Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue (Jack Henry Series #1)

Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue (Jack Henry Series #1)

3.6 3
by Jack Gantos

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From the Newbery Medal–winning author of Dead End in Norvelt, eight side-splitting stories about a boy who is doing his best to keep his head above water

As the Henry family sets sail for a new life on Cape Hatteras, fourth-grader Jack is struggling to chart a course between his parents' contradictory advice on making friends and influencing


From the Newbery Medal–winning author of Dead End in Norvelt, eight side-splitting stories about a boy who is doing his best to keep his head above water

As the Henry family sets sail for a new life on Cape Hatteras, fourth-grader Jack is struggling to chart a course between his parents' contradictory advice on making friends and influencing people. Just tell people what they want to hear, Dad advises. Just tell the truth, Mom cautions. Jack finds there are no easy answers as he drifts through his crazy school year, falling desperately in love with his young teacher, getting suckered into becoming a bad-behavior spy for the principal, and being forced to make a presentable pet out of a duck with backward feet. Indeed, with an airheaded, air-guitar-playing neighbor the closest thing to a friend, and a judgmental older sister his relentless enemy, it's all he can do to stay afloat.

This colorful and comic new collection of interrelated stories featuring the author's hapless alter ego is the first of five books in the Jack Henry series, praised by Booklist for their "hilarious, exquisitely painful, and utterly on-target depiction" of a boy's life.

This title has Common Core connections.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Slapstick is nicely balanced with reflection . . . The catchy format imitates a journal with lined-paper edges and excerpts of Jack's handwritten ramblings. A fun and refreshing read.” —School Library Journal

“Jack jumps off the pages . . . Gantos's wonderful writing [is] witty, smart, and unafraid to tackle tough topics.” —Booklist

“Gantos manages to make Jack's weird predicaments both familiar and fantastic; laugh-out-loud scenes have a tendency to sneak up on you . . . Jack's realistic struggle with the pull between childhood and the world of adults will resonate with the book's audience.” —The Horn Book

Publishers Weekly
Jack Gantos continues the Jack Henry Books (Jack on the Tracks; Heads or Tails) with Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue. Jack's father rejoins the Navy and the family relocates from their home just south of Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cape Hatteras, N.C. On the car ride south, Jack solicits advice from his parents on how to make friends, and their contradictory advice ("Tell [people] what they want to hear," says Dad; "Always be yourself," Mom says) sets the stage for a series of conflicts for the nine-year-old, who develops a crush on his teacher, and reluctantly winds up a stool pigeon for the principal. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Infatuation, injured ducks and evil—okay, mischievious—use of the remote control all have a place in the slightly off-kilter world of fourth-grader Jack Henry, whose life might be just about normal for a 1960s Navy kid living in a trailer park. A series of wacky vignettes loosely add up to a year in the life of Jack, who is trying to figure out his place among a big sister, a younger brother and two parents who dole out conflicting approaches to dealing with people. (Mom says tell the truth; Dad advises telling 'em what they want to hear.) Loosely autobiographical, Jack's world is exaggerated but still exists in a foundation of reality. His journey through several of life's little lessons doesn't end with one big bang of realization, but, like most fourth-graders, he manages to figure it out. Gantos' writing is wisecracking and full of riotous detail; political correctness is not high on his agenda, but his characters, ultimately, survive on the goodness within them. This book is a prequel to the other Jack Henry books, including Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of Fifth Grade and Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade. 2003, Farrar Straus and Giroux, Ages 9 to 12.
—Diane Frook
Gantos captures the anxiety and joy of becoming a person through the voice of Jack Henry, a fourth grader at First Flight Elementary School, in this prequel to the Jack Henry books. Jack's adventures are as complex and hilarious as ever, involving a rich fantasy life with his teacher Ms. Noelle, a duck with self-esteem issues because of a foot deformity, and his relationships with his family. From the very beginning, Jack is aware of the duality that his parents exemplify: "For Mom, life was about being a good person and living with pride. Dad just wanted to get ahead any way he could. I wished I could be both of them and get ahead with pride." Duality is a theme that repeats in many situations throughout the book: Jack is faced with the choices of having a friend or an infatuation, of being a "respect detective" or a snitch, and of brooding or talking about one's problems, ultimately being man or a healthy boy on his way to being a man. This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the book and was only troubled by the apparent age of Pete, Jack's little brother. The naïve child who believed that a penny could grow a money tree is replaced here by a self-proclaimed genius who spends his time thinking of ideas such as, "if you read a book backwards the main character never dies." Teachers will love sharing parts of this aloud, and readers will pass it from pal to pal. VOYA CODES: 4Q 5P M (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Every YA (who reads) was dying to read it yesterday; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8). 2003, Farrar Straus Giroux, 208p., $16. Ages 11 to 14.
—Ann T. Reddy Damon
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-Readers of the "Jack Henry" series have followed Jack's adventures from fifth to eighth grade as his nomadic family moved from place to place. Now, in a prequel about his fourth-grade year, Gantos's alter ego arrives on a naval base in Cape Hatteras, NC. Jack is quick to acclimate to their new home, a camouflage-painted trailer in the middle of a swamp, and his optimism is rewarded when school starts and he finds himself head over heels in love with his new teacher, Miss Noelle. His unabashed adoration and efforts to please her are poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. The school principal assigns Jack the unwanted job of "Respect Detective," which turns out to be another name for a snitch. The local veterinarian operates on a backward-footed duck and persuades Jack to rehabilitate it in time for the local Pet Parade. The chapters are not plot driven but rather interrelated vignettes that queue up in Jack's memory during this school year. Slapstick is nicely balanced with reflection as the boy struggles to understand his father's moods or make sense of the death of a wheelchair-bound peer. The catchy format imitates a journal with lined-paper edges and excerpts of Jack's handwritten ramblings. A fun and refreshing read.-Vicki Reutter, Cazenovia High School, NY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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)

