JACK'S BLACK BOOK

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)

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 1997

ISBN: 0-374-33662-8

Page Count: 165

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1997

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A YEAR DOWN YONDER

From the Grandma Dowdel series , Vol. 2

Set in 1937 during the so-called “Roosevelt recession,” tight times compel Mary Alice, a Chicago girl, to move in with her grandmother, who lives in a tiny Illinois town so behind the times that it doesn’t “even have a picture show.”

This winning sequel takes place several years after A Long Way From Chicago (1998) leaves off, once again introducing the reader to Mary Alice, now 15, and her Grandma Dowdel, an indomitable, idiosyncratic woman who despite her hard-as-nails exterior is able to see her granddaughter with “eyes in the back of her heart.” Peck’s slice-of-life novel doesn’t have much in the way of a sustained plot; it could almost be a series of short stories strung together, but the narrative never flags, and the book, populated with distinctive, soulful characters who run the gamut from crazy to conventional, holds the reader’s interest throughout. And the vignettes, some involving a persnickety Grandma acting nasty while accomplishing a kindness, others in which she deflates an overblown ego or deals with a petty rivalry, are original and wildly funny. The arena may be a small hick town, but the battle for domination over that tiny turf is fierce, and Grandma Dowdel is a canny player for whom losing isn’t an option. The first-person narration is infused with rich, colorful language—“She was skinnier than a toothpick with termites”—and Mary Alice’s shrewd, prickly observations: “Anybody who thinks small towns are friendlier than big cities lives in a big city.”

Year-round fun. (Fiction. 11-13)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2000

ISBN: 978-0-8037-2518-8

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Dial Books

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2000

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  • SPONSORED PLACEMENT

The rare immigrant chronicle that is as long on hope as it is on heartbreak.

INFINITE COUNTRY

A 15-year-old girl in Colombia, doing time in a remote detention center, orchestrates a jail break and tries to get home.

"People say drugs and alcohol are the greatest and most persuasive narcotics—the elements most likely to ruin a life. They're wrong. It's love." As the U.S. recovers from the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, from the misery of separations on the border, from both the idea and the reality of a wall around the United States, Engel's vital story of a divided Colombian family is a book we need to read. Weaving Andean myth and natural symbolism into her narrative—condors signify mating for life, jaguars revenge; the embattled Colombians are "a singed species of birds without feathers who can still fly"; children born in one country and raised in another are "repotted flowers, creatures forced to live in the wrong habitat"—she follows Talia, the youngest child, on a complex journey. Having committed a violent crime not long before she was scheduled to leave her father in Bogotá to join her mother and siblings in New Jersey, she winds up in a horrible Catholic juvie from which she must escape in order to make her plane. Hence the book's wonderful first sentence: "It was her idea to tie up the nun." Talia's cross-country journey is interwoven with the story of her parents' early romance, their migration to the United States, her father's deportation, her grandmother's death, the struggle to reunite. In the latter third of the book, surprising narrative shifts are made to include the voices of Talia's siblings, raised in the U.S. This provides interesting new perspectives, but it is a little awkward to break the fourth wall so late in the book. Attention, TV and movie people: This story is made for the screen.

The rare immigrant chronicle that is as long on hope as it is on heartbreak.

Pub Date: March 2, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-982159-46-7

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Avid Reader Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY

From the Joey Pigza series , Vol. 1

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)

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-374-33664-4

Page Count: 154

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 1998

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