cover image Heads or Tails

Heads or Tails

Jack Gantos. Farrar Straus Giroux, $16.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-374-32909-9

The author of the offbeat Rotten Ralph picture books makes an auspicious foray into new ground with this semi-autobiographical, wholly engaging novel. His narrator, Jack, travels through the often poignant moments that highlight his sixth grade year, at the same time describing his unpredictable family life: ``Since I was born, we had already lived in nine different houses. I hated that word `renter.' It made me feel that I didn't really belong anywhere, like we had to pay people to put up with us,'' he says. Stuck between an older sister he emulates and a pesky if appealing younger brother, Jack always strives to do the right thing--often to land in trouble. His perspective is quirky but reliable, and often surprising. The first chapter, for example, describes Jack's three-year battle to fill his diary; when he can think of nothing to write, he begins to pack the diary with ``stuff''--bugs, baseball cards, stamps and so on--but he concludes, ``I was covering over the empty white space of the pages in the same way I covered my eyes with my hands when I watched a monster movie.'' A bittersweet resonance filters the humor in these stories, and lingers most welcomely. Ages 10-up. (June)