story is divided into four simple chapters. Although this will function well as an amusing and educational easy reader, it contains enough facts and illustrations about ancient Egypt to serve as the corner stone for a classroom thematic unit—all that and rascally red Rotten Ralph, too. (Easy reader. 6-8)Read full book review >
JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 22, 2000

As if Joey didn't get into enough trouble in his unforgettable debut, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key (1998), Gantos has him wig out again in this sad, scary, blackly funny sequel. His hyperactivity under control thanks to new meds, Joey is looking forward to a six-week stay with his father Carter, hoping for some bonding. Unfortunately, his mother's warning: ". . . he can be, you know, wired like you, only he's bigger." understates the case. As a father, not to say a human being, Carter turns out to be appallingly dysfunctional: irresponsible, utterly self-centered, domineering, callous, and ominously short-fused. Smart enough to see through his father's loud assertions that he's turned over a new leaf, Joey nonetheless struggles to please, even when Carter flushes Joey's medication down the toilet, insisting that real men only need willpower to solve their personal problems. Joey tries to tough it out, hoping (despite bitter experience) that this time he won't go spinning off. Swept along by Joey's breathless narrative, readers will share his horrified fascination as, bit by bit, he watches the bad old habits and behavior come back. Joey's emphysemic Grandma, alternating drags on a cigarette with whiffs of oxygen as she trundles about the neighborhood in a shopping cart, and his Chihuahua Pablo, who survives both being locked in a glove compartment and having his ear pierced by a dart, provide the closest thing to comic relief here. The situation takes a dangerous turn when Joey eggs Carter into a wild rage; fortunately, his mother is just a phone call away, waiting in the wings to bail him out. Carter is truly frightening, a vision of what Joey could grow up to be, did he not possess the inner honesty to acknowledge his limitations (eventually), and caring adults to help him. A tragic tale in many ways, but a triumph too. (Fiction. 11-13)Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 22, 1999

Jack's back (Jack's Black Book, 1997, etc.) and wacko enough to water ski on land, feed his sleeping sister a cockroach, and bring about the unfortunate demise of three pet cats. Gantos's hyperactive rewriting of his own diaries zips Jack through fifth grade and a barrage of overlapping adventures. Like the steel sphere in a pinball game, Jack bounces around between his older sister's insults, his parents admonishments, and his friend Tack's dares. None of this is for the weak of heart or the gullible; between picking a hookworm (his "secret pet") out of his arm and lying in a hole with a screaming locomotive passing overhead, Jack is no role model, but he is real. His battles with his emotions—why he cries all the time, why he is "more interested in gross things than in beautiful things"—and his struggles to do what he deems right and adult (instead of wrong and childish) ring true. Have readers fasten their seat belts for this one, or—for a real jolt of Jack—don't. (Fiction. 10-12) Read full book review >
Released: May 31, 1999

Rotten Ralph (Rotten Ralph's Rotten Romance, 1997, etc.) is up to his red-tailed hijinks, and this time his behavior turns a wedding topsy-turvy. He knocks off the ladies' fancy hats, sprinkles slugs and toads among the rose petals, and takes a ride down the aisle on the bride's trailing veil. After dancing up a storm, Ralph eats himself sick; on the way home, Sarah has to chastise him for his bad behavior, but once again Ralph weasels his way back into her heart by offering her the bridal bouquet he's nabbed. As usual, Rubel's portrayal of this wicked feline is devilishly enchanting, enough to guarantee a faithful following beyond Rotten Ralph's allotted nine lives. (Picture book. 4-8) Read full book review >
JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Oct. 1, 1998

If Rotten Ralph were a boy instead of a cat, he might be Joey, the hyperactive hero of Gantos's new book, except that Joey is never bad on purpose. In the first-person narration, it quickly becomes clear that he can't help himself; he's so wound up that he not only practically bounces off walls, he literally swallows his house key (which he wears on a string around his neck and which he pull back up, complete with souvenirs of the food he just ate). Gantos's straightforward view of what it's like to be Joey is so honest it hurts. Joey has been abandoned by his alcoholic father and, for a time, by his mother (who also drinks); his grandmother, just as hyperactive as he is, abuses Joey while he's in her care. One mishap after another leads Joey first from his regular classroom to special education classes and then to a special education school. With medication, counseling, and positive reinforcement, Joey calms down. Despite a lighthearted title and jacket painting, the story is simultaneously comic and horrific; Gantos takes readers right inside a human whirlwind where the ride is bumpy and often frightening, especially for Joey. But a river of compassion for the characters runs through the pages, not only for Joey but for his overextended mom and his usually patient, always worried (if only for their safety) teachers. Mature readers will find this harsh tale softened by unusual empathy and leavened by genuinely funny events. (Fiction. 11-13) Read full book review >
BACK TO SCHOOL FOR ROTTEN RALPH by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Aug. 30, 1998