Product Details

Square Fish
Publication date:
Jack Henry Series , #1
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.13(w) x 7.65(h) x 0.60(d)
730L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

Jack Adrift

Fourth Grade Without a Clue

By Jack Gantos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2003 Jack Gantos
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70613-5


Flotsam and Jetsam

The whole family was in the big white Buick Roadmaster convertible, which was as round and long as a whale out of water. My older sister, Betsy, named it Moby Dick and after twenty hours on the road Dad looked as bug-eyed behind the wheel as Captain Ahab. Dad had just bought it with bonus money the Navy gave him for enlisting in the Seabees, which was the branch of the Navy that built anything ships and sailors needed at their home base or when they docked at a port. Back in our small hometown he was a house builder and he thought this Navy stint would give us all a fresh start because, as he explained it to us one night over dinner, "We don't stand a snowball's chance of ever getting ahead while living out here in the sticks where people dig coal, eat squirrels, and build more outhouses than people houses."

He was right. If we stayed out in the sticks we'd just be stuck there forever. But Mom had always lived out in the sticks and she didn't want to leave her family behind. Still, Dad had a point. He looked Mom in the eye and waved his fork at us kids. "Do you want Betsy to have to clean other people's houses for a living? Or Pete to be a fruit picker? Or have Jack junior here grow up like your brother Jim, who has to shoot coal-mine rats for a living?"

I wouldn't have minded shooting rats for a living, but Mom agreed with Dad that our futures would be brighter elsewhere, so they decided we should become a Navy family and make the move to Cape Hatteras. We sold all our furniture and just brought Dad's tools, the kitchen and bathroom stuff, and our clothes. It all fit easily into the Roadmaster's trunk, which was as roomy as a walk-in closet.

On the AAA map, North Carolina didn't seem far away from our town south of Pittsburgh. But on the road, we ran into a lot of construction and it was slow going. Still, the car was comfortable, and with the top up it smelled just like when you open a book for the first time, which kept the trip fresh and full of hope. In the backseat we played cards and travel games and did a lot of singing and then gradually we all started to fade. We got tired and pasty and worn-out and we flopped around and squabbled over pillows and kicked at each other for more space. The Roadmaster no longer felt roomy as we fell into a long period of grumpy silence.

Then, after a catnap, I thought I'd start a little conversation and perk everyone up again. But my conversational effort turned into a disaster. All I said was, "I'm a little concerned about how to make friends in a new place. Does anyone have any advice?" Well, that opened the floodgates to a nose-to-nose disagreement between Mom and Dad.

At first, all Dad said was, "The secret to making new friends is exactly the same secret as how to be a success in life—you just look people right in the eye and tell them what they want to hear. You'll make all the friends you want and cut through life like a hot knife through butter."

"I disagree entirely," Mom said, alarmed. She turned toward me. "The best way to make friends and sail through life is to always be yourself. And that is not a secret. Everybody knows honesty is the best policy."

"You mean a policy for people who don't have any ambition," Dad said. Lately he worked the word ambition into every conversation.

"No," she said, raising her voice, "ambition is no excuse to turn your back on honesty and self-respect."

Betsy groaned. "See what you started," she hissed, then slumped down in her seat and looked miserable.

