Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
By Jack Gantos
Cover image retrieved November 25, 2012 from
Gantos, Jack. Joey Pigza swallowed the key. New York: Square Fish, 2011. ISBN 978-0312623555
Joey Pigza is a frenetic, frantic kid who wants to do right, but can’t seem to get away from bad choices. Joey struggles through his “dud meds”, which is how he describes the medication that is supposed to help him even out and gain some control over his wired behavior. Joey feels his life teetering on the edge of the danger zone at home, too. His mother is doing the best she can to deal with life’s challenges, and Joey worries that he will push her over that edge. Through lots of trials, and a handful of triumphs, Joey makes it through, eager to start each day fresh and give it his best shot.
Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is, above all else, a novel about a boy seeking to do the best he can in life, despite the influences of his dysfunctional family and extreme ADHD. Joey has a zest for life, but knows that the deck is stacked against him as he deals with a loving but messed up mother, an absent father, and the ineffectual Grandma he lived with in the past. Joey does what he can to hold it all together, providing hilarious episodes mixed with reality that tugs at the heartstrings.
Focusing on the culture created by medical/physical challenges, Joey’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) certainly plays a large role in this novel. He tries to cope with disappointment when his medications do not bring him the calm and steady results he hoped for. He continually makes poor choices, which causes him great stress. It worries Joey, which is common for ADHD kids: they have an idea of what “normal” looks like, and they are aware that they and other ADHS sufferers don’t measure up. Joey’s frenetic energy is very typical of the ADHD sufferer. Even though he is more under control with his meds, he is still a bundle of energy, looking for an outlet. His teacher, whom goes by the nickname Special Ed, does his best to mentor and guide Joey through the uncertainties of changing medication levels. Fortunately, when Joey hits rock bottom he turns to his solid rock, his mom. She is portrayed with plenty of flaws of her own, but her devotion to her son is apparent, now that she is attempting to get herself cleaner and closer to sober.
The culture of dysfunction that ADHD often creates in a family is obvious throughout the novel. Reactions of the characters to the effects of ADHD are typical, which gives authenticity to the story. Joey’s likability, despite his annoying lack of control, will shine through for readers of all ages. This is a fun read, though the dysfunction of the family unit can be a downer. The authenticity of the characters shines through, and in the end is one of the strongest features of the story. This book is recommended for readers from 5-9 grade, and anyone who is interested in getting a glimpse into the frenetic mind and life of an ADHD sufferer.
Best Books Lists/Awards
Best Children's Books of the Year, 1999 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Books to Read Aloud to Children of All Ages, 2003 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Children's Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Dealing with Alienation, 2000 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Great Middle School Reads, 2004 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States
Keep Smiling!, 2001 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Notable Children's Books, 1999 ; ALSC American Library Association; United States
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 1999 ; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS; United States
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, October 1998 ; Cahners; United States
Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education; California
School Library Journal Best Books, 1998 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, December 1998 ; Cahners; United States
Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children's Literature, 1999 Honor Book California United States
Maine Student Book Award, 1999 Third Place Maine
Maryland Children’s Book Award, 2003 Winner Intermediate Maryland
Sasquatch Reading Award, 2001 Winner Washington
Virginia Young Readers Program, 2001 Winner Middle School Virginia
California Young Reader Medal, 2002 ; Nominee; Middle School/Junior High; California
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award, 2000 ; Nominee; Vermont
Flicker Tale Children's Book Award, 2000 ; Nominee; Juvenile Fiction; North Dakota
Golden Archer Award, 2000-2001 ; Nominee; Intermediate; Wisconsin
Great Stone Face Award, 2000-2001 ; Nominee; New Hampshire
Iowa Children's Choice Award, 2003-2004 ; Nominee; Iowa
Lone Star Reading List, 2000-2001 ; Reading List; Texas
Maine Student Book Award, 1999-2000 ; Nominee; Maine
Maryland Children’s Book Award, 2003 ; Nominee; Maryland
Massachusetts Children's Book Award, 2001 ; Nominee; Massachusetts
Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award, 1999-2000 ; Nominee; Minnesota
Maud Hart Lovelace Book Award, 2000-2001 ; Nominee; Minnesota
Prairie Pasque Award, 2001 ; Nominee; South Dakota
Sasquatch Reading Award, 2001 ; Nominee; Washington
Voice of Youth Award, 2004-2005 ; Nominee; 5th and 6th Grade; Illinois
Young Reader's Choice Award, 2001 ; Nominee; Grades 4-8; Pacific Northwest
Deborah Stevenson (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, November 1998 (Vol. 52, No. 3))
Joey knows that he’s “wired” and that his medication only intermittently enables him to calm down and focus on school tasks and reasonable behavior. More often he’s swallowing his house key on a bet, sharpening everything he can find (including his finger) in the pencil sharpener, and sneaking the special scissors out of the teacher’s desk--which results in another student’s trip to the emergency room. This drastic event results in Joey’s being moved from the special education class in his own school to “intensive counseling at the special-ed center downtown,” but it also results in a more comprehensive and ultimately more helpful approach to his problems. The plot has some similarities to familiar learning-disability problem novels, but the treatment is quite different indeed. For one thing this starts after most of them leave off--the problem isn’t that Joey’s undiagnosed, and mere recognition of the problem isn’t enough to solve it. Gantos has a heartbreaking honesty about the lot of a kid treated poorly by fate that makes you realize how much other children’s authors tend to pull their punches.