Rotten Ralph (Rotten Ralph's Rotten Romance, 1997, etc.) returns in a ninth adventure, afraid of losing Sarah's attention and affection when she starts school. He sets her clocks back, messes up her school clothing, and fakes illness to prevent her from leaving for school on the first day. When those efforts fail, he sneaks into school disguised as a student and disrupts Sarah's day—even getting her in trouble—with a series of tricks. Most readers will be able to identify Ralph's fear of change and worries about losing his best friend. As always, Gantos supplies a happy ending for Ralph and Sarah; it's safely predictable while providing some surprises along the way. (Picture book. 4-6) Read full book review >
JACK'S BLACK BOOK by Jack Gantos
CHILDREN'S
Released: Sept. 10, 1997

Gantos trots out one disgusting and dangerous event after another to give his morose protagonist material for jokes, but the fun and games are edging over the top in this companion to Jack's New Power (1995). Jack wants to become a writer, but his family—unique but functioning in previous episodes and mere cartoons here—is united in a belief in his worthlessness. When the dog, BeauBeau III, breaks its neck and dies, Jack's sister, Betsy, is all wisecracks; on the trip to the vet, Jack's father suggests tying the dog to the car, like a dead deer, in case its bladder lets go (it's not the first time the dog's bodily functions are discussed). The parents are on vacation when Betsy, at home, sets a kitchen fire: "We were screaming and laughing, but . . . we just managed to get the baby out [of the bassinet] before the blanket burst into flames." Away from home, the situation's no better: School is a former prison; the volunteer librarian bolts down books and accuses the boy of stealing; the cafeteria serves creamed chicken gizzards weekly. Crammed in are descriptions of digging up the dog Jack buries (twice), spit, broken teeth, head lumps, and more. With a mean-spirited reliance on shock and cheap laughs, the book gets some tacked-on introspection at the end: "It was all about . . . what you wanted to become, and how much you love being yourself." (Fiction. 11-13) Read full book review >
DESIRE LINES by Jack Gantos
FICTION
Released: March 10, 1997

This bitter, open-ended tale of a Florida teenager who "outs" a lesbian couple, then watches as one kills the other before turning the gun on herself, offers an astonishing change of pace for the author of Jack's New Power (1995). A long-abandoned, overgrown golf course is Walker's refuge, a private place where he spends every free moment: There, he liberates animals from the school's lab and watches classmates Karen and Jennifer—in his words—"screwing around." None of his business, he figures—until a teenage preacher appears outside school grounds to start a gay witch-hunt, and expertly enlists Walker as his informant. The preacher's relentless innuendo, blared through a bullhorn, puts Walker into a panic about his own reputation; he takes up with three punks-in-training, and blurts out Karen and Jennifer's secret to them. Soon everyone knows, and a few days later, the tragedy plays out. Although Gantos is vague about what gays do once their clothes are off, he is explicit when demonstrating how a climate of fear and suspicion can be concocted in a community, and how insecure young people—gay, straight—can be tormented by it. There are no admirable characters, acts, or role models here, and Walker's sense of failure haunts his narrative; Karen, only injured, shows up at the end to tumble Walker's weak defense—leaving him alone with his regret, and readers to wonder how they would react in similar circumstances. No answers here, just harsh questions. (Fiction. 12+) Read full book review >
ROTTEN RALPH'S ROTTEN ROMANCE by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Jan. 1, 1997

Clifford the Big Red Dog's feline evil twin confronts his worst nightmare: Valentine's Day. Anxious to avoid even the barest hint of propriety, His Rottenness counters the halo, wings, and little bow Sarah bestows upon him by smearing himself with garbage, squashing a stink bug in his valentine, breaking all the candy hearts at a party, and grossing out the host, Petunia, by rubbing dog food on his lips. Sarah, blindly adoring as ever, takes him home for a bath and a hug. Rubel's boldly colored and crisply drawn figures, in domestic scenes scattered with toys and memorabilia, reflect the story's in-your-face directness with wide gestures and unsubtle expressions. It's Ralph's eighth episode—and as Sarah's unrelenting forgiveness grows increasingly incomprehensible, the formula is starting to wear thin. (Picture book. 4-6) Read full book review >
ZIP SIX by Jack Gantos
MYSTERY THRILLER
Released: Sept. 16, 1996

