The protagonist of Andrew Clements’s novel is the janitor’s boy of the title, Jack Rankin. The other main characters are Jack’s father and mother, John and Helen Rankin. Also playing important roles are the school principal, Mr. Ackerby, and Eddie, a neglected boy who finds shelter in the school.
In this coming-of-age story, Jack Rankin learns to appreciate his family, especially his father, and to reevaluate his own privilege. As the novel begins, Jack is an immature boy who is ashamed that his father is the janitor of the school he attends. Jack views this as a menial position. The changes Jack undergoes are propelled by his punishment for vandalizing school property as well as the stories his father tells and his experiences with a mistreated schoolmate.
John Rankin is Jack’s father. He is kind and patient with his son. After Jack misbehaves, explains how his own youthful indiscretions and his military service contributed to his becoming a janitor. After wrecking a car owned by his father, who owned a car dealership, John served in the army. John also helps Eddie, a neglected child, by allowing him to live temporarily in the school.
Helen Rankin is Jack’s mother. Because the couple has known each other since high school, she knows the relevant facts about John’s past. She serves as the intermediary to encourage an open conversation between father and son.
Mr. Ackerby is the principal of the school where Jack is a student and John works. Initially, he is unaware that Jack is John’s son. After Jack sticks copious amounts of gum to a desk, Ackerby punishes him by making him scrape gum.
Eddie is another student in Jack’s school. To avoid an abusive situation at home, he has taken refuge in the school. John and the local firefighters have helped Eddie use a makeshift apartment in the steam tunnel. Eddie’s situation and John’s role in helping him contribute to Jack’s learning to value his parents, home life, and future opportunities.