"Self-respect is overrated," Dad shot back. "I always feel a lot better when I get exactly what I want. Only whiners sit around worrying about self- respect."

"Well, that is one of the fundamental differences between us," Mom declared. "You have no respect for the truth. You'll say anything to get what you want and I won't stoop to such low-life tricks." Then she turned back to me. "My dad never told a lie in his life," she said with great pride.

"And where'd that get him?" Dad asked.

"He's a pillar of the community," Mom said proudly. "And people want to be his friend because they know he won't lie to them, and feed them a load of you know what ..."

"The only load of you know what is what you are telling Jack—"

Mom cut him off. "I don't want to talk about this nonsense anymore," she said, dicing the air with her words.

Suddenly, instead of feeling like I was riding a whale, I felt swallowed by it. But I did start thinking about what they had said. I had seen both of them tell stories, and they each had a different style. Dad would say anything to keep people on the edge of their seats. Every time he went to the Elks Club he'd draw a crowd, tell wild stories, and drink for free. Once in a while he'd take me, so I got to see him in action. When we'd enter the club he'd give me a dollar in quarters and send me to a far corner to play the pinball machines. He'd lean on the bar and tell a story to the bartender. Then the bartender would start to gather a crowd. "Get over here," he'd holler to a few guys who were bored and staring down into their beers. "You gotta hear this story. Go ahead, Jack," he'd say as the men moved closer to Dad, "tell it again." And with each good laugh a few more guys pulled up chairs and drinks and Dad jumped into action again, telling more outrageous stories and giving the crowd just what they wanted—a thrill. They didn't seem to care if the stories were true or not.

On the other hand I had been with Mom when she was telling a story about her Mayflower relatives to the well-dressed ladies down at the Daughters of the American Revolution headquarters. It was all I could do to keep from falling asleep as she went on and on about every little family-tree detail, and then she would pause for a minute and roll her eyes up into her head to sort out some fact in her mind until she got it all straight and then would inch forward again. And even though the D.A.R. ladies were polite, I could spot their necks flexing and faces swelling out from stifled yawns ...

After a while the road began to dip down, then rise up, and then dip down as if we were driving across the ocean. Suddenly my little brother, Pete, bleated, "I don't feel too good." I heard something surging up his throat and quickly grabbed him by the hair and yanked his face toward his sneakers. He missed me but sprayed his shoes, and with a follow-up blast he made a chocolate brown puddle, colorfully speckled with some undigested M&M's, on the floor behind Dad's seat. Even though it was kind of pretty puke, it smelled toxic.

Dad smoothly pulled over to the side of the road. He hopped out of the car and opened the trunk. Mom leaned way over her seat and patted Pete on his sweaty head.

"You'll be fine," she said. "It was just a little motion sickness, but now it's over with. Happens to the best of us."

I wondered if Mom was telling Pete what he wanted to hear, or if she was telling the truth. If he threw up again would he think she was lying? Because I already knew that part of what she said was a lie—I never had motion sickness and I was better than he was, so it didn't always happen to "the best of us."

Dad opened Pete's door and caught a fresh whiff of the puke. "Holy mackerel!" he cried out, and took a deep breath before leaning in and sopping it up with a car rag. When he finished cleaning up, he tossed the rag in a ditch by the side of the road and wiped his hands on the grass.

"Time to lower the roof and air this big boy out," he said to no one in particular. He unhooked the chrome clamps above the sun visors and lifted the stiff top. It folded back like an accordion and Dad stuffed it down into a gap behind the backseat and snapped it into place under a white vinyl cover. It was so cool.

When he got back into his seat, he put the car in gear and we merged with the ongoing traffic. The road construction was behind us and he hit the gas. It felt like we were in a wind tunnel. Mom had one hand holding down her plaid floppy summer hat while the fingers of her other hand dug into Dad's shoulder. Betsy sat squinting unhappily, fighting a desperate battle to keep her long black hair from constantly whipping across her eyes. A hurricane had swept the coast two days before and the trailing clouds were still bloated and low, and it was threatening to rain. Lightning slashed above the distant trees. Wet leaves flattened against the windshield. Still, it was thrilling to see everything so clearly with the top down. Then, just when I thought no one would ever speak again, Dad cleared the air with an upbeat remark.

"This baby has a nose for the ocean," he said proudly, steering toward Cape Hatteras with one hand on the wheel and the other loosely hanging down over the outside of the door like shark bait. He was eager to get over the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge and to the Outer Banks before nightfall.