The author of numerous children's and YA novels, Gantos turns for the first time to some distinctly adult material in this straightforward jailhouse narrative, yet another novel in which an Elvis impersonator figures prominently. Ray Jakes is a medium-level drug dealer whose luck runs out when his involvement in a drug-smuggling scheme leads to his conviction and a possible six-year sentence. A college dropout, with the vague ambition to become a forest ranger, Jakes finds himself stuck in the limbo of a transfer jail on Manhattan's West Street. His disgusted girlfriend doesn't visit, he has no real friends, and he must also endure the indignities of jailhouse life, from the constant fear of rape to the maddening pervasiveness of vermin. He eventually lands a cushy job on the hospital detail, where he also hooks up with Seth Zimmer, an Elvis impersonator who's in for embezzlement, fraud, tax evasion, and other crimes committed in the name of the King. "A symbol of hope for losers," the pseudo-Elvis mesmerizes a prison talent show, inspiring the warden to send him on the jailhouse circuit, with Jakes as his manager. Both cons figure this is a way to a short term, but only Elvis manages to cut a deal. Jakes finds his way out by blackmailing the warden with some purloined X-rays proving excessive force by guards, but it means betraying his only friend, a kind prison doctor. Further betrayals mar life outside, when Jakes loses his substantial pre-jail stash in a nasty con executed by his supposed buddy Zimmer. Numerous flashbacks provide a socio-psychological profile of Jakes's rootless youth and of his need to be a follower, a weakness that invariably lands him in trouble. And also makes him thoroughly unlikable. The jailhouse insight in this unsurprising, rather superficial work comes nowhere near the belly of the beast. Read full book review >
JACK'S NEW POWER by Jack Gantos
FAMILY AND GROWING UP
Released: Sept. 19, 1995

Following Heads or Tails (1994), more stories about the life of the Henry family on Barbados. Jack, the 13-year-old with the experience of an 8-year-old and the wisdom of an 80-year-old, describes his family with an indissoluble blend of mockery and admiration. His voice is completely original as he relates the adventures of his family in a colorful, entertaining style, but the themes are far from comic. In one, the father forces the other Henrys to face their worst fears; in another, Jack cuts off a wart, and gets blood poisoning; in a third, Jack falls in love—and is ridiculed by everyone, including himself. The comedy arises from the tone in which all this is told: The narrative is literally dripping with sarcasm, full of the sharp detail and observation that only dark humor produces. (" 'Come quick,' Pete said and pranced up and down on his toes as if he had to pee. 'Dad's drowning.' "). This unacknowledged split between Jack's funny narration and the dismaying events he details gives the book a peculiar depth. There's nothing black-and-white about the characters, not because they are described as internally complex, but because they are constantly viewed from different angles—funny in one light, unpleasant in another. Readers will laugh out loud, but the aftershocks are not heartwarming. Indeed, by his insistent cheer, Jack conveys the tragic aspects of life much more forcefully than any sentimental treatment could. (Fiction. 11+) Read full book review >
CHILDREN'S
Released: June 1, 1994

Though Jack has lived in nine houses and gone to five schools in his young life, three things have remained constant: a stable family, his father's inability to find a permanent job—and The Sound of Music, playing at the local drive-in since he moved to his Fort Lauderdale neighborhood. Gantos (Rotten Ralph) depicts him in a loosely knit series of incidents—tragic, comic, or both. When Jack copies his older sister's handwriting and his teacher accuses him of cheating, he vengefully shows her his diary, which also contains his pressed bug collection; he forgets to put his bike away and loses it in a hurricane; when his little brother points a finger-gun at a passing plane and it crashes, Jack takes quick action to save him from a lifetime of guilt; at his grandfather's sad funeral, he talks with a man who claims to have touched a UFO. Surrounded by a quirky cast (a relentlessly pessimistic older sister, a mother who makes the best of things, neighbors who remind Jack of the Stupids), Jack is an innocent with a sixth-grader's sensibility and a good heart, learning how quickly life's highs can become lows and vice versa. In the end, another job falls through and the family prepares to move; still, The Sound of Music finally gives way to Planet of the Apes. Funny moments, with an underlying poignancy. (Fiction. 11-13) Read full book review >
ROTTEN RALPH'S ROTTEN CHRISTMAS by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Sept. 1, 1984