Susan Dove Lempke (Booklist, December 15, 1998 (Vol. 95, No. 8))
Joey Pigza, who lives with his hyperactive grandmother, understands that he's also "wired bad." Despite his best intentions, he can't concentrate and can't hold still. What's more, he can never resist an impulse: when his teacher assigns him to sharpening pencils to keep him from getting into mischief, he sharpens pencils, then chalk, then a Popsicle stick, and finally his own finger. He begins to settle down when his mother returns and gets him started on medication, but unfortunately, his morning pill wears off by noon every day. What makes this unusual is Gantos' sympathetic approach to all concerned. There are no bad guys among the adults, just well-meaning, occasionally exasperated grown-ups trying to help Joey get his behavior under control. Joey tells his own story, giving a vivid, keenly observed, detailed account of his actions and the reactions of others: "By lunchtime my meds had worn off again and I was spinning around in my chair like it was the Mad Hatter's Teacup ride at the church carnival." Most teachers and students know at least one child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and this book will surely help them become more understanding, even as they enjoy Gantos' fresh writing style and tart sense of humor.
Rayna Patton (VOYA, February 1999 (Vol. 21, No. 6))
Joey Pigza is hyperactive and ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), and he knows it. Being wired is something that runs in his family; Joey's father skipped out when Joey was in kindergarten. His mother left shortly afterwards, abandoning Joey to the dubious care of a batty and abusive grandmother. For years Joey lived in chaos, until his mother came home sobered up and determined to take care of him. The trouble is that the meds Joey takes to control his condition work only half a day, and when they wear off he is quite literally off the wall, impossible in a classroom and a menace to himself and others. There are plenty of Joeys in schools today, and it is good to have one of their stories told with such skill and sympathy.
· Joey must learn to overcome challenges in his life. Read biographies of athletes who also overcame challenges, such as those at http://www.beliefnet.com/Entertainment/Sports/Galleries/5-Inspiring-Athletes-Who-Overcame-Disabilities.aspx , or http://www.myhero.com/go/directory/page.asp?dir=Sports
· Joey comically describes a few mini-disasters in his life. Students will write a narrative about a mini-disaster in their own life. This can be fiction or a real event. Illustrate and share with the class for an uproariously good time J
· Joey’s mom comes to his rescue when he needs her most. Students will think about a time when a friend or family member was there for them in their time of need. Compose a narrative or poem about that experience, retelling the event and telling how the outcome would not have been as good if there had not been intervention.
· Discover other Jack Gantos books at http://www.jackgantos.com Students will find other award-winning books, with many themes and experiences related.
· Our narrator, Joey, describes some hysterical misadventures in Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. After the class has finished the book, select one of the scenes and illustrate it. Share the illustrations with the class, letting them guess which scene is depicted.
· Joey has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Find out more about this disorder and ways to cope with it by visiting http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/learning/adhd.html . Students will view and discuss this website, noting features of expository text.
Other Books by Jack Gantos
· Dead End in Norvelt
· Joey Pigza Loses Control
· What Would Joey Pigza Do?
· I Am Not Joey Pigza
· Jack Adrift: Fourth Grade Without Clue
· Jack on the Tracks: Four Seasons of Fifth Grade
· Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade
· Jack’s New Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year
· Jack’s Black Book
· Rotten Ralph Helps Out
· Practice makes Perfect for Rotten Ralph
· Rotten Ralph Feels Rotten
· Best in Show for Rotten Ralph
· Three Strikes for Rotten Ralph
· Rotten Ralph
· Worse Than Rotten Ralph
· Rotten Ralph’s Rotten Christmas
· Rotten Ralph’s Trick or Treat!
· Rotten Ralph’s Show and Tell
· Happy Birthday to Rotten Ralph
· Not So Rotten Ralph
· Rotten Ralph’s Rotten Romance
· Back to School for Rotten Ralph
· The Nine Lives of Rotten Ralph
· Hole in My Life
· Desire Lines
· The Love Curse of the Rumbaughs