When we reached the bridge there was a Coast Guard sailor on sentry duty. A black-and-white-striped sawhorse blocked the road and the sailor lazily waved a long flashlight with a glowing orange rim over his head. Dad slowed down and pulled toward him.

"The bridge is closed," the sailor announced, chewing on a huge wad of gum which caused his cheek muscles to throb and flex like a human heart. "The water hasn't pulled back all the way since the storm. Still about six inches over the roads."

Dad pulled out his Navy identification card and showed it to the guard. "Cape Hatteras is my new assignment," he said. "I'm supposed to be on-site tomorrow."

The guard hesitated. "I don't know," he said, with his jaws pumping blood to his brain. "That's a lot of water."

"Mister, I'm in the Navy," Dad said. "Six inches isn't enough to drown in. Besides, this Buick is more boat than car. A few inches of water can't scuttle us."

"Then help yourself," the sailor said, turning to lift the sawhorse barrier to one side. As we passed by he called out, "Hope you have some life jackets."

Mom looked spooked. "Honey, do we have life jackets?"

"Just use your seat cushion," Dad suggested, and laughed. He was in a great mood.

We slowly motored up the bridge as if we were clanking our way up the log flume ride at an amusement park.

"See!" Dad shouted into the wind. "What I told the guard back there is a perfect example of what I said earlier. I don't have to be at work for a week, but I had to tell that sailor what he wanted to hear or else he'd've had us spend the night in a motel as if we had money to burn."

"Jack senior," Mom said sharply, getting stirred up again, "that's called lying."

"No," Dad replied, "that's called getting what you want from someone too stupid to give it to you in the first place."

"Don't listen to him," Mom said. Pete wasn't because he was so sick. Betsy wasn't because she was wearing her miserable face again, which meant she wouldn't listen even if you pressed a bullhorn against her ear and shouted, "I'M A JERK! HIT ME!" But I was listening to Dad a lot because I was trying to figure out who I was, and how to be. School was starting in a few days and I expected the local kids were going to be staring at me, then whispering among themselves, then approaching me, then they'd want to know who I was, where I came from, and did I have any hobbies or favorite sports, or was I good at anything at all? I knew it would be a lot easier to take Dad's advice and just make up something incredible they would think was cool. Or, I could simply tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which is that I am totally boring.

When we reached the top of the bridge, Dad stopped and we looked down on the Outer Banks. We gasped. There was no land. The bridge just slanted down into the water like a boat slip. I knew it wasn't deep, though, because all the houses were above water and I could see where the sea lapped up to their first doorsteps. Still, it looked like we were getting ready to drive right across the Atlantic Ocean toward France.

Mom smacked her lips in the nervous way she does before saying something that might rattle Dad and set him off. "Are you sure it's safe to go down there?"

Dad grinned. "You never know till you try it," he said gleefully, and lifted his foot off the brake. The car tilted forward and began to pick up speed.

"Jack," Dad hollered, "if Pete has to tip his bucket again, just aim his mouth overboard."

"Aye-aye, Captain," I called back, and gave him a snappy salute. I was ready to join the Navy myself.

"Betsy," Dad said, catching her scowling face in the rearview mirror, "get ready to bail."

"Can I just bail myself out of here?" she said as she glowered.

The car was humming down the bridge and by the time we hit the bottom our faces were all pulled back in absolute terror. We screamed. The water splashed up in front of us and a shower sprayed back over the windshield, and for a moment the car seemed to glide weightlessly across the surface before settling down on the asphalt. The sailor had been right. The water was only about six inches deep. "We're here," Dad announced, as he slowly navigated along the faint center line just visible under the water. Behind us our wake spread out as if we were in a boat.

"Now let's see if we can find our street," he said. "It's supposed to be somewhere off of Virginia Dare Trail." After we all caught our breaths, we called out the names of streets as we trolled along.

"Too bad I don't have a fishing pole," Dad said. "We could catch dinner on the way to the house."

"You could tie a line to the radio antenna," I suggested.

"Yeah," he added, "we'll have to get some surf-casting poles and I can show you how to catch a big one."

Or just say that you caught a big one, I thought.

Just then we passed a school and a cemetery. I wondered if that was my school and if I would flunk out and end up next door in the graveyard. The white crosses and mossy tombstones seemed like the tips of ghostly topmasts and flags over sunken ships. "Once during a flood when I was a kid," Dad said joyfully, "coffins popped right out of the ground and we paddled them around like canoes."

"Jack," Mom cried out, and elbowed him, "that can't be true!"

"Sure it is," he said with a laugh. "Would I lie to you?"