Uh-oh. It looks as if Rotten Ralph, Sarah's rapscallion cat, has gotten himself a rival in "very sweet cat" Percy. And he reacts just the way you'd expect: with a barrage of snowballs and a hole in Percy's Christmas stocking; by tying Percy to the model-train tracks, and pulling the ladder from under his feet when he's hanging a star on the Christmas tree. "He ate the milk and cookies Percy had left out for Santa Claus." And he puts "Ralph" on all Percy's presents. How much he's hurting we know when he finds Percy in his old place in Sarah's bed: "Sarah loves him more than she does me." But just as he's discovering that all the namby-pamby presents are Percy's, a little girl comes to the door: Percy's owner, come to take him home. With no more presents under the tree, however, Rotten Ralph still feels rotten—until ("Now it's time for us to exchange gifts") Sarah gives Ralph a new red bicycle, and he gives her a picture of himself, as Santa. We fade out on the two snuggled in an armchair: "You weren't jealous of the other cat, were you?" (Ralph, silently: "Nobody can take my place.") Rubel's antic, naive illustrations keep this open display of sibling rivalry at a delectable, cathartic remove—while the conjunction with Christmas ("Bad cats don't get Christmas presents") doubles the stakes. Read full book review >
WORSE THAN ROTTEN, RALPH by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Oct. 25, 1982

Climbing a tree to knock the hats off passers-by seems a tame prank compared to Ralph's earlier one (in Rotten Ralph) of sawing off the branch from which Sarah was swinging; but it is one of the tricks the tough alley cats lure him into when he is trying to stay reformed. Goaded to prove his rottenness, though, Ralph leads the alley cats on a binge that puts their own deviltry to shame. (A highlight is their rampage through Pierre's Poodle Parlor, terrorizing the poodles who are sitting around under hair dryers.) Back home Ralph has the cats jumping on Sarah's bed and painting wild pictures on the wall; and, in a properly wicked ending, all he gets from Sarah is petting, because "those horrible alley cats" have led "poor Ralph" astray. All in all, Gantos and Rubel's one inspired creation defends his title with a gratifying vengeance. Read full book review >
GREEDY GREENY by Jack Gantos
Released: Oct. 19, 1980

A holy terror of a guilt dream, as experienced by shaggy, comically fiendish Greeny Monster who has eaten all the food in the house and finished off with the watermelon his mother was saving for the next day's dessert. "He was then so full that he just barely made it through the door and to his bedroom," and in his dream he has grown so round that he rolls out of bed, down the street, and into a watermelon patch. Nobody hears his cries of distress as Greeny is loaded onto a truck with the watermelons, taken to a store, purchased there by his very own mother ("Since greedy Greeny ate our watermelon, I have to buy another"), and placed on a table surrounded by his hungry family. "Don't eat me! Don't eat mew Greeny shouts unheard, at the fitting climax to this close-to-home fantasy—and the shouts waken Greeny from his dream and rouse his mother, who calms and forgives him, Far-out fun with a firm base Read full book review >
THE WEREWOLF FAMILY by Jack Gantos
Released: Sept. 29, 1980

Normally the Werewolf family—Mr., Mrs., and young Harry and Mary—look properly Edwardian. But there's a full moon on the night of their family reunion, and we see the prim, stiff family growing fangs, claws, and paw hair before our eyes. "Whose side of the family are they on?" "Not mine," remark the other relatives as the Werewolfs arrive at the party, dispense snakes and spiders to the babies, select Aunt Charlotte's and Uncle Igo's pets for their dinner, and finally, in the basement rec room ("It's been in the family for centuries"), secure all their kin in racks, chains, and hanging manacles before taking off for home. The next day, posed with tea, books, hoop, and flowers in their garden, the Werewolf family is again the picture of decorum. If you can accept a sort of Rocky Horror Show equivalent for the picture-book set, Gantos and Rubel are the pair to give it punch. They've got more of their hearts in this one than in some of their previous, sweeter items. And kids in the Halloween mood will pounce on this where paler spooks will leave them cold. Read full book review >
SWAMPY ALLIGATOR by Jack Gantos
Released: April 3, 1980

Perhaps Gantos and Rubel have a friend who offends. Or a kid who won't take a bath. Whatever their motivation for this unsubtle and unfunny production, it should go over with a thud. It starts with Alligator "step[ping] out of his slimy, smelly swamp" on two feet, and looking more like Tyrannosaurus Rex than a proper Alligator. In the mailbox, he finds a party invitation, promising a special treat. Between then and the party, he runs into a number of animals who refuse to get close to him because he stinks. Alligator refuses to understand their very direct remarks. The surprise—you'll have guessed—is a birthday bath, which Alligator resists at first but feels better after. Even the pictures are a washout. Read full book review >
ROTTEN RALPH by Jack Gantos
ANIMALS
Released: Feb. 19, 1980

