The Best 90’s MG Series You Missed: The Jack Henry Adventures by Jack Gantos

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“If you can’t love crudeness, how can you love mankind?”
— John Irving

I was outgrowing children’s lit right at the time Jack Gantos started publishing the Jack Henry series. My loss, though I didn’t know it at the time. Gantos’s narrative verve, his macabre wit, his delightfully zany characters that span from Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue through Jack’s Black Book would have greatly appealed to a kid who counted Roald Dahl and Barbara Robinson among his favorite writers.

Heads or Tails: Stories From the Sixth Grade hit shelves in 1994. Julie, Jean Craig George’s sequel to Julie of the Wolves, came out that year, as did Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons, which took home the Newberry Medal the next year (Lois Lowry’s The Giver won it in ‘94). Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 arrived in 1995, as did Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

Stretch your mind back and ponder that literary landscape a moment. And then ask yourself how mindblown you’d have been to one day be reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman and then the next pick up a slender little literary firecracker that exploded with:

  • A zealot preacher who hauls a thief in front of his congregation, offers forgiveness, and then calls the police anyway to have him arrested
  • A boy convinced he’s contracted rabies
  • A dog swallowed by an alligator
  • An uncle who swears he saw a UFO
  • A boy racked with guilt because he believes he caused a fatal airplane crash by pointing his finger at the plane and “shooting” it down
  • A looney teacher who writes complete sentences with both hands at the same time

Pow! Splat! There goes your mind. 

There was nothing like Gantos in 1994. There’s little like him now. He reads less like Beverly Cleary and more like John Irving or something out of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Children’s publishing likes to usher you into the Family Friendly Tent and set you down for a wholesome show in the center ring. 

Gantos steers you out of line and around the back to the sideshow. Forget the big top, kiddos. Here’s where real life happens. 

Jack Henry’s world is one where murderous cats get flattened by trains, boys bet on cock fights in the hopes of getting rich, babies are lulled to sleep by gas stoves, Buddha figurines bring good luck, mothers are suspected of accidental murder, children drown in cisterns and come back to haunt the living, and boys hide from escaped convicts under railroad tracks as trains whoosh by. 

Writing for children, most authors balk at presenting the world the way it really is: messy, unstable, un-safe. That’s not necessarily bad. An HOA isn’t bad. But most of the world doesn’t live in a gated community with neatly trimmed lawns and a designated space for color-coordinated trash cans. 

The world isn’t safe. Children know this. They know it in their bones. And Gantos knows it too. Which is one of the keys to why his books are so compelling. 

The other key is he’s a damn fine writer. In Writing Radar, Gantos offers insight into his own writing process and the multiple rounds of revisions he goes through: a draft focused on point of view, one for structure, one for action, one for interior life, one for dialogue, one for description, one for word choice, one for polish. 

The effort shows. 

Writerly Sidenote: this break-it-down-to-manageable-chunks approach to revision is brilliant advice for anyone who wants to write, and out of the hundreds of books and articles I’ve read over the years on the craft of writing, Gantos is the only one to explicitly lay it out.

Every one of the Jack Henry novels exemplifies solid craftsmanship, clear and precise writing, masterful comic timing, and deft exploration of theme. There’s more than one wordsmith out there with a Pen Hemingway Award on their shelf who can’t write with half as much grace and style as Gantos. You can take that to the bank. 

Perhaps even more amazing is that the Jack Henry novels are the start of Gantos’s career writing middle grade novels (prior to that he wrote the Rotten Ralph series of picture books with Nicole Rubel). Over the next twenty years, Gantos would write the Joey Pigza series, for which he was nominated for a National Book Award, and Dead End in Norvelt, for which he won a Newberry Medal. 

If you were paying attention in 1994, that may not have come as much of a surprise. 

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