I wanted to find a coffin. Maybe Dad would let me tie it to the back of the car and I could ride it. But I didn't spot anything floating around the cemetery except for plastic flowers, garbage, and clumps of seaweed.

There were no other cars on the road.

A few people had stayed and their lights were on. Some were sweeping water out their front doors. When they looked up at us, we waved and they waved back. Wet carpets were stretched across sagging clotheslines. Sand bags edged the yard of a big house, but the water still got through. A banner in front of a cottage the size of a kid's playhouse read: WE SURVIVED! BUT THE STORM BLEW AWAY!

"These people are nuts," Dad declared. "I wouldn't stay out here in a storm."

"What are people going to say when they wake up or return and find us here?" Mom said. "They'll think we are a bunch of sea monkeys."

"Yeah," Betsy said, perking up, "they'll throw a net over us and call the aquarium."

"Or the funny farm," Mom added.

"Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," Dad said confidently, as if quoting one of the Ten Commandments.

"That's right," I chimed. "The early bird gets the worm."

Betsy squinted angrily at me. "Don't humor him," she whispered.

A long time passed and we didn't find our street name but finally we spotted a blue-and-white sign that read: SEABEE HOUSING. WELCOME, SAILORS!

"That's us," Dad said merrily, pointing. There were five long house trailers that looked as if they were set down in the middle of a swamp of thick reeds, saw grass, and scrawny, windblown trees. We almost missed the trailers because they were painted in green-and-tan camouflage.

"One of these must be ours," Dad said, looking over a letter with his instructions.

Mom snatched the letter out of his hands. "It can't be," she said, reading it quickly. "It's sitting in a swamp."

"That's not a swamp," Dad replied, waving toward the house trailer. "It's probably a tidal pool. Something educational for the kids."

"Something to immunize them against," Mom said. "I won't live in one of these shoe boxes."

Dad ignored that statement and pulled the letter back out of her hands. "Says here number three is ours."

"I can't believe we've traveled this far to live like trash in a swamp," Mom said, getting a bit huffy. "If my father saw this he'd ..."

Betsy glanced over at me. "Here we go again," she sang, as if it were my fault.

"Now don't feel bad," Dad replied. "We're all in the same boat. It's just temporary Navy housing."

"Well I didn't join the Navy," she said.

"You did worse," Dad said with a laugh. "You married the Navy, which is ten times as bad 'cause you don't even get paid."


Excerpted from Jack Adrift by Jack Gantos. Copyright © 2003 Jack Gantos. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jack Gantos has written books for people of all ages, from picture books and middle-grade fiction to novels for young adults and adults. His works include Hole in My Life, a memoir that won the Michael L. Printz and Robert F. Sibert Honors, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, a National Book Award Finalist, Joey Pigza Loses Control, a Newbery Honor book, and Dead End in Norvelt, winner of the Newbery Medal and the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

Jack was born in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, and when he was seven, his family moved to Barbados. He attended British schools, where there was much emphasis on reading and writing, and teachers made learning a lot of fun. When the family moved to south Florida, he found his new classmates uninterested in their studies, and his teachers spent most of their time disciplining students. Jack retreated to an abandoned bookmobile (three flat tires and empty of books) parked out behind the sandy ball field, and read for most of the day. The seeds for Jack's writing career were planted in sixth grade, when he read his sister's diary and decided he could write better than she could. He begged his mother for a diary and began to collect anecdotes he overheard at school, mostly from standing outside the teachers' lounge and listening to their lunchtime conversations. Later, he incorporated many of these anecdotes into stories.

While in college, he and an illustrator friend, Nicole Rubel, began working on picture books. After a series of well-deserved rejections, they published their first book, Rotten Ralph, in 1976. It was a success and the beginning of Jack's career as a professional writer. Jack continued to write children's books and began to teach courses in children's book writing and children's literature. He developed the master's degree program in children's book writing at Emerson College and the Vermont College M.F.A. program for children's book writers. He now devotes his time to writing books and educational speaking. He lives with his family in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My name is toby uniacke hi
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's fine, but also kinda boring
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading thousands of fiction books I think that Mr. Gantos did a great job on capturing the important scenes of Jack Henry's life. As a result, Jack Gantos continues his Jack Henry Series books by writing Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without a Clue. After moving to Barbados, and Miami, now Jack and his family end up in Cape Hatteras. This book goes into great depth about his year at Cape Hatteras. Gantos not only added in interesting details but also described Jack Henry's mood, thoughts and his love stories. My favorite part of the book is when Gantos included funny and odd details about having a crush on his teacher Ms. Noelle. To sum it all up, I think I would rate this book 9 out of 10 stars.