Rotten Ralph is a mean-eyed, saw-toothed, bright red cat, so bad he makes Awful Alexander (see above) look like a goody-goody. In fact his behavior is a seamless mix of bratty kid and badmannered tomcat—he smashes his bicycle into the dining room table, then chases birds in the back yard when he's hungry. ("You're worse than rotten, Ralph.") After Ralph disrupts the acts at the circus he's left behind and ends up in a cage, fed stale popcorn and old candy apples, when he refuses to work. He's eventually found in the street—menaced by gangs of feline toughs and suffering from "alley fever"—and rehabilitated by his forgiving family; chastened but not broken, he's last seen snitching lobster from the dining room table. Rudel has a grand time with Ralph's wicked antics—picture a lusher, more emotive Byron Barton—and her hyper-naive playfulness is cathartic and just what a devil like Ralph has coming to him. Read full book review >
THE PERFECT PAL by Jack Gantos
Released: Sept. 26, 1979

"What I need is a pal to cheer me up," says Vanessa, so she heads for the pet shop. But her first purchase, a pig ("something I could have milk and cookies with"), has horrid manners, and the next, a "calm, well-behaved sloth," proves out sales clerk Wendell's assessment ("Perhaps a little too calm and well-behaved") when he sleeps through every dance at a party. "Perhaps a talking parrot might be more lively," Wendell suggests next, and, when that doesn't work out, he remains accommodating through Vanessa's selection of a sheep dog, a hermit crab, and a monkey. ("They are almost human," says Wendell.) Of course it's Wendell himself who turns out to be Vanessa's perfect pal, a solution no less right for its inevitability. Rubel's pop-naive pictures, each one as always a frozen, full-front pose, haven't the Rotten Ralph energy; but—with the unmannerly pig pigging out on the dining room table and the monkey swinging on the chandelier—there's enough of Ralph's unruly appeal to liven up Vanessa's quest. . . while also making Wendell look good. Read full book review >
AUNT BERNICE by Jack Gantos
FAMILY AND GROWING UP
Released: March 1, 1978

If neither Aunt Bernice nor her wonderful (if Booth-like) dog Rex can yet face up to Gantos and Rubel's inspired red cat, still for the first time since Rotten Ralph Gantos' story provides a suitable outlet for Rubel's manic energy. There's not much of a plot—Ida, disgruntled when Aunt Bernice comes to babysit, is sorry to see her aunt go by the time her parents return from vacation—but it's enough to frame a string of pesky, open-ended incidents: Aunt Bernice cooks a yuckky gourmet dinner, disappears at the department store, and gives Ida's friend loose honey bees as a birthday gift; while Rex spreads his fleas, gobbles the girls' picnic, and eats their tennis balls. Happily, what wins the little girl over is not reform on her aunt's part but more indecorous behavior: Aunt Bernice laughs at a mushy movie (getting the two of them kicked out of the theater) and dresses as a gorilla to scare the guests at Ida's slumber party. Aunt Bernice's consistent coltish spirits could indeed be trying; but with her splashy patterns, outrageous perspective, exhuberant asides, and even a loving, Matisse-y hug at the end, Rubel does her to a frazzle. Read full book review >
FAIR-WEATHER FRIENDS by Jack Gantos
FICTION
Released: Feb. 1, 1977

Maggie and Chester are best friends, but because he hates the freezing North, where they live, and she is miserable in the sizzling tropics, where they row for a vacation, they decide to split—keeping in touch via postcards and visiting "just as often as they can." It's a contemporary solution to be sure, but a flat one as stories go. And though Rubel's grimacing, pop-ugly animals put on a strenous performance (Maggie turns green in rough waters, bright red in the sun) and her backgrounds range from agitated to overwrought, it's all merely strident without any narrative zap to back it up. After their happy pairing in last year's Rotten Ralph, Gantos and Rubel seem as ill-matched here as Maggie and Chester. Read full book review >
SLEEPY RONALD by Jack Gantos
Released: Sept. 15, 1976

Rubel's splashy, tutti-frutti backgrounds were a natural environment for Rotten Ralph (p. 129, J-39). Here they just about swamp Ronald, the rabbit protagonist who nods off in school, on roller skates, at the swimming hole, and in his own bathroom, and then misses his opera rehearsal (!)altogether. Finally his buddy Priscilla discovers the trouble: "your ears. . .keep drooping over your eyes and make everything so dark you think it's bedtime." A limp ending if we ever heard one, especially since Rubel's electric turquoise, yellow, orange, and red palette is bright enough to wake the dead. But since the pictures have narrative punch to go with their visual zap, they just might carry this sleeper along. Read full book review >