Module 4: Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key


Book Summary: Joey Pigza is wired and his lack of impulse control (due to his ADHD) gets him into tricky situations with outcomes he cannot predict. When we meet Joey, he lives with his grandma who is also wired like Joey — their home is frenetic and filthy. Grandma is sometimes unkind to him, telling him his mom won’t come home because he is a naughty boy and she makes him sit in a chair by the window and watch for his mother every day. But if Joey moves, grandma says that mom was just coming then walked away because he was moving. One day mom arrives back home and Joey doesn’t even recognize her, but she moves in and takes over the house. Grandma doesn’t like rules, so she moves out — Joey thinks she’s disappeared down the drain and doesn’t understand why she never comes back. At school, his out of control actions get him into trouble — from getting lost and distracted on a field trip, swallowing his house key, to eventually running with scissors and cutting off the tip of another student’s nose. He is good and sweet with a conscience, but has no self control. Joey is placed into the special ed room where the other children are significantly disabled, which makes him feel nervous and tired (though he shows compassion and kindness to those children). Throughout his childhood, Joey focuses on wanting to find his dad, but his mom says he was crazy and not reliable. After the nose-cutting accident, Mom takes Joey to hospital for brain scans and, after anxiously waiting, they find he is fine, but he does get a patch for medicine to help balance out the ADHD symptoms. Joey has a trial period back in the special education room for a week, then eventually is welcomed back into his classroom.

APA Reference of Book: Gantos, J. (1998). Joey Pigza swallowed the key. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Impressions: This book will stick with me for a long time. I have had so many boys in my classes like this (so many!), and it helped me understand where they’re coming from. The description of Joey’s grandma’s emotional abuse of Joey (although, from her perspective, it was just a way to get a few minute’s peace and quiet) had me in tears. Joey is a sweet boy who really just needs to be told he is loved and that he is more than the sum of his actions, but adults can find it hard to see past his behavior. I know I’ve been guilty of this when my patience is wearing thin with my “busy” students, and this book will definitely be in my mind when dealing with these students in the future. This would be a great book to study with students on the topics of cause and effect, and showing empathy to those who are “different”. This is an excellent book for boys to read, and will hopefully hook them into reading the series.

Professional Review:  Susan, D. L. (1998). Joey pigza swallowed the key. The Booklist, 95(8), 752. Retrieved from ProQuest.

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.” Gantos sometimes seems to be using Joey to inform readers, and occasionally makes Joey’s comments seem too adult, but Joey is warm, lovable, and good-hearted, though maybe just a little too nice to be realistic. (He never even gets angry when he’s deprived of the sugary treats he so craves.) 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.

Library Uses: This book would be effective to use in a boy’s book study group, especially with boys who are like Joey and can see themselves reflected in literature. It requires readers to connect with emotions and show empathy, which would be great for upper-elementary boys.